The influence of the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. has rarely been questioned, but some wonder if its hard-earned credibility under current president Philip Berk has been gained at the expense of the organization’s cherished insouciance.
The characteristics that distinguished it in the past — its outsider status, a sense of star-struck wonder, the acknowledgement of artists who would never be given the time of day by the Academy — have been replaced by a respectability that is downright Establishment.
“I think what has happened is they’ve undoubtedly found themselves rising in the hierarchy, because they have gone from being an organization of some fun to a serious, respectable position, or as serious as the Academy,” muses author and film scholar David Thomson. “And that has awed them a little bit, daunted them, and they may have felt that it was time to grow up and pull themselves together.”
Last year, the HFPA broke from the traditional role of Oscar bellwether with a randy streak to one of serious tastemaker more akin to the critics groups. Only two of the Golden Globe nominees in its drama and musical/comedy categories — 10 in all — ended up Academy best picture finalists. And Oscar’s top prizewinner, “Crash,” was nowhere to be found in the Globes’ top five categories.
“All groups change, and I think their complexion has changed,” says veteran awards strategist Tony Angelotti. “Some of the more mature members do behave in some respects like the Academy does, while the younger members are more critics-sensitive.”
Given its apples-and-oranges relationship with the Academy, the latter parallel makes more sense.
“Don’t forget we’re a press organization, too, so we’re kind of critics in our own right,” says 12-year HFPA member Marlene von Arx, who writes for a handful of publications in her native Switzerland.
Adds Angelotti, “I see them moving more toward a New York or L.A. film critics mentality than an Academy mentality — which would mitigate their influence.”
Regardless of Angelotti’s assertion, and whether last year represents an aberration or a period of transition, the HFPA’s 92 members — roughly half the size of the Academy’s cinematography branch — are still, pound for pound, the most influential individuals during that most mercenary time of year, awards season.
In the 43 years since the Golden Globe nominations for best picture were narrowed down from three categories to two (drama, comedy and musical were previously separate, with the latter two combined in 1963), one of the two winners eventually went on to take the Academy’s best picture honor 31 times, or 72% of the time.
Besides nominating five films in last year’s drama category that would fit the traditional indie mold (critical fave “Brokeback Mountain” was anointed the winner), the HFPA drew some flak for categorizing “The Squid and the Whale” and “Pride and Prejudice” as comedies, and the Johnny Cash biopic “Walk the Line” as a musical.
But those who feel the studios carry too much influence in determining the categories — allowing themselves to jockey for position so that certain talents don’t compete with each other — might view HFPA’s independence of such decisions as a healthy practice. After all, what logic was there in Heath Ledger receiving a lead actor nom from the Academy while co-star Jake Gyllenhaal was tapped for supporting? (Neither was in the running for a Globe.)
“I will admit that a lot of these things are gray areas,” says Berk. “For example, Patricia Neal won the best actress Oscar for ‘Hud.’ You’ve got to admit that was a supporting performance (for which she competed at the Globes). Usually, it’s based on the fact that the studios try to manipulate the categories. Our (15-member) committee will sit in judgment of their determinations and ultimately agree or disagree.”
But what ultimately sets the HFPA apart is its diligence in the voting process.
“I think that as we’ve grown in stature, because of the new members we have, people take the job of filling out a nomination ballot very seriously,” Berk says. “Unlike some other groups, the members of the HFPA do attend screenings. As a result, quality rises to the top.”
“They vote having seen 99% of all the films, if not 100%,” adds Nadia Bronson, former longtime marketing and distribution chief of Universal Intl., who now runs her own marketing consulting firm. Bronson calls the HFPA members “the hardest-working journalists in the business.”
Sometimes life gets in the way of seeing everything, at least right away — especially in the movie community, where Academy members are, well, making movies. But for members of the HFPA, seeing movies and writing about them are all part of the same process.
“Because we’re not only invited to screenings, but because of our press conferences, there’s an obligation that if you participate, you do your homework,” Berk says. “Academy members don’t have to write stories. Even critics have to budget their time. They can’t watch every movie. They select one or two titles a week, and we see them all.”
Adds von Arx: “It’s actually funny, every time we ask in an interview, ‘What did you like this year?’ They always say, ‘Oh, I haven’t seen anything, I was making movies.’ And for us, that’s what we do: We watch the movies year-round and think about them and talk about them with people who make them, then write about them.”
Australian journalist Jenny Cooney Carrillo, an 18-year member of the HFPA, acknowledges the increasing parallels between what the HFPA does and the influence of the critics groups.
“We’re not in the industry per se,” she says, “we’re not actors or directors or producers; we’re outsiders. But because we’re journalists, we listen to what other people say about movies. I think anything that gets buzz during Oscar season has to have an impact — even to the point where you watch the screener or not.”
Regardless of whether the HFPA is developing more of a critics’ sensibility, Cooney Carrillo feels the organization is still capable of shaking things up with its nominations.
“There’s always room for surprises with our group,” she says, “and I think every year there are still a few of those — ones that you know are never going to be seen on an Oscar ballot.”
As for the HFPA becoming too establishment or too respectable, it’s a charge the organization will not take lying down.
“The good news is we still come first,” Cooney Carrillo says. “I don’t think we’ve ever tried to be the Oscars, and no one can be the Oscars. We’re sort of like the Oscars’ more fun stepbrother. People appreciate that we make smart choices, but we don’t make them to be politically correct or to suck up to people.”