A funny thing happened on the way to reforming the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. The entertainment industry started imagining the permanent demise of the corrupt 79-year-old cabal of Hollywood correspondents. While some publicists, talent, and distributors consider the January Golden Globes telecast as a vital link in the awards ecosystem, others are rooting for the HFPA to disappear forever.
Back on February 25, 2021, under pressure from NBC, which broadcasts the annual Golden Globes and is trying to negotiate down the 8-year $500-million TV rights deal signed in 2018, the beleaguered Hollywood Foreign Press Association vowed major change. NBC canceled the 2022 Golden Globes show to allow the HFPA time to institute a long list of reforms, which began taking shape in April 2021. Also holding the group’s feet to the fire was a consortium of publicists and Amazon, Netflix, and Warner Media, which refused to supply talent for interviews until long overdue reforms were made.
At the start, many of the 87-member group welcomed the chance to clean up their act and fix what was broken. The group was splintered into factions, and only the threat of extinction persuaded some of the more hidebound members to reluctantly approve new bylaws last August that mandated changing their governance and Board of Directors (adding three outside non-members), eliminating barriers for future members and supplementing their ranks with new members of color, requiring sexual harassment and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) training, banning gifts and paid travel, hiring an independent law firm to handle any grievances, and making all members sign a new code of ethical conduct.
Sure enough, the HFPA added 21 new members last October, increasing their members by 20 percent. Now the total membership of 105 are 57.1 percent women, 17.1 percent Asian, 11.4 percent Latinx, and 5.7 percent Black. They no longer have to live in Southern California or write for print publications. The new recruits live all over the United States, and can file their reports (or now, photography) for any foreign television, radio, print, or online outlet. New members can immediately vote on the Golden Globes, participate in board elections, and serve on committees. The HFPA will continue to welcome new members every year, and makes public on its website the names, country representation, and the diversity demographics of its membership.
This transformation has morphed the veteran media group, many of whom had lost their cultural relevance, into a more vital organization, and assuming that the Golden Globes returns in January 2023, a changed awards show as well. There are now people of color at every decision-making level in the HFPA.
Running the organization for the last year as interim Chief Executive Officer is sports entrepreneur Todd Boehly, who owns Dick Clark Productions, which produces the Globes and has a considerable stake in their continued success. Boehly has steered the HFPA to fashion their new profile, which includes hiring their first Chief Diversity Officer, Neil Phillips. Still underway is a search for new Chief Financial and Chief Human Resource Officers.
But the HFPA made a critical mistake. They did not cull their own ranks. After going through the motions of making all members reapply for membership under eligibility requirements that demanded proof of active employment, whether freelance or staff, the HFPA accredited everyone. Some powerful personal publicists (including forceful Kelly Bush Novak of IDPR) are still holding back their clients, insisting that the HFPA has not gone far enough, as this August a new nine-person credentials committee with more independent outsiders (including Tre’vell Anderson), is vetting old members as well as new applicants.
Meanwhile, the clock is ticking for the next awards cycle leading to the January 8, 2023 Golden Globes on NBC. Here’s what we know.
1. Some publicists (including Novak) are demanding not only that weaker members be kicked out of the organization, but the addition of far more new members in order to create a much larger HFPA that is not dominated by the old guard. While some press agents represent clients (IDPR’s Elliot Page is one) who eschew submitting to the group’s often embarrassing press conferences, many others are ready to get back to the old awards schedule. The HFPA are considering adding outsiders who are not journalist HFPA members to vote for the Globes, in order to diminish the power and influence of the original voters.
“The publicists need to recognize that [the HFPA] have made the changes and move on,” veteran publicist Melody Korenbrot told me on the phone. “Everybody wants to get back to business. If we don’t embrace these people soon, all we will have is the Oscars, with no stepping stone for anybody. We are in the present and we need to look into the future. If we stay in the past, we are never going to move forward.”
2. According to an HFPA spokesman, several older members will soon move to emeritus status.
3. Many members of the HFPA have lost their livelihoods during the talent shutout, which were already threatened before the pandemic during a global downturn for media outlets, and some have moved back to their home countries. Some are paid to post stories on the HFPA website to make ends meet.
4. Given the challenges of entertainment journalism today — many news outlets are content to pick up low-cost syndicated stories rather than pay for maintaining Hollywood correspondents — Boehly’s Eldridge Industries LLC is looking into ways to transform the HFPA organization and its assets from non-profit to profit status. Boehly has created a Special Committee to check out options, comprised of three outside HFPA board members: Sharlette Hambrick, Jeff Harris, and Dr. Joanna Massey. “We have moved into the phase of determining the best course of action regarding the accomplishment of the HFPA’s mission, including how to achieve the optimal financial and commercial growth for the Golden Globe brand in the future,” stated HFPA President Helen Hoehne back in May. “The board of directors has appointed an independent committee to work with our financial and legal advisors to review proposals from any interested parties in such phase.”
It makes sense that entrepreneurial Boehly is looking to protect his Golden Globes assets as NBC seeks to reduce the expense of mounting the Globes at a time when award show ratings are in decline. But it’s risky to turn the HFPA ranks into employees, while taking away what little legitimacy the members can claim as a group of working journalists. It would only further undermine their credibility.
Gilbert Flores for Variety
5. The long-abhorred HFPA press conferences will fade away. Some talent, from Mark Wahlberg to Thomas Jane, are willing to participate in the old-school HFPA exclusive group press conference, but the HFPA is no longer requiring them. Like other media, they’re participating in one-on-one interviews and press junkets — often conducted via Zoom. And increasingly, in a volatile social media environment, publicists are trying to control media access and interviews by requiring questions in advance and even pre-taping media questions and then soliciting answers, separating media from live interaction with their clients. In that context, some HFPA press conferences were PR nightmares when video clips went viral on tabloid social media.
6. The Critics Choice Awards are waiting in the wings. They have a contract with The CW, but if NBC bails on the Globes, the CCAs (I am a member) would seize the opportunity to build up their similar, more credible, but less-branded awards show. Back in 2020, the Globes commanded 18.4 million viewers and a third of that in 2021 during the pandemic. The 2022 Critics Choice Awards were considered a success with some 1.2 million viewers (The CW, TBS and other global outlets), and new CCA fall awards shows focused on celebrating Asian Pacific, Latino, and Black TV and cinema are in the offing.
7. The Golden Globes are a key link in the chain of awards-giving leading to the Oscars. This year there were fewer opportunities to build buzz and anticipation for awards contenders, and the Globes were missed. The public has no clue about the behind-the-scenes machinations behind the Globes, but the show is entertaining and still has followers. It took decades to build up the Golden Globe brand, which is in danger of losing its value altogether.
When the HFPA went ahead and announced their most recent Golden Globe nominees in December 2021 and winners in January 2022, they were voting for the first time without any outside influences — wining and dining, gifts, publicist whispers — brought to bear upon them. In fact, with many screenings withheld, the voters had to search some movies out on their own. They voted for most of the same performers that were in play with other groups, and added some names that did not end up in the Oscar mix, from Mahershala Ali (“Swan Song”) and Anthony Ramos (“In the Heights”) to Ruth Negga (“Passing”) and Caitriona Balfe (“Belfast”). But winners like Rachel Zegler (“West Side Story”), who did not wind up with an Oscar nomination, could have used the extra attention of a global Globes telecast.
While it’s fun to make fun of the often-deluded HFPA members, who over decades took for granted their power and influence in the awards arena, finally, they have been through the wringer. Some are willing to admit that, like many, they needed DEI training, and judging from the ones I have interviewed, they have emerged chastened and humbled. They now realize that every publicist and celebrity is not necessarily their friend. They are now free to function as independently as they insist they always did.