What a week it’s been for the embattled HFPA, as Hollywood’s personal publicists banded together in a rare show of unity, demanding change and threatening to hit the group where it hurts most by denying it access to the glitterati of film and television. Ava DuVernay took to Twitter to recall an HFPA press conference for her show When They See Us, in which few in the room appeared to have watched the episodes, and others filed in afterward to press the flesh, pose for selfies and—unfathomably—pitch their screenplays. And now NBCUniversal has weighed in after a long silence, with EVP and Chief Diversity Officer Craig Robinson telling the Los Angeles Times that they are “taking the issues seriously,” and intend to use their influence to encourage the HFPA “to make what we deem to be necessary changes.”
And it’s quite some influence. Despite declining ratings, the fees NBCUniversal pays for the rights to air the Globes have been skyrocketing in recent years, up to $60 million a year through 2026 from $21 million in 2018, per the Times’ reporting. It’s this money that pays for the HFPA’s performative charitable giving, much of it, according to reports, to its own members in the form of endless lucrative committees and breathless feature articles for its own website. The HFPA responded to the publicists’ letter by outlining its plan to hire a diversity expert and increase its membership pool to an even 100 by adding 13 Black journalists to its roster.
In its response, the HFPA has followed a familiar playbook: picking a primary issue and pledging to do better. But it has been pledging to do better for years. As early as 1958, former president Henry Gris resigned from the organization alleging “certain awards are being given more or less as favors”. The FTC intervened in 1968, saying the group had “misled the public as to how the winners were determined,” and NBC went dark on the show until after 1974. Yet, in 1982, Pia Zadora’s name became forever linked with the Globes when she won an award after her wealthy husband had flown members to Las Vegas. And the trips and gifts continue, with new avenues found to keep the gravy train flowing. Even this year, criticism circled around a trip to France in support of Emily in Paris, which wound up with two nominations.
When Brendan Fraser resurfaced a 2003 sexual harassment complaint, its response in defending former president Philip Berk—published as recently as 2018—included this startlingly contradictory sentence about an independent inquiry it had commissioned: “Although it was concluded that Mr. Berk inappropriately touched Mr. Fraser, the evidence supports that it was intended to be taken as a joke and not as a sexual advance.” And yet, in 2014, Berk was ordered to take a six-month leave of absence after publishing a memoir in which he disparaged certain members of the group, as well as stars that had trundled through HFPA events. How’s that for a double standard?
There are many more examples of the group’s Teflon-like ability to deflect criticism, exercising just the minimal acknowledgment required to skirt by and live to see another Beverly Hilton ballroom. And times when its broadcast partners have leaned in, oftentimes behind closed doors, to keep the show on the right side of propriety. But the HFPA’s critical error in responding to the barrage of criticism it has faced this time around is its abject failure thus far to directly address the other allegations, like financial malfeasance, campaign practices, and the legitimacy of its governance team and membership.
It’s worth wondering how any of the qualifying Black journalists the group intends to approach will feel about taking up membership in an organization looking solely to fix its optics. But the comments from NBCUniversal indicate that the pressure they’re exerting goes beyond diversity, and it is about time the HFPA copped to its responsibility to overhaul its ethical standards across the board. There are clearly plenty of decent, honest journalists among the HFPA’s membership who have been urging the organization’s leadership to step up even long before this year’s round of reports started to break, though few have been brave enough to speak publicly, and it’s time their voices were heard.
It’s also not like the Globes even represent the nadir of film awards activity—there are many well-attended shows out there that will be happy to mint an A-lister a plaque in exchange for a check and a promise to show up to collect it, and nobody is alleging such extreme cynicism of the HFPA. The difference is, none of them can claim a prime slot on network television.
Crucially, though, there are also many organizations with already much more diverse memberships and rigorous ethical standards ready to take the Globes’ crown as soon as NBCUniversal resolves to snatch it from them. This is an existential fight the HFPA simply won’t win as long as its organizational leaders keep their heads in the sand.