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The Golden Globes Is Beyond Fixing And The HFPA’s Time Is Up – Commentary

Joe Utichi
·8-min read

For all intents and purposes, Sunday’s Golden Globes ceremony was an imitation of life; stars dressed up for “red carpet” pictures from homes and hotel suites around the world, before logging onto a Zoom meeting to hear the results. Even the show’s hosts were in different cities, interacting awkwardly around broadcast delays.

But after a barrage of negative attention on the Hollywood Foreign Press Association in the days leading up to the show, it was the imitation of sincerity in addressing the criticism that rankled most. In a half-hearted attempt to answer perhaps the biggest challenge to the HFPA’s integrity in its history — and there have been plenty — the org’s president Ali Sar, vice president Helen Hoehne and former president Meher Tatna dedicated less than a minute, in only 100 words, to their vow to do better, and in so doing, rushed through their meas culpa faster than the any of the indulgent president’s speeches of years past.

Instead, the show upped the ante on proclamations about the HFPA’s charitable initiatives, crowbarring its own virtuousness to such an obscene degree that there could have been no doubt about what kind of awareness it was intended to raise. When Daniel Kaluuya gave his speech after winning the Best Supporting Actor prize for Judas and the Black Messiah, the fact that his microphone initially was muted seemed like far too on-the-nose a metaphor for an organization that had spent days weathering accusations of silencing Black voices.

It was small wonder when, after the show, Time’s Up — which had taken up the cause of attempting to right the HFPA’s ship in the days leading up to the event — issued an excoriating open letter to the group, with president and CEO Tina Tchen accusing the HFPA of making only cosmetic promises to change. Time’s Up urged the HFPA not only to address its lack of Black members but also to tackle the broader accusations of the group’s cartel-like reputation of entitlement and control. But in Tchen’s companion letter to NBCUniversal, a particular sentence stuck out to me. “We must fix the Golden Globes,” she wrote. And while I’m aligned on the intent of the response, this sentence begs a larger question: why?

After all, it has been five years since April Reign launched the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag that resulted in seismic changes not just for the American Academy, but for BAFTA and many other awards bodies. In 2018, then-HFPA president Tatna took the Globes stage to deliver a much longer monologue about her support for the Time’s Up movement for women in Hollywood. The HFPA cannot possibly claim ignorance to the social awakening of the past half-decade or more. Even if it had avoided the gaze of scrutiny in the past — which it has not — it would have evidenced by now any real interest it had in enacting true change. It has not.

There was much dogged reporting in the pieces by both the Los Angeles Times and New York Times that summed up the rot at the HFPA’s core. But as I read the pieces, the most surprising revelation was not any specific act, but rather how unsurprising all these details felt. It has been a long-running joke that the HFPA is beset by systemic problems, infested by members of dubious standing whose only interest is in perks and access — opportunities to press the flesh with Hollywood’s great and good.

For an organization that claims to represent Southern California’s community of journalists delivering the Good News of Hollywood to the furthest corners of the globe, editors of international publications have told me they would never use an HFPA stringer because of the stigma attached to this kind of sycophantic, celebrity-obsessed power brokering. “You seldom see an HFPA writer’s byline in any newspaper or magazine of any worth,” one editor said.

Membership into the group also is covetously challenging: Very few new members are admitted annually, and any current member has the power to veto any prospective applicant. Norwegian journalist Kjersti Flaa’s antitrust lawsuit, accusing the HFPA of a “culture of corruption,” has been dismissed (she intends to refile), but other international journalists in Hollywood have expressed similar frustrations to me. As last week’s reporting makes clear, keeping the membership small — the HFPA claims to have some 90 members — ensures plenty of opportunity for studios to campaign for a slot on the Globes’ nominations list. By contrast, AMPAS numbers some 10,000 members.

Hollywood’s response — not to discourage but rather to actively indulge this behavior — is understandable, if dispiriting. But what are we attempting to salvage by “fixing” the Golden Globes? Even if the HFPA addresses its diversity problem, it is against its best interests to open its membership to every qualified applicant, since greater numbers will dilute the pool of campaigner perks they receive. And how can the HFPA possibly hope to keep up with all the lucrative committees it would have to create to accommodate them? No, the organization’s littered history of cracks, long since papered-over but never properly repaired, seems to evince an active disinterest in rocking the status quo. There is nothing to salvage here.

Shoring up that status quo, though, is the Globes’ draw as a live event. NBCUniversal’s lucrative contract for broadcast rights is what enables the HFPA’s excesses. But ratings were down more than 60% this year to an average audience of 6.9 million — damning statistics in a year in which most viewers are confined to their homes. And the truth is, NBCUniversal doesn’t care a jot for the opinions of the HFPA’s membership, or how they choose to pass out their prizes. They care, instead, for the parade of well-liquored stars that will attend its annual awards gala, many of them to collect a trophy they must know has been tainted by the process that brought it to their hands. On Sunday night, some of them, including presenters Sterling K. Brown and Susan Kelechi Watson and honorees Jane Fonda and Sacha Baron Cohen, called out the lack of diversity in the HFPA membership.

It is the guestlist for the Golden Globes that represents the HFPA’s greatest power, but it is not a power the HFPA controls. If Hollywood stayed away, there would be no plinth left to bear the heavy throne, and this is the organization’s greatest fear. If the HFPA is unprepared to make fundamental changes to its operating practices — changes it appears wholly unqualified to define on its own — a jovial slap on the wrists by a presenter or recipient on the Globes’ stage is not enough; a broader boycott surely would be the only effective step. It won’t be enough to sweep this under the rug now that the show is over and assume this group will get its house in order in time for next year’s event. Some defend the HFPA’s good intentions — among them the honorable members who spoke up in the Times’ reports about trying to force change from the inside — or claim that their choices represent the nuance of a smaller, more informed group whose jobs revolve more directly around actually seeing the movies and shows. But given this year’s nominations included Sia’s Music and the frothy Emily in Paris, I’m not convinced there’s much expertise on display.

Perhaps the industry would need an early-season headline alternative to shape the road to Oscar — another show to fill the vacuum left by the absence of the Globes. I daresay there are a number of primed and ready contenders among the many critics’ groups that line up at this time of the year, groups with larger, more diverse memberships who already are applying much more rigorous standards than the HFPA. It might make more of an event of another awards show like the SAG Awards or BAFTA. No group is beyond reproach, but few operate with as much cloak-and-dagger as this one, and there are brands ready to be built into lucrative broadcast opportunities that could achieve as many — if not more — of the charitable aims the HFPA hides behind. Plus, the community of international journalists in Hollywood probably deserves a much more inclusive organization dedicated to their interests. But I’d also point to the Emmys, which seems to do a fine job of choosing the year’s best television without the need for the same grand cacophony of precursors that lead into the Oscars.

In the end, Hollywood doesn’t need the HFPA as much as the HFPA needs Hollywood. It is time to unshackle the industry from its reliance on an archaic institution that does more harm than good, succeeds only accidentally in rewarding the best work, and casts this industry in a bad light. It might be high time to let the Golden Globes die.

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