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Foreign press org draws new blood

As the Globes grow, so do ranks of younger, more active voters

While the growing popularity of the Golden Globes has always afforded Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. members fine access to talent, respect hasn’t always come along with that.

The HFPA has long been accused of having only a handful of members who represent the world’s top daily newspapers, as well as being rife with older members who are barely active — and barely in touch — with the modern film and television businesses. And while the Globes have consistantly proven popular with TV auds, the HFPA’s selections have also come under scrutiny from critics.

Lately, however, perceptions of the org and its awards show have improved significantly.

“As a distributor, certainly we didn’t get everything we were hoping for, but it’s hard to argue with their choices,” says Lions Gate distribution prexy Tom Ortenberg of this year’s Globe noms.

“They’re a much more reputable organization than they have been in the past,” adds a studio marketer. “They’ve always had a PR challenge, because at one time, they were known for being co-opted easily.”

GOLDEN GROWTH

For 62 years, the HFPA’s reputation — and the access its members have enjoyed — has been tied to the Globes.

And as the clout of American films abroad has increased, so has that of the awards, which drew 27 million television viewers last year. The net effect has been golden for those select journalists accepted for HFPA membership, giving them access to stars and behind-the-scenes talent normally available only to journalists from America’s most prestigious news outlets.

The org was founded in 1943 as a means for foreign correspondents to convince the studios to give them interviews. At the time, foreign box office wasn’t seen as terribly important, and founding members thought there might be strength in numbers.

But from the beginning, there have been challenges.

To start, change has always been slow within the HFPA because turnover is low. The org is a collegial group that admits no more than five new members per year, usually less.

Meanwhile, overseas correspondents from the top papers and news services are often posted to assignments for only a few years. But HFPA members are required to be permanent Southern California residents.

Most have U.S. citizenship or green cards, and many live in L.A. for several years before becoming HFPA members.

Other factors have limited the HFPA’s ranks of top foreign journos:

Journalists typically join the HFPA for the access to stars it affords them. But those from prestigious papers in influential territories can often snare interviews by going directly through the studios, so they don’t need the org.

And members are often leery of the competition that new blood brings.

But as the Globes have increased in profile, younger, more professionally active journalists have joined the HFPA. And that has considerably burnished its public profile.

“In the past three years, we’ve accepted many new members,” says org prexy Lorenzo Soria. “I’ve been around for 15 years. There’s been a big change in the profile of the membership.”

WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE?

Members are a widely diverse bunch who cover Hollywood movies and TV, while some also write novels and produce documentaries.

The 89 voting members are all required to submit four press clippings a year verifying that they write about entertainment for an international publication.

While some of the longtime members are semi-retired, they still conscientiously attend screenings and press parties, pressing the flesh with studio brass and occasionally filing pieces overseas.

Many, however, are busy journalists, juggling screenings with press conferences, interviews and writing. Some write for gossip magazines, others for newsweeklies and TV publications. And a few write for well-known dailies, while several others are primarily photographers.

Soria staunchly defends the outlets his constituents work for. “We do have some important and recognized outlets in the world. We also have some smaller ones from smaller countries, and we don’t feel embarrassed by that,” he says.

Some members devote a large part of their time to keeping the association running smoothly, such as executive secretary Munawar Hosain, who contributes photos to American wire services and writes for publications in his native Bangladesh.

While foreign publications have better access to talent than ever before because of the increase in foreign box office, the access afforded by HFPA membership makes the job much easier — to a point.

“The organization helps a lot, having interviews scheduled for you,” says Alessandra Venezia, who adds that she also schedules a substantial number of interviews without the org’s help for pubs such as Italian Vogue. “There are five or six Italian journalists — we can’t all end up with the same material.”

Some territories, including Germany and Italy, are heavily represented by the org. Venezia, for example, writes for Panorama, Italy’s biggest newsweekly.

Italian colleague Soria writes for La Stampa, a top daily paper, and Silvia Bizio writes for both popular daily La Reppublica and an important weekly, L’espresso.

Paoula Abou Jaoude, a TV reporter for Brazil’s Telecine, is impressed with the amount of time members get with their subjects. “It’s about having 45 minutes with Martin Scorsese instead of three minutes at a junket — it’s like having a lecture in cinema with this important filmmaker,” she says.

Portugal’s Rui Coimbra, meanwhile, says HFPA membership is important for a correspondent from a smaller territory.

“It helps a lot. The studio might invite 20 people from the German or Japanese press, but no Portuguese,” he explains. “With the HFPA, we have access to everything.”

Coimbra also finds it useful to travel to major film fests such as Toronto. Members can attend two fests a year at the org’s expense, a luxury many freelancers aren’t able to afford.

Despite the Golden Globes’ inclusion of TV awards, members tend to do far less TV coverage than film coverage. Lately, many European countries have started relying more on local programming, although there is usually some American approach that interests celeb-hungry fans.

Venezia says the Italians are fascinated with phenoms like “The OC,” “The L Word” and “Desperate Housewives.” For some of these shows, the HFPA was able to assemble group interviews with several cast members, making the interview process much easier.

“It’s good that we have an organization where everybody has the same goal,” says von Arx. “We can speak with one voice to the studios.”

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