“D-day,” as some in the entertainment industry were calling it, was looming.
It was just two weeks before May 6, the date when the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. — the group that puts on the Golden Globes — had promised to unveil a slate of reforms aimed at “transformational change.” The pledge had come after a Times investigation highlighted allegations of financial and ethical lapses by the group and pointed out that not one of its 86 members is Black, spurring outrage in Hollywood.
On that April Tuesday, a handful of consultants for the embattled association met with a group of activists and publicists who’d been vocal in their criticism. The publicists represented a contingent of more than 100 powerful firms who’d declared that their clients would boycott the HFPA — refusing to participate in screenings, interviews or award shows — until the organization reformed. The activists included representatives from Color of Change and Time’s Up, including director Ava DuVernay and showrunner Shonda Rhimes.
The HFPA was represented on the Zoom call by Shaun Harper, a diversity strategist, and attorneys from Ropes & Gray, an outside law firm, both recently hired to help manage the crisis. The conversation was intended as a precursor to the reveal this Thursday.
It did not go well.
The publicists and advocates expected a preview of substantive reforms. Instead, as one later complained, the HFPA’s emissaries were “ill prepared and uninformed.” Several said they heard obscure talk about policies and bylaws, and they took issue with the HFPA’s previously announced proposal to add 13 Black members, a Harper suggestion that several in the group criticized, even calling it a “racist quota,” during the call.
Before the 90-minute meeting concluded, Harper abruptly left; later that day he tendered his resignation to the HFPA. Smith & Co., the strategic advisory and crisis communications firm led by high-powered crisis consultant Judy Smith (inspiration for the character of Olivia Pope on the ABC series “Scandal”), who had been working with the HFPA but had not attended the meeting, quit as well. Harper declined to comment. Smith did not respond to a request for comment.
The next day, Time’s Up Chief Executive Tina Tchen told The Times: “The deadline of May 6th that the HFPA set for itself is fast approaching. But all we have seen so far are public statements and actions that reflect a continued lack of understanding of the deep-rooted problems with the HFPA and the systemic change that needs to happen. The clock is ticking.”
The unproductive meeting showed just how sclerotic and ineffectual the HFPA has been in responding to mounting pressure from outside groups to reform. The organization’s efforts at change thus far have sputtered amid a series of missteps and miscalculations.
“We wholeheartedly believe as an association that transformational and progressive change is not only necessary, but long overdue, and we are committed to that goal,” an HFPA spokesperson said. The representative added that the organization planned to move forward, saying it was “honored” to have Harper and Smith “assist us in our plan for foundational change, and we thank them again for their efforts in getting us closer to that goal. We are actively considering new consultants to assist us with reform.”
Many Hollywood institutions are closely watching the reform efforts; the Golden Globes, a high-visibility lead-in to the Academy Awards, are a powerful marketing tool for studios and networks. But with the HFPA’s own deadline drawing near and the association’s standing badly tarnished, many in the industry are wondering whether the 78-year-old organization can survive.
Representatives of NBC, which airs the Globes, and Dick Clark Productions, which produces the show, are waiting to see what is announced Thursday and may consider contingency plans if the HFPA doesn’t take serious steps to reform, people close to the companies said.
Among the more drastic options that could be considered: putting the Globes on hiatus, keeping the show but jettisoning the HFPA, or scrapping the awards altogether.
Ropes & Gray, the only group brought in to help manage the crisis that remains, is expected to present its findings to the HFPA members Monday. That will leave three days for the association to consider recommendations that insiders expect to call for sweeping changes.
Why has the HFPA struggled in its efforts at reform? The drumbeat of external criticism has exacerbated tensions inside the notoriously fractious group, according to interviews with insiders. One camp of HFPA members is defiant, viewing themselves as victims; other members acknowledge the need for reforms but say they’ve been kept in the dark by organization leaders, whose priorities they question. Some in the group have spent valuable time in recent weeks trying to break through the publicists’ blockade. And it is sitting on two sets of recommendations from consultants hired around 2018 and 2019 that highlighted the need to address many of the problems the HFPA now faces.
The wheels began to come off in August when Kjersti Flaa, a Norwegian entertainment journalist who had been denied membership in the HFPA, sued the group.
Although a federal judge in Los Angeles ultimately dismissed the suit (Flaa’s lawyer is appealing the ruling), the case made public a litany of allegations against the HFPA, including that it institutionalized a “culture of corruption.” Flaa’s suit claimed the tax-exempt organization operated as a kind of cartel, barring qualified applicants — including herself — and monopolizing all-important media access while improperly subsidizing its members’ income.
The HFPA and its attorney called the lawsuit a “shakedown,” saying the claims are “nothing more than salacious and false allegations.”
After The Times’ investigation was published in February, a Time’s Up campaign protesting the HFPA’s lack of Black members went viral as a galaxy of stars, including Kerry Washington, Ellen Pompeo, Sterling K. Brown, Amber Tamblyn and Judd Apatow, shared it on their social media. DuVernay, the director, tweeted: “Old news. New energy. #TimesUpGlobes.”
When three HFPA board officers took the stage at the Golden Globes ceremony two days later, devoting 40 seconds of the three-hour telecast to address the group’s lack of diversity, few were mollified.
Minutes after the Globes concluded, Time’s Up rebuked the HFPA in barbed letters sent to both the awards-voting body and NBCUniversal, saying they “indicate a fundamental lack of understanding of the depth of the problems at hand.”
Several days after the Globes — whose ratings plunged to an all-time low, like those of many other awards shows this year — the HFPA issued a statement on its website proclaiming that it was committed to “transformational change.”
Shortly thereafter, the HFPA held an emergency meeting. The group — which had voted against hiring a diversity consultant last year in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police and the subsequent protests — announced that it had retained USC’s Harper as a diversity consultant for a five-year stint, as well as Ropes & Gray. The crisis consultant Smith was brought in around the same time.
Meanwhile, Time’s Up released a detailed plan of action, calling for a total reset of the organization, including demands for the entire board to resign and members to step down and reapply under new requirements after one year. “The insular country club membership criteria and process must fundamentally change,” the group declared.
Although the HFPA did not directly respond to Time’s Up, behind the scenes, board officers Meher Tatna, Ali Sar and Helen Hoehne and the group’s chief operating officer and general counsel, Gregory Goeckner, met regularly with representatives from NBC and Dick Clark Productions, as well as its new consultants. The HFPA also reached out to the NAACP and the National Assn. of Black Journalists.
Harper, the diversity consultant, began meeting with small groups of members. At the same time, Ropes & Gray began interviewing individuals. “It actually felt good,” said one member. “For the first time, someone is asking right questions.”
March 15 marked a significant turning point.
A group of more than 100 of the most powerful publicists representing the majority of entertainment talent and artists signed a blistering open letter warning the HFPA that they would withhold access to their clients if the organization did not take significant steps “to swiftly manifest profound and lasting change to eradicate the longstanding exclusionary ethos and pervasive practice of discriminatory behavior, unprofessionalism, ethical impropriety and alleged financial corruption endemic to the HFPA.”
Under pressure to respond, the HFPA said in a statement: “We are committed to making necessary changes within our organization and in our industry as a whole. We also acknowledge that we should have done more, and sooner.”
The association also pledged to expand from what was then 87 members to a minimum of 100 this year with at least 13% Black members, and to launch diversity training and other initiatives.
The move did little to convince critics that the HFPA had the ability, or the self-awareness, to carry out the sweeping reforms it had promised.
“The Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s decades-long racist track record can’t be solved with performative public relations partnerships, and it cannot be solved by adding an arbitrary number of Black members to their association,” Color of Change President Rashad Robinson said in a statement.
The day after the publicists released their letter, Rhimes tweeted that the HFPA had declined to participate in a news conference for the TV producer’s Netflix series “Bridgerton.” “Until it was a ‘surprise hit’ (Grey’s, Scandal, Murder -SURPRISE!) And yet they STILL asked me to show up in person to present at the Globes,” she wrote. “We’re not the only ones. This is why HFPA’s house is on fire. They lit the flame w/their own ignorance.”
Inside the HFPA, some members took issue with the announced diversity measure, saying that it reflected American demographics and did not account for other underrepresented groups, and that the broader membership was not consulted. Other members protested that the group was already diverse, with members representing dozens of countries.
Those in the PR industry had long tolerated — even coddled — the HFPA because the Globes generated reams of publicity for their clients: movies, TV shows and the actors and filmmakers behind them. “We all threw up our hands, succumbed and fell into line for decades,” said one prominent publicist who asked not to be named.
Now, however, the mood had shifted perceptibly.
As soon as their letter went public, the publicists canvassed the studios, agents and managers to gauge their response. They were uniformly supportive, said a publicist who was a signatory. “They said it was about time,” the publicist said.
Publicists reflected on the advice they’d given clients about dealing with HFPA members over the years. “Every client is warned as you walk into the room, they’re going to insult you,” Cindi Berger, chairman of R&CPMK, told The Times. “They’re going to say things that are really hurtful. They’ll ask a personal question in the most inappropriate way. Our clients have endured racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia. We can no longer just shake our heads in disbelief.”
One publicist recounted the time their client, a mature male actor, was asked during an HFPA news conference, “’At your age do you still have sex?’ I don’t think I’ll ever forget that.”
Last week, HFPA member Margaret Gardiner, a former 1978 Miss Universe from South Africa, was blasted on social media after a video clip went viral in which she appeared to confuse Daniel Kaluuya with Leslie Odom Jr. while asking Kaluuya a question backstage at the Oscars after his supporting actor win for “Judas and the Black Messiah.” Gardiner apologized, saying she had misspoken while insisting she had not mixed up the two actors.
But it was the HFPA’s track record of snubbing clients’ projects, particularly if they were people of color or not A-listers, that created negative and lasting consequences, publicists said.
“They have the ability to prevent people from being recognized and advancing in their careers because of the power that the Golden Globe award has and because … it falls [first] on the season calendar,” Marcel Pariseau, co-owner of True Public Relations, told The Times.
Among HFPA members, the publicists’ boycott was shocking, particularly for those who viewed themselves as part of a beloved Hollywood institution.
“They’re a bit confused and angry because they’ve known these publicists for so many years,” said a current member who was not authorized to comment publicly, noting that some members felt blindsided because publicists “never complained about any of these things prior to the Golden Globes.”
For now, the publicists are refusing to break ranks, continuing to withhold their clients from participating in HFPA activities until they see which reforms the association releases.
Although the publicists’ lockdown has put the HFPA in a deep freeze, the organization has continued to press publicists to resume setting up screenings for HFPA members, suggesting that withholding access might keep their clients from contending for Golden Globe awards, publicists said.
In an email sent April 19 to one publicist, a copy of which was reviewed by The Times, a staffer at the HFPA wrote: “I understand from your email below that you want to wait for the results of the DEI [diversity review] before screening for our members. I’d like to be sure you understand, per our screening rules, which begin on page 5, if you want your film to be considered for the 2022 GG Awards, screenings for English-language motion pictures may take place at any time before release and must be completed by one week after the release of the motion picture in the greater Los Angeles area.”
An HFPA spokesperson denied there was any implied threat to punish publicists, noting that “screening a film and holding a press conference are two very separate activities.”
As the HFPA has tried to navigate these challenges, tensions between its two warring camps have made matters more difficult: The reformers, who want change, complain that their requests for clarity and communication from leadership have largely been rebuffed; the traditionalists have remained defiant, seeing themselves as victims, bullied by the media and unfairly branded as racists.
Several current members characterize HFPA leadership as increasingly secretive and describe a climate of fear in which information — including details of board meetings with NBC — is tightly controlled and leakers are castigated. The leadership, they said, shut down an online forum that allowed members to air their thoughts.
Monthly treasurer reports, previously circulated among the group, are now available only at HFPA offices.
Members received an email from Sar, the president, about Harper’s resignation — without any explanation of how or why it transpired, hours after they first read about it in The Times.
And there is no regular and detailed discussion with members about the group’s challenges or how to proceed.
“For the past 60 days, the HFPA has been 100% committed to serious transformational reform, with input from members and outside partners,” the association’s spokesperson told The Times. “Ropes & Gray has been in regular contact with our membership and outside organizations to seek input and guidance ahead of May 6th. We are dedicated to providing our members with the most up to date and accurate updates on our progress, free from influence via leaks to the press.”
In a long email thread, a copy of which was reviewed by The Times, members display defiance, divisiveness and victimhood, but few appear to understand the gravity of the situation the HFPA is in. Many see the need to reform but with limitations. There are vociferous complaints about The Times’ investigation and other media reports.
In one, Greet Ramaekers, an HFPA member from Belgium, wrote: “By now, we all know that this has been a carefully planned inside job, yet indeed the question remains: Where the heck was our high paid PR Team? On vacation in Bora Bora or perhaps on the side of ‘Time’s up?’”
When asked to comment on her email, Ramaekers told The Times, “I, Greet Ramaekers, like so many of our members, am 100% focused on reform and transformational change within the HFPA. I have confidence in that process.”
“We need to reform,” Gabriel Lerman, an HFPA member from Argentina, wrote in the thread. “We all agree on that, but we also need to straighten up the deceptive narrative established by the Los Angeles Times. I don’t want to be considered a corrupt person that sells his votes because nothing could be farther from the truth and I’m sure everyone in this thread feels the same. So we need to fight it and we need to do it now.”
Lerman declined to comment.
Board member Luca Celada, whom the HFPA lists as representing Italy, reposted an email exchange with member Noemia Young from August, after the organization’s vote against hiring a diversity consultant.
“We are a very small group with a lot of diversity. This is a shakedown by these Political groups and I don’t believe in rewarding or condoning blackmail,” wrote Young, an HFPA member who was born in Portugal and writes for Canadian publications.
Celada also posted his original response: “Dear Noemia — if you made a public statement to this effect, the Golden Globes would lose the NBC contract and the HFPA cease to exist. The world is moving on and will no longer give us a pass because we are ‘small’ or special. They would make an example of us and it is our responsibility to protect our association in any way possible. If that includes having a consultant, we should do so like any other industry organization.”
Celada confirmed the email exchange but declined to comment further. Young did not respond to a request for comment.
The members were continuing to hurl insults and complaints in email exchanges even as the organization met April 20 with the publicists and activists.
During the meeting, the HFPA expelled South Africa-born Phil Berk, a former eight-term HFPA president, after he emailed the association’s membership an article that called Black Lives Matter a “hate movement.” NBC and Dick Clark Productions had publicly condemned the email and demanded his ouster.
The HFPA statement announcing Berk’s expulsion said it “condemns all forms of racism, discrimination and hate speech and finds such language and content unacceptable.”
“The writing has been on the wall for years and the HFPA has had ample opportunities to address their inequity. They simply have failed to do so,” Jackie Bazan, the founder of BazanPR, said in a statement to The Times after the meeting.
On Monday, Ropes & Gray is scheduled to meet with HFPA members and present the findings of its review. The lawyers have had discussions in recent days with NBC and Dick Clark Productions, but the network and the production company are waiting until Thursday before issuing any public position.
The lawyers gave a preview to the board earlier, according to an individual briefed on the meeting but not authorized to speak publicly. Though not finalized, the initial assessment was said to be harsh, and the group is bracing itself. Among the recommendations Ropes & Gray may make is calling on the entire board to resign.
A spokesperson for Ropes & Gray said its work was continuing, and “it is not our practice to discuss ongoing matters.”
This will not be the first time that the HFPA has been advised to make significant changes.
Around 2018 and 2019, the HFPA engaged two separate entities to assess the organization and outline recommendations, according to documents reviewed by The Times.
The reviews were commissioned by the board and Goeckner, the HFPA’s COO and general counsel, according to an individual familiar with the matter but not authorized to speak publicly. It is unclear what initially prompted the reviews, but the results were not shared with broader membership, according to two members.
Envision Consulting, a nonprofit executive search firm and leadership consulting group based in Pasadena, conducted one review, and Rodriguez Horii Choi & Cafferata, a Los Angeles law firm that specializes in charitable and tax-exempt organizations, handled the second.
Both reviewed many of the issues that the organization is addressing now, including governance and the need to expand and strengthen membership requirements, professionalize leadership and tighten controls on spending and payments.
Envision, citing client confidentiality, declined to comment. Rodriguez did not respond to a request for comment.
The Rodriguez report cautioned that some of the group’s policies, including its cap on new members and payments to members, could “challenge” its tax-exempt status. Among its findings, Envision addressed the board composition, recommending that the board should not receive compensation for committee jobs as HFPA employees.
The Times’ investigation earlier this year found that the nonprofit HFPA regularly issues substantial payments to its own members in ways that some experts say could run afoul of Internal Revenue Service guidelines. HFPA members collected nearly $2 million in payments from the group in its fiscal year ending in June 2020 for serving on various committees and performing other tasks. The HFPA has said its compensation decisions are in line with similar nonprofit groups and vetted by independent experts.
“We have retained a number of advisors over the years,” the HFPA’s representative said. “While we can’t discuss confidential legal advice, we take all recommendations from our advisors seriously and continue to work towards reform.”
Given the failures to previously address long-standing issues of concern, some members blame the HFPA’s leadership for its current predicament.
“In any normal company or nonprofit, the Board and executives would have resigned over this level of scrutiny, scandal, criticism and controversy,” wrote HFPA member and Dutch journalist Diederik van Hoogstraten in an email sent to Sar, the HFPA president, and Goeckner on March 3 and reviewed by The Times.
Meanwhile, several options that were once considered off-limits are being discussed among reform-minded members. Those include getting rid of the sponsorship requirement for new members, which has served mostly to block applicants rather than bring new ones in; curbing committees; and setting term limits for the board members.
With movie theaters reopening and fall film festivals on the horizon, pressure is building to resolve the situation before next year’s awards season kicks into gear.
“We need the HFPA to acknowledge and take accountability for this systemic behavior,” said Kelly Bush Novak, the founder and CEO of ID PR, a firm that was a signatory to the letter. “We want them to be remade into a legitimate, ethical organization that respects our clients and their work so that the trophies can become a proud reflection of their artistic accomplishments without the tarnish of this reprehensible conduct.”
Times staff writers Josh Rottenberg and Meg James contributed to this report.
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