Golden Globes Quid Pro Quo

Golden Globes | Altman's Oscar and Other Buzz

Golden Globe Prez: 'There's a Quid Pro Quo in Everything You Do'

(Part 2 runs tomorrow)

Last year, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association — the group of 80 or so foreign journalists who vote on the annual Golden Globe Awards — spent money like it was going out of style.

According to their federal tax filing for 2004-2005, the group forked over $521,380 on travel, another $87,000 on “meetings and conferences” and $59,000 for “on line research.”

They also ponied up $500,000 for salaries, $177,000 in legal fees, $70,000 for photography, $64,000 for “outside services” and $26,000 for “other” (the photography fee may be attributed to the fact that HFPA members are notorious for the cheesy practice of having their pictures taken with the stars of movies after they’ve interviewed them).

To balance this out, the HFPA gave away about $1 million to other non-profits including the Sundance Film Festival and a handful of humanitarian organizations.

But the remaining $4 million was either spent on themselves or banked. According to their tax filing, the HFPA has $12 million in assets.

All of this is in the name of picking nominees from about 20 movies and putting on an awards show. That’s the same 20 movies from which every other awards show and critics group selects their nominees and winners.

The only difference is that NBC Universal, which broadcasts the show, gives the HFPA about $5-$6 million in licensing fees for rights to the Golden Globes name.

The network is also underwriting, perhaps unbeknownst to NBC et al. stockholders, a floating junket of “international” journalists who are living it up on the proceeds.

The fact is, the 80 or so members of the Hollywood Foreign Press — the group that chooses the Golden Globe Awards — are living the high life thanks to NBC’s licensing fee.

Last year, according to their federal tax return, the HFPA members who are mobile and compos mentis spent an average of $7,500 per person on travel alone. The total was over $600,000 for travel, plus meetings and press conferences.

That’s despite the fact that HFPA members are supposed to live in Los Angeles and report back from there to publications in their far-flung home countries. Instead, members of the HFPA —many of whom are American but merely freelance for foreign journals — globe-trot to numerous film festivals and press junkets to see movies they can easily see in Hollywood screening rooms.

They do so, according to president Philip Berk, not for purposes of voting on the Golden Globes, but to write stories for their publications abroad. Many of those periodicals are obscure and minor. None of them, according to Berk, will pay for the journalists to leave Los Angeles and get much needed “scoops.” So the HFPA is happy to use its tax free money to fill that gap.

The group’s function is split in two then. Not just screening films for the Golden Globes, but to get the first “exclusive” interview with movie stars like Nicole Kidman and Jude Law for weeklies in Malaysia, Ulaan Bator and Siberia. Apparently, the competition for “gets” is just as tough in far away locales as it is in the West.

Berk says there is a rigorous process to become an HFPA member. But the prospective members, many of whom are elderly and few of whom are full-time journalists, only have to prove they’ve published four articles in the last year in order to qualify for membership in the HFPA.

Berk told me in a far-ranging interview last Friday that the total $600,000 in travel expenses goes to flying HFPA members around the world to press junkets.

Since movie studios usually pick up the tab for junkets, I wondered what he was talking about. Also, every one of the movies unveiled at junkets is screened in Los Angeles and New York many dozens of times before they’re released.

“Don’t you know that junkets are mostly held in New York?” Berk says, a statement refuted by many studio publicists who claim the lion's share is in Los Angeles. “We go to all of them, and to international ones as well. Our members are writing for publications where they’re in competition. We have to get the stories published. We pay our own travel. The studios pay for our hotel accommodation. But they wouldn’t fly every member of the HFPA. All our members are invited.”

One longtime studio publicist confirmed that the HFPA pays their own airfare, but that’s all.

“They’re like everyone else on a junket. We feed them three buffet meals a day. We pay for their hotels.”

The HFPA members also often visit movie sets. “It’s to put us on their radar,” a studio publicist says. “And get in their good graces.”

Case in point: six years ago, one TV studio flew the members to London while a major mini-series was being filmed. The result: the show won the Golden Globe for Best Mini Series or Motion Picture made for TV.

And what of the $59,000 in online research? At first Berk said he didn’t know what I was talking about and consulted someone else in his office for an answer. Then he said that instead of just using free online reference guides like Google, Yahoo and the Internet Movie Database, HFPA members used the costly (and out of date) Baseline and Lexis/Nexis services to do their research. This is so they can be fully prepared for one-on-ones with various Gyllenhaals, Wilsons and Fienneses.

The HFPA, according to publicists, write their own bios for the actors they’re interviewing and hand them out at their press conferences. “But there’s usually something wrong in them,” says a publicist.

“If that’s what it costs, that’s what it costs,” says Berk. “I don’t scrutinize all these expenses.”

Of course, the research for interviews and the junket travel have nothing to do with the Golden Globes. Berk says that part is so the HFPA members can write timely stories for their publications — even though those publications don’t pay expenses for their own journalists.

Since NBC is providing the annual $5 million nut for the HFPA, we can conclude that NBC —perhaps unbeknownst to GE — is footing the bill for international publications so they can get to participate in roundtable discussions with actors and directors.

This may be the greatest act of generosity any network has ever bestowed on writers in the name of international journalism. GE stockholders should be proud. Without the NBC fee, the members of the HFPA would be reduced to simply watching movies in a Los Angeles screening room and writing reviews.

“We need to be at the junkets where other people are given the same interviews. Our publications don’t pay. The only people who pay are distributors. If a distributor in Germany would like to send a member of the HFPA, then they will pay. Not the studio. The magazines can’t afford to pay [to send their journalists to the junkets].”

Berk is adamant about the need for HFPA members to travel extensively. “You know how it works. You know there’s a quid pro quo in a lot of things you do. It’s true we derive benefits because we have the revenue from the Golden Globes. By the same token we create the show. Without our relationship to the studios, the stars and Hollywood, we wouldn’t be able to produce a show like the Golden Globes. This is part of the deal. We attend junkets in New York so when we produce a show in L.A., they will come and show respect to us.”

Tomorrow: Part 2 — Who Is the HFPA?

Short Takes: Altman's Oscar

Famed film director Robert Altman is 81 this year and has no Academy Award. The man who made “MASH,” “Nashville,” “The Player,” “Gosford Park,” “Short Cuts,” “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” and many other classics has four director nominations but no statue.

Now the word at Elaine’s and elsewhere is that the Academy may give him an honorary Oscar this year. This column has begged and pleaded for this for a long time. Altman not having an Oscar is really a disgrace. We can only hope this plan is going forward. The only impediment to Altman actually attending this year’s show is that he’s directing a play in London that opens on March 2, just three days before the festivities…

Dion DiMucci is back. That is, Dion of “Dion and the Belmonts” fame, the man who sang the immortal hits “The Wanderer” and “Runaround Sue.” He has a terrific new album of blues songs out, called “Bronx in Blue,” that I think I’ve listened to maybe 10 times in the last week. Who knew Dion was a blues man? I guess he can do anything. “Walkin’ Blues” and “Crossroads” are standouts, but the whole thing is just genius. Dion never sounded in better voice, either. Don’t hesitate to pick this up immediately…

Last: the break-up of Hilary Swank and Chad Lowe is tabloid fodder, but I’m particularly sad about it. They’re both very nice, and I can tell you from personal experience they were devoted to each other. Show biz marriages are never easy, but the pressure on a young actress with two Best Actress Oscars is tremendous. Chad was always very supportive of Hilary, but you can only imagine the toll taken from living life in a fishbowl. Maybe they can repair their relationship. But this certainly was not one of those fly-by-night, TomKat Hollywood deals. What a shame.