The Shady Truth About The Hollywood Foreign Press Association

In May 2021, NBC announced that it wouldn't be broadcasting the following year's Golden Globe Awards (via USA Today). This announcement came at the heels of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association's (HFPA) inability to come up with adequate reforms to address the various criticisms levied at the organization.

Historically, the HFPA has sought to maintain its reserved and exclusive appearance. With less than 100 members, HFPA accepts less than five new members every year, and "any member can veto a newcomer's application in voting done by secret ballot," reports The Washington Post. For many journalists, the HFPA has always had a "terrible reputation," and the news that it's a self-involved clique wasn't too surprising. But now that PR firms and entertainers are also standing up and voicing their disapproval with the organization, the tide may be turning for the HFPA.

But the question now is whether or not this is the sound of HFPA's death rattle. With some even speculating that the IRS has reason to investigate, it's not unlikely that HFPA members may have to do more than attend a few seminars on diversity and sexual harassment. In the end, as one insider notes, "I don't think anyone will touch this with a 10-foot pole until they get their act together." This is the shady truth about the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.

What is the Hollywood Foreign Press Association?

In 1943, actress Argentina Brunetti and her husband Miro Brunetti, a foreign correspondent, co-founded the Hollywood Foreign Correspondents Association, which was renamed the Hollywood Foreign Press Association in 1954 (via Golden Globes).

With a group of 21 other journalists, their hope was to pool their knowledge and "formalize their relationship with the studios" in the hopes of making it easier to work on film journalism. As Vox puts it, foreign journalists felt like they were being shut out compared to local journalists, which they likely were due to xenophobic discrimination during World War II. The group even adopted the motto, "Unity without discrimination of religion or race," according to Hollywood Foreign Press Association: A History.

Throughout its history, the HFPA membership has never gone over 100, and as of May 2021 there are 86 members. In order to be considered, journalists are required to pay a $500 membership fee in addition to being based in Southern California while working for a foreign publication, publishing at least four articles a year. However some, like Alexander Nevsky, joined because they were "just plain curious."

In the 21st century, according to the Golden Globes, "HFPA members attend more than 300 interviews and countless movie and television screenings throughout each year." But when they first organized, they still weren't taken too seriously, and mostly all they did was "meet at various members' homes to share information." That's when they came up with the idea for the Golden Globe Awards.

HFPA and the Golden Globes

For the HFPA, the Golden Globe Awards were meant to be a way to "boost their profile." While there may seem like an over-saturation of award shows in 2021, at the time, they wouldn't have had any other awards shows to compete with, other than the Academy Awards and a few critics groups.

However, the first awards show wasn't the glitz and glamor that it would become. Held in 1944, the first Golden Globes Awards were, according to Vox, an "informal luncheon" at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Winners included Paul Lukas, Jennifer Jones, and the film "The Song of Bernadette." Actual trophies wouldn't be given until the third annual Golden Globe Awards. And after being broadcast on the radio for 14 years, on February 26, 1958, the Golden Globe Awards were televised for the first time.

Active members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association vote for the Golden Globe Awards, which means that "the Globes are overseen by an extremely small number of people," considering that in comparison, the Academy Awards are voted on by over 9,000 people.

There have also been numerous claims that voters are easily swayed. In 2014, former HFPA president Philip Berk revealed in his memoir that Nicole Kidman received a nomination for "Billy Bathgate" because she did a HFPA interview, while her co-star, Dustin Hoffman, did not and received no nomination as a result. And in 2019, HFPA members were flown to the set of "Emily in Paris," which later received two nominations.

Sweeping groping under the rug

In the summer of 2003, then-president Philip Berk groped Brendan Fraser at the Beverly Hills Hotel. In recounting this incident to GQ, Fraser stated that "his left hand reaches around, grabs my a** cheek, and one of his fingers touches me ... And he starts moving it around." Berk has repeatedly claimed that all he did was jokingly pinch Fraser's butt. "I felt ill. I felt like a little kid. I felt like there was a ball in my throat. I thought I was going to cry," Fraser said.

After the incident, Fraser's representatives asked the Hollywood Foreign Press Association for a written apology, and although Berk acknowledges that one was written, he insisted that his "apology admitted no wrongdoing." After Fraser spoke publicly about the incident in 2018, HFPA conducted an investigation into the incident. Its investigation concluded that "the evidence supports that it was intended to be taken as a joke" and suggested issuing a joint statement with Fraser.

Fraser refused to sign off on the joint statement and maintained, "I don't get the joke."

CBS reports that in 2018, Fraser even asked to see the investigation's full report so he'd "know what I'm signing off on," but the HFPA has repeatedly refused to share its report. HFPA also maintained that Berk, a 41-year member of HFPA and eight-term former president, faced no disciplinary action and was going to remain an active member of the HFPA.

The expulsion of Philip Berk

Despite his inappropriate behavior, Philip Berk stayed on as a part of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. Then, in April 2021, he was expelled from the organization after sending an article that described Black Lives Matters as a "racist hate movement" to HFPA members. According to the BBC, Berk "forwarded it as a point of information," though after seeing the consequences of his actions Berk later said that he "regretted sending the email."

The Los Angeles Times reports that the email was sent to everyone in the HFPA, including its "members, its staff and the group's general counsel and chief operating officer." The email itself was an article from conservative commentator David Horowitz's Freedom Center website, FrontPage Mag, although it didn't include a link or a citation and was simply copy-pasted into the body of the email.

In response, both MRC and NBC, both of which are involved in the production and broadcasting of the Golden Globe Awards, demanded Berk's expulsion from the HFPA, and two days after sending the email Berk was removed from the HFPA after 44 years of membership.

The only other time Berk was exiled from the group was in 2014, when he took a six month leave of absence after his memoir came out.

Lack of Black members and recognition

In February 2021, the Los Angeles Times revealed that among the almost 90 members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, there are no Black members, despite the group's own motto being "Unity without discrimination of religion or race." And despite having several former and active members who are people of color, according to Variety, the organization hasn't had a Black member since 2002. Member Judy Soloman claims that this is "because nobody applied," but this is a lie, according to The Wrap, which alleges that a Black journalist's application was rejected in 2013.

This lack of representation also affects the films highlighted by the Golden Globes, which has been criticized numerous times for its lack of racial diversity in both nominations and awards. Between 2002 and 2018, only five Golden Globe Awards had at least one BIPOC acting winner.

In March 2021, the HFPA responded to the criticism by pledging to "increase membership to a minimum of 100 members this year, with a requirement that at least 13 percent of the membership be Black journalists," writes The Wrap. This came after the 2021 Golden Globe Awards, which notably snubbed Black-led projects such as "Judas and the Black Messiah," "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," and "One Night in Miami." Shonda Rhimes, producer of the show "Bridgerton," even noted that HFPA rejected their press conference until the show became a "surprise hit."

It also doesn't help that HFPA member Margaret Gardiner "confused Daniel Kaluuya for another Black actor, Leslie Odom Jr., just minutes after Kaluuya's Oscar win."

"Culture of corruption"

In 2020, Norwegian entertainment journalist Kjersti Flaa sued the Hollywood Foreign Press Association after she was denied membership into the group. Flaa's lawsuit alleged that the HFPA operated like a cartel and instituted a "culture of corruption," writes the Los Angeles Times, and actively barred qualified candidates such as herself.

Although the judge ended up siding with HFPA in November 2020, the lawsuit brought to light a number of the organization's "ethical conflicts, with members accepting 'thousands of dollars in emoluments' from the very same studios, networks and celebrities they conferred trophies upon."

This also wasn't the first lawsuit alleging such behavior. According to Deadline, in 2013, the HFPA settled a suit with its former publicist Michael Russell. In his suit, Russell alleged that the HFPA "abuse their positions and engage in unethical and potentially unlawful deals and arrangements which amount to a payola scheme" and claimed that he was fired after he brought these issues up with then-president Phillip Berk.

There was also an incident in 1999, when HFPA members were gifted $400 Coach watches by USA Films. Members ended up returning the watches in response to the criticism regarding the gifts, while USA Films claimed that "the studio got the watches for free and didn't realize how expensive they were."

Collecting millions in payments

An investigation by the Los Angeles Times in February 2021 revealed that the Hollywood Foreign Press Association pays out almost $2 million to its members annually. "By the end of 2020, the association was collectively paying nearly $100,000 a month to members serving on more than a dozen different committees." In comparison, members of the film and television academies don't get paid to serve on committees, writes CNET.

According to The New York Times, as a tax-exempt non-profit, "payments to members for their work for the organization are legal ... as long as they are considered reasonable." And HFPA has stated that their payments are "vetted by a professional nonprofit compensation consultant and outside counsel, where appropriate."

However, as the Los Angeles Times investigation notes, these payments may go beyond what is reasonable. Members receive payments for writing for HFPA's website and for working at the annual grants dinner in addition to the payments they receive for serving on the committees. The HFPA's board members are also paid, making "between $63,433 and $135,957 in the tax year ending June 30, 2019."

Plans for reforms

In May 2021, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association responded to the various critiques levied at them by announcing that they were going to be implementing "radical reform." In addition to setting up a hotline to report violations, the HFPA planned to increase membership over the course of 18 months, in addition to "creating a list of [Diversity, Equity and Inclusion] consultants."

However, many are saying that these claimed reforms are a superficial band-aid and are nothing more than a few bullet points that vaguely gesture at reform. The Time's Up organization, as well as numerous entertainers and PR firms, expressed dissatisfaction with the proposed reforms, stating that "the HFPA's list of recommendations largely contains no specifics [and] no commitments to real accountability or change," writes The Hollywood Reporter.

In response, entertainers have also stated that they will "refrain from any HFPA sanctioned events." Up to 100 PR firms also indicated that they were disappointed with the HFPA's lack of commitment to "transformational change."

Subsequent boycotts

In response to the Hollywood Foreign Press Association's inability to come up with effective reforms, both Netflix and Amazon stated that they would be boycotting the 2022 Golden Globe Awards. Screenrant reports that WarnerMedia also joined the boycott and in their official press release, "called the HFPA out for a history of sexist, racist, and homophobic questions directed at actors and creatives at past press events."

In addition to a number of publicity firms, the American film production and distribution company Neon also joined the boycott. These publicity firms had actually threatened to advise their clients to boycott the Golden Globes earlier in March if the HFPA didn't reform, following the Los Angeles Times investigation.

On May 10, 2021, it seemed like the industry heads were taking note when NBC announced that they wouldn't be broadcasting the 2022 Golden Globe Awards. However, the network added that "assuming the organization executes on its plan, we are hopeful we will be in a position to air the show in January 2023."

This also isn't the first time that NBC has declined to broadcast the Golden Globes. According to the Los Angeles Times, NBC also dropped the Golden Globe Awards in 1968, after the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) found that the awards show "substantially misleads the public as to how the winners were chosen and the procedures followed in choosing them." And as soon as the HFPA had done the bare minimum, they were back in NBC's good graces.

Tom Cruise returns his Golden Globes

Soon after NBC decided to cancel the 2022 broadcast of the Golden Globe Awards, actor Tom Cruise joined the boycott. Deadline reports that in response to the cancellation, Cruise sent his three Golden Globe trophies back to the HFPA headquarters. Cruise won his three awards for his roles in "Magnolia," "Jerry Maguire," and "Born on the Fourth of July."

According to The Guardian, Cruise isn't the only entertainer speaking out. Scarlett Johansson has publicly stated that she will be taking a step back from HFPA-associated events, which she says have frequently involved "facing sexist questions and remarks by certain HFPA members that bordered on sexual harassment." Johansson's "Avengers" co-star Mark Ruffalo has also voiced criticism of the HFPA, claiming that "honestly, as a recent winner of a Golden Globe, I cannot feel proud or happy about being a recipient of this award," per the BBC.

It's unclear whether or not any other stars will follow suit and physically return their own Golden Globes. However it's possible that this might send a message to the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, especially since Cruise isn't known for protests, while HFPA is known for monopolizing the time of leading entertainers.

What's next for the Hollywood Foreign Press Association?

In response to the cancellation, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association released a new and improved timeline of the "transformational changes" they plan to implement, noting that they will happen "regardless of the next air date of the Golden Globes."

Compared to their previous plan, this timeline is significantly more specific, going through the steps that will be taken between May and August 2021. These steps involve hiring a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) consultant, mandatory member training for both sexual harassment and DEI, and the creation of new bylaws and membership/reaccreditation process.

Although it's still up in the air whether or not this might be the final nail in the Golden Globes' coffin, some say that the Golden Globes simply aren't worth saving. The New York Times notes that the HFPA's history of insensitive behavior coupled with their seemingly shady financial dealings may make it difficult for the Golden Globes to make a comeback, especially if another awards show takes their place. Forbes also mentions that with "anemic ratings and dwindling ad dollars," it's unclear if the Golden Globes is even worth the $60 million NBC pays to license the show.

Variety adds that there's infighting among active HFPA members in terms of "how to reform and how to respond to its critics. But there also continues to be genuine bafflement about how things escalated to this point."