Prexy to ‘stay course’

South Africa native's 30-year presence at HFPA has been a constant, but change in his fifth go-round as topper won't be

If a few things had gone differently, Philip Berk might now be one of the powerhouses of southern African filmmaking.

Like the offspring of many financially comfortable families — Berk’s Russian Jewish family created one of South Africa’s largest liquor businesses — he wanted to get into the movie biz from a young age. At 18, Berk got a job with the government’s newly formed Central African Film Unit. Soon he was helming pics all over Rhodesia and Nyasaland — or Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi, as the region is called today.

The HFPA prexy, who just took over from Lorenzo Soria, recounts this during a recent lunch at Morton’s. Seated in a booth, Berk looks like the San Fernando Valley high school English teacher he once was. He’s wearing a blue suit that could be called “functional,” with a tie from a not-too-current era. He speaks in an unusually soft voice with an accent most Americans would call “vaguely British.”

Though the HFPA’s headquarters are only a block away, Berk says he rarely dines at Morton’s or any of the top-tier restaurants in the neighborhood. He doesn’t recognize Sid Sheinberg, or Edie Wasserman with Gil Cates, at nearby tables.

To make a long story short, Berk left South Africa — and his film career there — to attend UCLA’s film school from 1952 to 1955. A career in Hollywood didn’t pan out, however. He returned to South Africa, where his liberal views didn’t jibe with the political climate.

Back in L.A. with his American wife, he started doing syndicated interviews while teaching.

A colleague asked if he’d like to join the HFPA, and Berk has been a member since 1975. This is his fifth go-round as org prexy. The job pays $56,000 (a comparable position at one of the entertainment academies would pay, at a minimum, five times as much).

Don’t look for Berk to make radical changes at the HFPA. He says his intentions are to “stay the course — we’re doing all the right things for the right reasons.”

As an example, when asked about the annual complaints from agents about not receiving enough tickets for the Golden Globes, Berk says they’re not getting any more this year, either.

“We know the agencies are powerful, but we have never received a presenter from an agency,” Berk explains. “They don’t have that power. The clout comes from the publicists and the studios. I’d love to give the agencies each a table, but there’s no way we can accommodate them. What we’ve done is give them a table somewhere in the back where we give three seats to each of four agencies.”

There are two things to be learned from this. First, Berk might speak softly but there’s a big stick lying around somewhere; and second, he sees lining up Globe presenters as critical to the kudocast’s success.

Presenter wrangling is his specialty at the HFPA, and he’s blunt about its importance.

“The presenters are what we can bring to the table,” Berk says. “It’s something the Dick Clark company can’t produce.”

This brings up the contractual relationship between the HFPA and Globes producer Dick Clark Prods., which runs until 2011. After splitting the show’s production expenses, the two divide NBC’s license fee and share other lesser revenue from international sales, red carpet setups and sponsorships.

According to the HFPA’s most recent tax return, the org grossed $5.6 million from the 2005 telecast. Subtracted from this would be roughly $1.5 million as half the telecast’s estimated $3 million cost. (This would be a high-end estimate — the show is not exactly the Oscars in terms of production values.) That adds up to the HFPA netting about $4 million, with an equal amount going to Dick Clark.

Berk doesn’t dispute that Clark has an unusually generous production deal — the motion picture, television and recording academies produce their own shows, so there’s no splitting the income.

But he defends the status quo … to a point.

On one hand, the org has a long history with Clark, who, Berk notes, stuck with the HFPA after CBS dropped the Globes in 1983.

On the other hand, “In the 1980s and mid-’90s, we were not as sophisticated as we should have been,” he says. “We had the top legal advisers, and they either misled us or didn’t recognize we were in a position to have a more favorable deal. Unfortunately, this is history.”

Though there won’t be any change soon with Dick Clark, Berk says he’d like to make some minor tweaks to the kudocast.

“I’d like the audience to see more of the presenter from when they’re first introduced until they announce the nominations,” says Berk. “I feel the Academy capitalizes on the glamour of the people and we seem to miss the boat.”

One big change occurring this year was out of Berk’s hands: switching the kudocast’s date from Sunday to Monday. This decision was made by NBC in the wake of 2005’s less-than-stellar ratings, which were blamed on competing against ABC’s “Desperate Housewives.”

Though Berk is worried about possible traffic problems, he’s confident that having Globe night fall on the Martin Luther King holiday will alleviate some of the congestion.

Plus he has faith in his network patron. “NBC pushed for Monday,” says Berk, “and they can count numbers better than you and me.”

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