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The Golden Globes and the controversial group ​that decides the awards, explained

Who decides on the awards, and why does it matter?

Golden Globes award statues.
Where did you come from, Golden Globes?!
Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

The Golden Globes — the trendy, tipsy cousin of more "prestigious" awards shows like the Oscars and the Emmys — has been handing out shiny trophies to movies and television series for the past 74 years. It's one of the more unpredictable ceremonies to grace awards season, thanks to its tendency to honor even slightly less traditional works than the Oscars or the Emmys, as well as its open bar.

But when Golden Globe winners thank the Hollywood Foreign Press Association in their acceptance speeches, who, exactly, are they talking about? And why? What is this mysterious organization that hands out Golden Globes, and how does it affect awards season as a whole?

What is the Hollywood Foreign Press Association?

The Hollywood Foreign Press Association's biggest claim to fame is that it founded the Golden Globe Awards; its members are the voting body that determines the winners. The organization is currently made up of about 90 foreign journalists — and membership never surpasses 100 people total — which means the Globes are overseen by an extremely small number of people, relatively speaking. To understand just how small, consider that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, whose members votes on the Oscars, currently has nearly 7,000 members.

In order to be considered for membership to the HFPA, you must:

  • Work for a foreign publication but be based in Southern California.
  • Publish at least four articles in a foreign publication within the year preceding your application. This opens the door for both freelancers and full-time employees to apply. Applications are accepted annually in February and March.
  • Provide proof of payment for these articles and a "letter of appointment as a Hollywood correspondent from a foreign publication of recognized standing, published outside the continental United States."
  • Pay a $500 initiation fee.

When the HFPA was formed as the Hollywood Foreign Correspondents Association in 1943, its members' primary goal was to "formalize their relationship with the studios and facilitate their work of interviewing movie stars and film directors for publications around the world." Basically, foreign journalists in Southern California weren't getting the same attention as local journalists, and they definitely weren't getting the access to "movie stars and film directors" that they wanted.

The first Golden Globe Awards was held in 1944 as an "informal luncheon" — a far cry from the sparkly festivities you'll see in 2016.

So who actually votes for the Golden Globes?

The current president of the HFPA is Lorenzo Soria, an Italian journalist who writes for L'Espresso and La Stampa. The HFPA tries to keep a tight lid on its membership roster, and thus does not publish a list on its official website.

However, in 2015, Vulture compiled a comprehensive list of active HFPA members, which reveals that they hail from Brazil, Italy, Germany, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Egypt, Canada, and more.

Some of the HFPA journalists work for more prominent foreign publications, like Silvio Bizio, who writes for Italy's La Repubblica; Aud Berggren Morisse, who has written for the Norwegian paper Verdens Gang since 1992; and Jean-Paul Chaillet, who joined the HFPA while at the French film magazine Première before moving on to the daily newspaper Le Figaro.

Other HFPA members ... well, they're more, in the words of news and technology site Vocativ, "total randos." Indian member Noel Souza once played Gandhi on Star Trek: Voyager. I couldn't track down any published work by Spanish member Paz Mata, though she is quoted in this 2011 Variety article about the HFPA. Russian member Alexander Nevsky (real name Sasha Kuritsyn) is a bodybuilder who joined the HFPA because, to quote the Hollywood Reporter, he was "just plain curious."

With fewer than 100 voters to woo, film and TV stars and studios have a much smaller target to hit when promoting the projects they hope to see rewarded.

The HFPA has often been accused of letting fame and favors help determine its award winners

The HFPA, with its relatively loose membership qualifications and small voting pool, sometimes faces stark accusations of letting glitz and glamour sway its decisions.

In a furious 2010 editorial for the Toronto Star, Peter Howell alleged that HFPA members routinely steal time from other journalists at press events:

At the press junket for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button in December 2008, journalists who had flown to Los Angeles from around the world had to make do with interviews from secondary stars of the film, because stars Pitt, Cate Blanchett and director David Fincher were spending all their time currying HFPA favours.

A few years later, in 2014, former HFPA president Philip Berk took a "leave of absence" from the organization after he published his memoir, which directly stated that the HFPA let more than just performances dictate Golden Globes nominations and votes. "Nicole Kidman but not her costar Dustin Hoffman did an interview for ‘Billy Bathgate,' and it paid off," he wrote. "[Kidman] was nominated; he was not."

But whatever accusations you want to throw at the HFPA, the fact of the matter is that there's no such thing as an impartial voting body. Opinions are subjective. The key thing to note with regard to the Golden Globes is that any given member of the HFPA has way more power to affect results than any given member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, just by virtue of there only being 90.

Some HFPA members have earned a reputation among those cynical of awards circuits — and especially the Golden Globes — for using social media to brag about the famous actors they're meeting rather than to discuss the work they're doing. Part of this can be attributed to the fact that most HFPA members don't write for American publications, but it is true that some HFPA members like to showcase their close proximity to the rich and famous.

Apropos of nothing, here's South African member Margaret Gardiner (who before joining the HFPA was Miss Universe in 1978) posing with Blindspot's Jaimie Alexander.

And here is Hans J. Spürkel, who writes for publications in Austria and Switzerland, with his best friend, Beyoncé:

To be fair, though, if I had a picture with Beyoncé, I'd probably pay to have it plastered on a billboard.

Is the HFPA's relatively small voting bloc the reason the Golden Globes are so unpredictable?

In a word: yes.

Movies and especially television series that lie outside the safe or more obvious choices have a better shot at earning awards recognition if they appeal to the 90-member HFPA, as opposed to the larger governing bodies behind the Emmys and the Oscars. In any case, because so few people make up its ranks, each member of the HFPA carries considerable power, at least as far as Golden Globe winners are concerned. Cumulative votes matter, of course, but one vote out of 90 carries much more weight than one vote out of almost 7,000 — which is what makes the HFPA so powerful and, sometimes, so utterly random.

Where the Emmys tend to honor the same shows over and over again (see: Frasier and Modern Family, which in their respective heydays racked up five consecutive wins each for Outstanding Comedy Series), the Golden Globes tend to vacillate wildly from year to year, especially recently. While All in the Family and Golden Girls each won three consecutive Golden Globes for Best Comedy back in their day, the only comedy series of the past 15 years to win back-to-back titles is Glee (2009 and 2010).

The Globes did reward Modern Family once, at the 2012 ceremony, but otherwise the winner has changed every year since, ranging from Girls (2013) to Brooklyn Nine-Nine (2014) to Transparent (2015). Meanwhile, regarding the 2016 ceremony, streaming platforms Hulu and Amazon have broken through in a big way, garnering Best Comedy nominations for Casual and Mozart in the Jungle, respectively.

Again: If a lesser-known TV show or a network in want of recognition hopes to make its presence known in the industry, its best bet is to hit up the 90 members of the HFPA for a Golden Globe.

As far as movies go, the Golden Globes aren't necessarily predictive of the Oscars, but they can sometimes open the door for films that Oscar voters might've otherwise overlooked. Last year, The Big Short earned an unexpected four Golden Globe nominations on par with movies like Carol and Steve Jobs — despite just coming out the December before with far less awards buzz.

So when the winners are called at the 2017 Golden Globes, remember this: The results either mean everything or they mean nothing at all.

Correction: This article originally stated that Peter Howell writes for the Toronto Sun;  he writes for the Toronto Star.

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