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The case against caring about the Golden Globes

They’re a punchline for a good reason.

A sign announcing the Golden Globe Awards.
The 78th Golden Globes take place on February 28, 2021, and they’re going to be as weird as ever.
Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images

The goofiest major entertainment industry awards show — the Golden Globes — is once again upon us. This year they feel even weirder than usual.

The ceremony is normally in January, but the 2021 edition was postponed for two months to keep pace with the Globes’ desire to influence Oscar voters, whose 2021 ceremony was also postponed for two months due to the pandemic. Hosts Amy Poehler and Tina Fey are splitting duties from opposite coasts. And since it’s not safe to gather a ton of people inside one theater, none of the traditional open-bar chaos will ensue, though that’s no guarantee that people won’t be getting sloppy on their webcams.

The Golden Globes can be fun to watch, but that doesn’t erase the fact that they’re — well, let’s not sugarcoat it. They’re super annoying. Recent news has underlined the many reasons why: They’re corrupt, the organization that gives them out is pretty shady, and the nominations are frequently so off-the-wall that people usually spend more time arguing about them than consulting them as a helpful guide for catch-up viewing. In terms of honors, they mean very little, but we keep talking about them every year mainly because they air on TV.

So if you catch a critic or an awards-season watcher rolling their eyes at the mention of the Golden Globes this weekend, don’t be too surprised. Here are a few reasons the whole shebang can get under the skin of people who care about movies and TV, and why you shouldn’t take snubs on Globes night too seriously.

Stage with a hand sanitizer station in front of it.
This year’s Golden Globes ceremony is being telecast live from New York and Los Angeles. The stage (this one in New York’s Rainbow Room) looks a little different.
Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images

The organization that gives out the Golden Globes is secretive and very small

The Golden Globes are given out by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA), a group that was formed in 1943 with the following as their stated purpose: to “formalize their relationship with the studios and facilitate their work of interviewing movie stars and film directors for publications around the world.”

Today there are 87 people in the group (none of whom are Black), though they don’t publish their membership list and journalists have to investigate to figure out who is currently involved. The qualifications for admission seem simple on the surface: You have to be a journalist who lives in Southern California and covers Hollywood for a non-American publication. But not everyone in the HFPA really fits those qualifications, as a 2015 Vulture investigation found, as did a more recent Los Angeles Times investigation. Some members are full-time journalists at high-profile publications; others are actors, producers, and socialites.

But as with any group, there are other rules that are more opaque, and just meeting the criteria doesn’t ensure you’ll get in, as Norwegian entertainment journalist Kjersti Flaa discovered. She sued the HFPA in 2020, claiming that it embodied a “culture of corruption.” A federal judge dismissed the suit in November, though the Los Angeles Times reported on February 21 that the suit spurred some current members to voice concern about the group’s corruption. (More on that in a moment.)

A big red carpet covered in press and celebrities.
The red carpet at the Golden Globes in 2020.
P. Lehman/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

It’s worth noting that the HFPA is hardly the only group of journalists that gives out awards within the entertainment industry. I belong to two groups (the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics) that honor films. There are dozens more for both TV and film. Some of those awards are considered quite prestigious. But none of them pop up in the consciousness of the average American the way the Golden Globes do, for one big reason: They’re not presented on TV.

The organization that gives out the Golden Globes is also corrupt

The Golden Globes’ TV slot is a big reason the awards loom large in the cultural imagination. The show has aired on television for decades, but the telecast really grew in 1995, when it moved from TBS (a cable station) to NBC (a broadcast network), where it now airs annually. And according to the Los Angeles Times, NBC pays a lot for that privilege:

The HFPA’s contract with NBC has ballooned in recent years. Last fiscal year, the organization pulled in $27.4 million from the network, up from $3.64 million in fiscal 2016-2017, according to a budget document. As of the end of October, the HFPA had just over $50 million in cash on hand, internal financial documents show.

The LA Times also found that while the HFPA uses some of the money it collects from NBC for philanthropic purposes, the organization also earmarks a lot of it to pay its members for serving on various committees, as well as to pay its board:

Two dozen members on the foreign film viewing committee in January each received $3,465 to watch foreign films, according to a monthly treasurer’s report. There is a travel committee that pays those on it $2,310 a month to control the budget and approve membership excursions (despite the pandemic-era halt on travel, payments continued throughout 2020). Members of the film festival committee and the archives committee earn $1,100 and $2,200 a month, respectively. Former presidents and other members are paid $1,000 a month to serve on the history committee. ...

Additionally, members received a total of $585,000 in the fiscal year ending June 2020 for contributing articles to the HFPA’s website and doing other web-related jobs, more than double the level from four years earlier. Members who moderate news conferences receive $1,200 a month to do so, according to a monthly treasurer’s report.

“The website has become an extremely important source to generate income,” said one current member. “If you write eight articles, you can get close to $3,000 a month. But if you spend any time on the website, it’s not that impressive.”

This sort of arrangement is, to put it mildly, very unusual.

It’s worth reading the full, deeply reported LA Times article, which goes into far more detail and helps paint a picture of how much money the group pays to itself. Journalist Mark Harris summarized the circumstances succinctly on Twitter as most Golden Globes voters being “indirectly compensated employees of NBC”:

However, the big paycheck that NBC hands over to the Globes, while unusual, is not necessarily the most ethically dubious part of the awards. The bigger issue — which is the most wide-open of Hollywood secrets — is that HFPA members are routinely courted by studios with lavish gifts. Hollywood’s celebrities have often noted this publicly, as Vox’s Emily VanDerWerff noted in 2016, when actor Denzel Washington discussed this practice onstage at the Globes themselves while accepting the Cecil B. DeMille lifetime achievement award:

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.

Other stories abound. Here is just one: In 1999, HFPA members were given 82 Coach watches, valued at more than $400 apiece, as part of a promotional campaign for Sharon Stone’s performance in The Muse. (Stone was nominated but didn’t win.) The LA Times noted that in 2011, the group’s publicist “filed a lawsuit alleging that members accepted money, vacations, gifts and a host of perks ‘provided by studios and producers in exchange for support or votes in nominating or awarding a particular film’”; he also alleged that members were selling red-carpet access to media.

And even those who receive the awards often know there’s something fishy going on. In a 2014 interview with Playboy, Gary Oldman said that the Globes are “a meaningless event,” and that “the Hollywood Foreign Press Association is kidding you that something’s happening. They’re fucking ridiculous. There’s nothing going on at all. It’s 90 nobodies having a wank.”

In 2018, he thanked the HFPA as he accepted an award for his performance in Darkest Hour.

Comedian Ricky Gervais, who hosted the awards from 2010 to 2012 and insulted all kinds of people in the process, has also weighed in — in 2012, when he decided to insult the Globes, too:

For any of you who don’t know, the Golden Globes are just like the Oscars, but without all that esteem. The Golden Globes are to the Oscars what Kim Kardashian is to Kate Middleton. A bit louder, a bit trashier, a bit drunker, and more easily bought. Allegedly. Nothing’s been proved.

The HFPA’s membership and corruptness help explain why the Golden Globe nominations are frequently bizarre

The nominations for the Netflix show Emily in Paris, one for Best Comedy or Musical TV Show and one for its star, Lily Collins, are a couple of the biggest 2021 Globe head-scratchers. The show was a popular binge-watch for a pandemic-weary audience, who catapulted it onto the top 10 most-streamed Nielsen list in October, but it was barely tolerated by critics and, if you tracked its reception on social media, you know a sizable swath of the audience watched just to make fun of it. Even if you liked Emily in Paris, it was hard to deny the show was little more than vapid, amusing trash. (Naturally, it’s already been renewed for a second season.)

So how did it nab nominations for a technically prestigious award? The LA Times was once again on the case:

In 2019, more than 30 HFPA members flew to France to visit the set of the new series “Emily in Paris.” While there, Paramount Network [which produced the show and then sold it to Netflix] treated the group to a two-night stay at the five-star Peninsula Paris hotel, where rooms currently start at about $1,400 a night, and a news conference and lunch at the Musée des Arts Forains, a private museum filled with amusement rides dating to 1850 where the show was shooting.

“They treated us like kings and queens,” said one member who participated in the set visit.

Ah.

Now, it is true that a small group of voters is more likely to swing toward idiosyncratic left-field picks than a larger and more diverse group might.

It’s also true that studios find ways to butter up voters all over the industry, appealing to everyone from guilds to larger critics’ groups to the Motion Picture Academy and the TV Academy, often through cocktail parties and fancy meet-and-greets.

Netflix’s Emily in Paris
Lily Collins in Emily in Paris.
Stephanie Branchu/Netflix

But it’s also true that there’s a specific reason the HFPA is targeted with particularly lavish gifts, the likes of which most awards voters can only dream of (or scoff at) receiving. There just aren’t a lot of people in the HFPA. So it’s easier to target them with fancy gifts than, say, the nearly 10,000 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, who give out the Oscars, or the roughly 25,000 members of the TV Academy.

And that’s particularly important when it comes to films. One reason the Globes retain clout is that they’re timed to happen within a few days of when the Oscar nomination voting window opens. In 2021, the Golden Globes are on February 28; Oscar voters will begin submitting their nominations ballots on March 5. (The Emmys are in September, so the effect is less direct, though a Globes win certainly can contribute to a network executive’s decision to renew a show for another season.)

As I’ve written in the past, there’s an incentive to win a Globe because it might raise the profile of a film in the mind of an Academy voter ahead of the Oscars:

While the Golden Globes aren’t established “predictors” for the Oscars, they can still influence the Oscars. A surprise win at the Globes, if it inspires enough Academy members to watch a film they haven’t yet seen, or to reconsider a film or performance they had forgotten about, could give a film the extra nudge it needs.

And a good speech from a winner could function as a de facto audition for an Oscar night speech. (A bad one might have the opposite effect.)

So lavishing gifts upon the HFPA can have an effect on a film’s Oscar chances, and as long as awards campaigns function like political campaigns, studios will keep employing teams of publicists to woo voters and boost profiles.

The Golden Globes are out of step with the entertainment industry at large

The insularity of the HFPA, the barely-secret-almost-bribes, the many other allegations of corruption — all of this combines to make for a strange set of nominations and awards. But it also means the Globes are fundamentally out of step with the entertainment industry at large. That is particularly noticeable in 2021.

In 2020, many of the year’s best films told stories about Black people, and were often written and directed by Black artists. But as the New York Times noted, those were largely absent from the nominees:

In a marquee year for Black ensemble films like “One Night in Miami,” “Da 5 Bloods,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “Judas and the Black Messiah,” the Golden Globes picked absolutely none of them for the best-drama final five, instead selecting “Nomadland,” “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” “The Father,” “Mank” and “Promising Young Woman.” (The same five movies were nominated in the screenplay category, too.) Though “One Night in Miami” scored a director nomination for Regina King, and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” and “Judas and the Black Messiah” earned key acting nominations, their exclusion from the top category is still eyebrow-raising.

Even more bizarrely, Spike Lee, whose children Satchel and Jackson are serving as this year’s “Golden Globes ambassadors” (meaning they will assist in the ceremony and raise awareness around social justice causes) did not earn any nominations for his highly praised film Da 5 Bloods, which has been earning awards both for its performances and the film overall from critics and industry guilds.

76th Annual Golden Globe Awards - Arrivals
Spike Lee and Tonya Lewis Lee at the 2019 Golden Globes.
Steve Granitz/WireImage

Similarly, the film Minari — a highly lauded drama about a Korean-American family that was written and directed by an American (Lee Isaac Chung), financed by an American company (A24), and is set in the Ozarks — was scuttled into the Best Foreign Language Film category instead of competing in the Best Drama category, typically a more sure pipeline to a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars. Its actors didn’t earn any nominations.

But Music, the widely disparaged, criticized, and just plain bad musical directed by Sia, earned two nominations, one for the overall film in the Best Comedy or Musical category and one for lead actress Kate Hudson. It seems deeply unlikely that Music will show up in the big categories at the Oscars, because as middle-of-the-road as the Academy’s taste sometimes is, its voters only rarely nominate something quite as terrible as Music. (Rarely.)

That’s not to say that idiosyncratic picks are bad. Nor does it mean that all awards-giving bodies ought to nominate the same films — that would make awards season extraordinarily boring.

But the problem is that the Golden Globes are seen as a prominent honor that actually says something about the best the entertainment industry has to offer. And it’s shown, for decades, that it simply doesn’t deserve that reputation.

If the goal is to inject some variety and spice into awards season, there are more interesting options. Guilds like the Screen Actors Guild and the Writers Guild give out their own awards, and the results sometimes highlight films that are otherwise missed. The Independent Spirit Awards, which are usually presented the night before the Oscars, are always fun; the Gotham Awards, which happen in December and whose eligibility requirements place restrictions on the production budget of the winners, frequently highlight movies and shows that otherwise may have been missed.

But the main reason anyone talks about the Golden Globes is that the awards are on TV, and the main reason the awards are on TV is that people keep talking about them. As a piece of entertainment, they’re always strange, weird, pretty harmless fun. But if you want to be directed to the best that TV and movies have to offer, look elsewhere.

The 78th Golden Globe Awards will air on NBC on February 28 at 8 pm ET.