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Why the Golden Globes are ​often​ accused of corruption, explained (by Denzel Washington)

Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The poorly kept secret of the Golden Globes is that they can be bought.

Voted on by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, the awards are famous for the lengths to which studios will go to woo the group's membership — which usually numbers around 90. The most famous incident involved young actress Pia Zadora, who won an award in 1982 amid accusations that her husband had paid for it with an elaborate promotional campaign.

In accepting the Cecil B. DeMille Award for career achievement during Sunday's ceremony, Denzel Washington told a terrific story about something he'd been told by Freddie Fields, the producer of Glory, for which Washington won his first Golden Globe (and his first Oscar):

Some of you may know Freddie Fields. He invited me to the first Hollywood Foreign Press luncheon. He said they are gonna watch the movie. We are gonna feed them. They are gonna come over. You gonna take pictures with everybody. You are gonna hold the magazines, take the pictures, and you're gonna win the award.

[Audience laughter.]

I won that year.

As Washington's later Oscar win for Glory shows, the Globes are often important Oscar precursors, setting the conversation for who the "frontrunners" are, leading to either an Oscar coronation or some sort of backlash.

That has become less true in recent years, as the Oscars have moved up their airdate to avoid influence. The two used to air two months (or more) apart, but now air closer to six weeks apart. Oscar nominations also used to be heavily influenced by Globe winners — but Oscar ballots have already been turned in and, thus, can't be swayed by the Globes' winners. But this system isn't foolproof.

That explains why studios work the HFPA so much. It's a much easier organization to woo than the 6,291-member-strong Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which votes on the Oscars. (AMPAS also has stricter rules about campaigning.)

As my colleague Caroline Framke points out in this piece on the HFPA's role within awards season, the organization's small membership gives it enormous, outsized importance.

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 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 7,000 — which is what makes the HFPA so powerful, and sometimes, so utterly random.