the gold rush

How the Golden Globes Canceled Themselves

Photo-Illustration: by Vulture; Photo by Jeffrey Coolidge/Getty Images and Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Hollywood Foreign Press Association

The cancellation of next year’s Golden Globes was hardly a foregone conclusion. Yes, the controversy has been mounting for months: first from Los Angeles Times exposés in February that highlighted the association’s insular culture, millions of dollars of self-dealing payments and total exclusion of Black members, then an open letter signed by more than 100 Hollywood publicity firms calling for “profound and lasting change.” Time’s Up published a list of suggested reforms. Last week, Scarlett Johansson urged fellow celebs to “step back from the HFPA,” and on Monday, Tom Cruise returned his three Globe statuettes in symbolic protest. But until Monday, NBC was still planning to air the Golden Globes next year. To hear it from a cross section of entertainment industry insiders with deep ties to the association, NBC’s announcement this week that it would not air the 2022 Globes broadcast comes down to a “self-inflicted wound” by the HFPA: a preventable disaster for which the free-buffet-loving press cabal has no one to blame but itself.

Now the HFPA has found itself increasingly forsaken by the Hollywood firmament it so long and assiduously courted. Even after the non-profit organization announced sweeping reforms earlier this month (including bringing in a Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer and vowing to increase membership by 50 percent over the next 18 months “with a specific focus on recruiting Black members”), Netflix co-chief executive Ted Sarandos informed the HFPA leadership committee that the streaming behemoth was “stopping any activities” until more meaningful changes were made. From there, Amazon, WarnerMedia and Neon, the indie studio behind Parasite, joined the boycott in rapid succession. But according to sources contacted by Vulture, the association doomed its own 2022 event with its Monday announcement of “transformational” reforms that critics immediately faulted for rolling out too slowly, thereby leaving the same regime largely intact until at least 2023.

The association has long been considered corrupt by critics and other members of the press, but that’s not what people are really mad about. The HFPA now faces the most serious crisis in its 77-year history because a bunch of separate Hollywood factions led by a lightning brigade of entertainment publicists finally decided to call out the organization they’ve grimly tolerated and secretly hated for so many years under the guise of pushing for more progressive politics.

Sources who have long-term business relationships with both the association and executives at the entertainment publicity firms now decrying it said that many publicists representing top-tier actors and directors harbor long-standing grudges toward the HFPA. While happy enough to oblige the eccentric, 87-member group of international entertainment journalists’ whims when it came to providing gifts, entry to champagne receptions, free travel arrangements and innumerable selfies with celebrity clients, sources note that publicists have quietly fumed over the association’s intractable all-or-none demands. Specifically, the association’s mandate that the entire rank and file of their membership be allowed into “exclusive” press events for TV series or movies, or none of them would show up, thereby negating the publicists’ efficacy as gatekeepers to talent.

As evidence of HFPA malfeasance and internal chaos mounted in the pages of the Los Angeles Times, sources tell us, these publicists saw their chance to hold the HFPA to a higher standard while also reestablishing the power dynamic to gain greater control. “The Black member/diversity thing was a smoke screen,” one awards-campaign executive says. “Publicists today want to control the outlet selections for their talent promoting TV or movies. But they cannot deem any individual outlet represented by any single HFPA member verboten. Get the group, get them all! That drives them crazy. It’s all about control.”

That the HFPA has garnered enough respect in modern Hollywood to merit demands for integrity should come as a delicious irony to anyone familiar with the Golden Globes’ decades of scandals, controversies and bizarro internal logic. Established in 1944, the awards were repeatedly censured by the FCC and kicked off the air twice for effectively giving awards out as recompense for favors. In 1958, ex-HFPA president Henry Gris resigned after a single PR firm’s clients took home a suspicious majority of that year’s golden statuettes. In 1982, there was the infamous Pia Zadora debacle; the 24-year-old star of the critically pilloried flop Butterfly was awarded the Globe for Best New Star after her billionaire husband Meshulam Riklis flew HFPA members to Las Vegas where he plied them with food and booze at a hotel-casino he owned. And by the time Universal flew association members to New York in 1992 for an elaborate press junket for Al Pacino’s Scent of a Woman — which, perhaps not coincidentally, ended up besting such acclaimed movies as Unforgiven, The Crying Game, and A Few Good Men in the Drama, Motion Picture category the following year — the Globes’ reputation as an unserious, suspected bribe- and advertising-driven event had become received wisdom within Hollywood’s 30-mile zone.

Once the show started to be produced by Dick Clark Productions and broadcast by NBC in the ’90s, however, the Globes evolved into a reliable star chamber for major celebrities and Serious Actors alike: a fun and fizzy awards-season pit stop unfolding (with the exception of this pandemic year) in late January, just days before the end of the Oscars voting period.
Richard Rushfield, editor-in-chief of the entertainment-industry newsletter The Ankler, said that he finds the “I’m shocked, shocked to find gambling is going on in here!” tone of the publicists’ March 15 open letter more than a little disingenuous. “The idea that these publicists are suddenly horrified by what’s going on at the HFPA is pretty ridiculous,” Rushfield says. “These people know everything that’s going on. They know the [HFPA] members by name. They’re more than witness to the lack of diversity. They facilitated it.”

Highly placed sources from across the Awards Industrial Complex called the publicists the “primary aggressor” in penalizing the HFPA and ultimately pushing the Globes off the air, which most likely would not have occurred without their continuing involvement. But as these sources explain it, the groundswell of PR-maven outrage that forced the issue all the way to the network level amounts to undisguised hypocrisy — grandstanding of the highest order intended to assure celebrity clients that their reps were “taking a stand” on diversity and inclusivity even while leadership at almost all the signatory firms remains overwhelmingly white.

Rushfield feels the publicists staked out a position of rejecting the HFPA’s reforms even before any changes had been announced, pointing out their demand for the association to “swiftly manifest profound and lasting change” held the HFPA to a much higher standard than they did the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in the aftermath of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy in 2015. “I don’t know the number of times that Hollywood-based publicists said to them, ‘We’re made uncomfortable by the fact that there aren’t more Black members,’” he continues, echoing a sentiment being spoken behind closed doors across Hollywood. “But I’m guessing it’s probably a number less than one.”

Recent controversies — such as eight-term HFPA president Philip Berk calling Black Lives Matter a “racist hate movement” in April and HFPA member Margaret Gardiner asking Oscar winner Daniel Kaluuya what it meant “to be directed by Regina” at the Oscars (seemingly mistaking him for One Night in Miami’s Leslie Odom Jr.) — underscored the perception that the HFPA is out of touch with contemporary cultural sensitivities. On April 20, Shaun Harper, a diversity strategist hired by the association to serve as a diversity and inclusion adviser just days after the publication of the first L.A. Times expose in March, quit the HFPA under unknown circumstances. Criticized both inside and outside the group for his seemingly arbitrary recommendation the HFPA add 13 new Black members, Harper reportedly met with representatives for Time’s Up, Color of Change, and the members of the coalition of publicists who had sent the open letter on the day he stepped down.

If the publicists’ letter suddenly held the HFPA to a new level of accountability, then Netflix’s opposition may have been the tipping point for a series of corporate boycotts. On May 6, Netflix’s Ted Sarandos sent a letter to the HFPA that was obtained by Deadline the next day. “We know that you have many well-intentioned members who want real change,” Sarandos wrote. “But Netflix and many of the talent and creators we work with cannot ignore the HFPA’s collective failure to address these crucial issues with urgency and rigor.”

Over the past two months, Netflix executives had been meeting with HFPA leadership about proposed reforms, according to a source close to the streaming service. But the executives were surprised to see the letter published — they were not informed it was going to be released to the press. In the lead up to this year’s Globes, the streaming giant outspent every other studio, heavily promoting movies and series including The Trial of the Chicago 7, Hillbilly Elegy, The Queen’s Gambit, and Emily in Paris (for which HFPA voters received a lavish set visit in 2019). According to several sources, in December of 2019, before U.S. cities had begun COVID lockdowns, HFPA members attended a “holiday toast” at Sarandos’s home in Los Angeles. “Ted had them all to his house,” one film executive tells Vulture. “He didn’t notice that none of them are Black?”

In the end, though, it was the HFPA’s announcement of reform — and the reactions to it — that pushed NBC to cancel the broadcast. Planning to increase membership by 50 percent in 18 months, the association’s board committed to adding 20 new members by August of this year, but made no specific guarantees membership will diversify enough to impact voting on the 2022 Globes. Condemnation came swiftly. Time’s Up called the changes “window-dressing platitudes” and Mark Ruffalo lamented the reforms as “discouraging,” adding on Twitter, “Honestly, as a recent winner of a Golden Globe, I cannot feel proud or happy about being a recipient of this award.”

With more foresight, the organization might have instead taken its own initiative to push pause on the event for a year and regroup, so it could then return with all the appropriate new-and-improved fanfare in 2023. “They should have been smart enough to do it themselves,” says an awards executive with knowledge of the group. “They made the 2022 Globes unfeasible.”

Of course, the very same publicity firms who made a great show of standing up to the HFPA now stand to lose an untold fortune in fees with the cancellation of next year’s Globes. To hear it from a prominent film publicist (who, like others contacted for this story, spoke on condition of anonymity due to ongoing business sensitivities) the entertainment publicity community was hardly united in the offensive to chasten and reform the HFPA. In fact, many prominent firms (including Ginsberg-Libby, DKC, and Eileen Koch Public Relations) opted not to sign the letter. And vilifying the association, they say, only compartmentalizes Hollywood’s problems of diversity and inclusion, leading to a missed opportunity for meaningful dialogue across the entire entertainment ecosystem.

“I can’t help but reflect on the many years that came before this moment when the entire industry was doing flip flops working with the HFPA to garner attention for their films, shows, directors and actors without a thought as to whether or not the organization measured up to diversity, equity and inclusion standards at the most basic level,” the film publicist says in an impassioned email to Vulture. “So rather than ‘cancel’ the HFPA and the Globes as a whole, perhaps we should offer to engage in the kind of progressive conversations that could help lift up the organization in their thinking and methods. We — the entire industry — have culpability here and we should all play a part in cleaning up the mess we’ve created.”

How the Golden Globes Canceled Themselves