Hollywood con job

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Sharon Waxman was a Hollywood correspondent for the New York Times for four years and is the author of "Rebels on the Backlot."

Thanks to the writers strike, NBC canceled this weekend’s Golden Globe Awards ceremony. And as far as I’m concerned, it’s about time.

As everyone in Hollywood knows, the glitzy annual ceremony watched by millions of people is a con on the viewing public. The decision to cancel it offers a golden opportunity to clean up the Golden Globes once and for all.

The Globes have long been the entertainment industry’s dirty little secret. At the heart of the con is the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., the tiny, cliquish group of foreign entertainment journalists -- and I use each of those terms liberally -- whose votes determine the winners.


The members of the association are not, generally speaking, film experts (like the people who judge the National Society of Film Critics awards) nor are they members of the creative community (like those who give out the Oscars). They’re not even representatives of prominent foreign publications, like Le Monde or the Guardian or Haaretz.

Only a handful are full-time journalists; the rest are freelancers for mostly obscure publications, and some are simply hanging on for the parties and movie stars. To maintain their status in the organization, they need only write four articles a year.

Joining is nearly impossible; qualified foreign journalists from major media outlets need not apply and, anyway, they usually don’t. The group takes five new members a year at most, and any member can veto a candidate. With attrition from deceased members and those who failed to meet the work minimum, this year no more than 82 people will choose the winning movies and TV shows. Compare that to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which has about 6,000 members.

Now, you may ask, where’s my sense of humor? After all, TV viewers seem to enjoy the show, which is more freewheeling than the Oscars. And besides, Hollywood has plenty of nebulous groups that hand out awards at this time of year. More than one of them (did anyone say National Board of Review?) would suffer under scrutiny.

But the Globes are the only ones on a broadcast network, and there’s the rub. Promoted as a major event -- and watched last year by 20 million Americans -- there is every reason for the average viewer to presume that the awards are important, prestigious and meaningful.

But they’re not. They’re just a cash cow -- and a handy marketing tool. The telecast snares an estimated $6 million a year for the association (a chunk of which is donated to charity), according to tax documents. And last year, it took in $27 million in ad revenue for NBC, according to TNS Media Intelligence, which collects advertising data.


So why is there no debate over the Golden Globes? Because they serve everyone’s agenda. The studios get their films promoted, the TV networks hype their shows, the stars get face time and rub elbows with friends during the dinner -- and NBC and the association rake in millions. Everyone wins.

All that has been enough to persuade the industry to ignore the ongoing tragicomic shenanigans that expose the group’s lack of professionalism: catfights at cocktail parties (in 2002, one member slapped another as Martin Scorsese stood nearby), poison pen letters about colleagues (my files burst with them), embarrassing conduct with movie stars (former President Phil Berk had to apologize to Brendan Fraser for grabbing his buttocks) and political infighting worthy of the Politburo.

The fact is, the financial weight of the awards show creates intolerable pressure for members. There is constant worry that some misstep will put their prize in jeopardy -- the money that pays for trips to film festivals for members, and the status that this year got them invited to drinks with George Clooney and tea with Keira Knightley.

I know many of the members; they are nice people. They try their best. Many of them just scrape by. But they are no cross-section of entertainment journalists from around the world.

The Golden Globes have faced criticism for a long time. In 1981, the producer Meshulam Riklis flew members of the association to Las Vegas for a few days of fun -- just a few weeks before they voted his wife, Pia Zadora, the “new female star of the year.”

In the 1990s, criticism faded, and NBC began airing the show in 1996. A barrage of critical articles in the late 1990s led NBC to put pressure on the group to reform. It made members sign waivers that they had not received gifts or perks from the studios. And in 1999, NBC said it would require the organization to expand its voter base.


But that hasn’t happened. Instead, NBC has changed its promotional language for the show, emphasizing the event as a “party,” as in -- Lighten up! It’s only the Golden Globes!


Lighten up? Inside the group, these issues can be deadly serious. In 2004, member Nick Douglas was suspended for having sold to a tabloid a photo of Tom Selleck taken at an association affair, and for taking home some beer he had picked up at a studio buffet, in breach of HFPA rules. Denied access to press junkets and celebrity interviews, he was unable to work, went home to Ireland in disgrace and in December 2005 took his own life.

What’s wrong with the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. can’t be fixed by making members sign waivers or by banning parties during balloting.

The group needs, finally, to open its membership to a far broader pool, to encourage membership of bona fide journalists and critics -- maybe even domestic ones.

With the timeout provided by the strike, NBC Universal President and Chief Executive Jeff Zucker can make this happen. He should fix the Golden Globes or take them off the air for good.