awards season

If No One Is Around to Watch the Golden Globes, Does It Matter?

Photo-Illustration: Vulture

If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Related question: If a film gets an award and no one is around to watch, does it matter?

We will presumably discover the answer to that question on Sunday night, when the Hollywood Foreign Press Association is scheduled to hand out its 79th annual Golden Globe awards — but not in a televised ceremony. The Golden Globes, a TV mainstay since 1979, lost its longtime home at NBC back in May amid fallout from a series of scandals and resignations that resulted in the organization vowing to reform itself and coming up short.

Sunday’s Golden Globes will instead be a non-event. The HFPA waited until five days before the ceremony to release details: The group will gather at the Beverly Hilton to both distribute its awards and “shine a light on the long-established philanthropy work of the HFPA.” But “because of the pandemic surge … there will not be an audience on January 9,” leaving only “select members and grantees” in the room. (Earlier, Variety reported that the group had tried, and failed, to recruit celebrity presenters.) It will be a private event, without even so much as a livestream, Deadline reported Thursday. They will simply tweet out their winners and put out a press release.

With the organization disgraced in the public eye and (at least temporarily) erased from television, will its winners have any impact whatsoever on this year’s awards race? Well, we can take an educated guess, with some precedent.

In January of 2008, the entertainment industry was still in the midst of the four-month Writers Guild of America strike, which shut down production on scripted programming, including the Globes. (You don’t think those snarling, defensive, mostly unfunny Ricky Gervais quips write themselves, do you?) The HFPA requested a special waiver from the WGA allowing them to hire union writers for the show; the union refused, and threatened to picket the ceremony.

Nominees and presenters weren’t going to cross that picket line, so the organization canceled the traditional awards ceremony in favor of a half-hour press conference open to all media. NBC, which had aired the Globes since 1996, tried to turn that drab affair into an hour-long special hosted by Access Hollywood’s Billy Bush (remember him?) and Nancy O’Dell, with predictably miserable results: About a quarter of the show’s usual audience tuned in.

In order to assess the impact of that January’s barely noticed Globes on the Academy Awards five weeks later, one must first grant the notion that the Globes customarily predict the winners — a faulty premise at best, though one the HFPA has used often to justify its existence and influence. In 2016, I crunched the numbers and found that the Globes only predicted the Oscar winner for Best Picture half the time, and Best Director even less frequently (40 percent). The Globes’ acting picks matched up much more frequently, though — Best Actor, Actress, and Supporting Actor proved prescient 90 percent of the time, and Best Supporting Actress did 70 percent of the time. Last year, Alissa Wilkinson at Vox revisited the numbers and found the Globes’ accuracy has remained spotty; even taking into account that the Globes have twice as many opportunities for predictions (since they give out separate awards for Drama and Musical/Comedy), they have only given a Globe to the eventual Best Picture in three of the last six years (matching up on Moonlight, Green Book, and Nomadland, but missing Spotlight, The Shape of Water, and Parasite).

That same doubling-up helps account for the higher rate of accuracy in the acting categories. And it’s held strong, with the Globes awarding 100 percent of the eventual Oscar winners for Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actress from 2016 to 2020, and all but one Best Supporting Actor in those same years. But this speaks less to the grand predictive powers of the HFPA than it does to their ability to do what any Oscar blogger can — to gauge which performers are gathering buzz as likely Oscar winners. Likely winners in acting categories tend to emerge early and maintain their pole position through awards season; the Globes are part of that process of temperature-taking, which often has as much to do with the vigorous campaigning of the nominee (and their supporting studio) than the quality of the performance.

And this holds true of the 2008 Zombie Golden Globes. That year’s eventual Oscar winners for Best Actor and Best Actress were Daniel Day-Lewis for There Will Be Blood and Marion Cotillard for La Vie en Rose; those actors also won the Globes (for Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture — Drama and Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture — Musical or Comedy). But they were the clear front-runners for those prizes from the moment their films unspooled the previous year, in the kind of show-stopping, attention-grabbing roles that seem designed for awards success.

The Globes also matched the Oscars on Best Supporting Actor: Javier Bardem for No Country for Old Men, which again, duh — though they diverged on Best Supporting Actress, which the Globes handed to Cate Blanchett for I’m Not There, only nominating the eventual Oscar winner, Tilda Swinton, for Michael Clayton.

But they were off, as usual, on the Best Picture and Best Director winners, an indication less of the influence (or lack thereof) of the little-seen ceremony than the tendency of the buzz in those categories to shift with the winds throughout the early months of the year. The Globes for Best Motion Picture went to Atonement (Drama) and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Musical or Comedy), not the Academy Award winner for Best Picture, No Country for Old Men. The Coen brothers also shared the Best Director prize for that film, but the Golden Globe for Best Director went to Julian Schnabel, for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

So if the Globes were roughly as consequential as ever in 2008, they should predict this year’s Oscars with about the same consistency, right? Well, not quite so fast. The Globes-to-Oscars match-ups for last year’s COVID-safe Zoomathon ceremony were completely upside down. For once, the Globes accurately predicted both Best Picture and Best Director (Nomadland and its director, Chloé Zhao) but totally whiffed the acting nominees. The Globes for Best Actor went to Chadwick Boseman and Sacha Baron Cohen; the Oscar, notoriously, went to Anthony Hopkins. The Globes for Best Actress went to Andra Day for The United States vs. Billie Holiday and Rosamund Pike for I Care a Lot, but Nomadland’s Frances McDormand won the Oscar; Jodie Foster won the Best Supporting Actress Globe for The Mauritanian but wasn’t even nominated by the Academy, which instead awarded Minari’s Youn Yuh-jung.

More, as Vulture’s Josef Adalian put it, ratings for last year’s ceremony were “a disaster of epic proportions,” drawing a mere 6.9 million viewers. That was barely one-third the audience of the previous year’s telecast, making it “the least-watched ceremony in modern Globes history” and negligibly more than even the no-stars-allowed Billy Bush–hosted 2008 affair, which logged 5.8 million viewers. What went awry? Vox’s Alissa Wilkinson hazarded the best guess: It was a year when Oscar buzz was “muted without the usual rounds of red-carpet premieres, parties, meet-and-greets, and relentless campaigning.”

So with no real campaigning, there was less buzz for the Globes’ prognosticators to pick up on. And with no one watching the awards, the Globes didn’t confirm any buzz themselves. That scenario seems likely to hold true this year as well. It’s less that the Globes’ influence will be blunted by its lack of a telecast than by the fact that everyone is thinking (and worrying, and obsessing) about other, more important things right now.

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If Nobody Watches the Golden Globes, Do They Matter?