Inside the Battle to Save the Golden Globes, as Publicists Eat Their Own and NBC Waits (EXCLUSIVE)

A bonfire of vanities is blazing around the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, as the mid-year mark approaches and discussions intensify over the fate of the 2023 Golden Globe Awards. Will the first big stop of awards season make a triumphant return in January? Or will NBC refuse to air the show, and ice out millions of viewers looking to see tipsy celebrities accept their prizes?

When the Globes were boycotted last year after a Los Angeles Times expose revealed that the HFPA — the group of international journalists who vote for the winners — didn’t have a single Black member, it was framed as a one-time punishment. But now that the organization (composed of 98 active and 3 emeritus members) has been knocked down, not everyone in Hollywood wants to help them get back on their feet.

In recent weeks, HFPA leaders have been on a “roadshow” of meetings with the major studios and networks to make the case that the they’ve achieved substantial reforms in the 17 months since the tailspin began. The group, led by president Helen Hoehne, has continued to experience gridlock and pushback, according to interviews with more than two dozen insiders. These sources say NBC hasn’t made a decision to bring back the live show, in part because some personal publicists — those who represent the talent that are vital to the event’s success — are still not satisfied with the progress they’ve seen. Chief among the faction of those unimpressed reps is ID Public Relations co-founder and CEO Kelly Bush Novak, whose client list includes Christopher Nolan, Javier Bardem and Kathryn Bigelow,

“I have indeed been a passionate advocate for change within the HFPA, alongside scores of agencies, representatives and clients who envision a re-imagined organization that equitably reflects our industry and the artists we represent,” Novak wrote in a statement to Variety. “The efforts of the HFPA have been widely documented and it behooves us all to remain engaged in supporting (and when necessary, questioning) their process. Our common goal will undoubtedly benefit the artistic and wider community. I”m optimistic.”

Last year, Time’s Up issued a mandate of guidelines for the HFPA, which included expanding its membership to 300 and asking all the current members to reapply. Given that Time’s Up imploded in the summer of 2021 after its CEO, Tina Tchen, was revealed to be advising New York governor Andrew Cuomo on his own sexual harassment scandal, the policing of those mandates have lessened. The personal publicists have taken up the mantle.

As of now, the HFPA has only added 21 new members, though one knowledgeable source says interim CEO Todd Boehly is considering a pool of non-member voters from the industry at large that would help the group grow its voting body.

But the publicists have splintered into two factions, those that want to bring the Globes back and those completely indifferent to its survival. As talks have stalled, Variety has learned that Slate PR co-founder Simon Halls is among those offering to be a liaison between the reps, talent community and the HFPA in hopes of smoothing things over and helping the show return. He is among a large group of Hollywood insiders that sees the awards show as added value in marketing non-superhero movies and helping new talent gain momentum. Halls represents Ryan Murphy, Greg Berlanti, Ang Lee, Amy Pascal and the Duffer Brothers. He declined to offer comment for this story.

Nevertheless, the process has gotten heated, to say the least. The question of whether or not the Globes should come back has caused in-fighting and bickering among the publicists, a group known for expert spin and taking catty swings against their opponents. Those who are siding with the Globes are being called sell-outs, while those who are trying to block the show are being labeled as petty and power hungry.

Ironically, many insiders noted, all the chatter about the Globes and its place in Hollywood has clouded the issue about making sure these institutions are inclusive. That’s taken a back seat to the latest tugs of war.

After an unproductive April meeting with some of the talent reps, sources told Variety that NBC has ordered the HFPA to shore up support from the studios and TV networks – and guarantee that the red carpet will be filled with A-list names. In these meetings, the HFPA has argued that a return to a regular Golden Globe Awards cycle, with the ceremony airing live on NBC in early January, is good for the industry. They note that the exposure these films and shows receive on the popular telecast boosts box office returns and viewership.

As the waiting game continues, leadership from Netflix, Amazon, and Disney have signaled their support for bringing back the Globes. But none of these players have been willing to say anything publicly. Netflix declined to comment. Disney did not immediately return a request for comment.

“Like the rest of the industry, we’ve been having ongoing conversations with the HFPA, but no final decisions have been made,” an Amazon spokesperson said.

Meanwhile, the HFPA and NBC have been locked in a staring contest, each waiting for the other to blink as they continue discussions about whether the telecast can proceed. The clock is ticking, though, as the Globes’ traditional submission process typically begins in July. Making matters even more confusing: Some talent and studios have already broken the boycott. In June, Mark Wahlberg sat for an exclusive HFPA interview to promote his Sony Pictures release “Father Stu,” which was published to the HFPA’s YouTube channel and branded with a Golden Globes graphic in the upper right corner of the frame.

There seems to be a Catch-22 as the talks drag out. HFPA leaders are pushing NBC to announce that the telecast is back on as a means of ensuring that top stars will attend the event — knowing they will turn up to the Globes if they get to campaign for an Oscar in front of a live TV audience. NBC is countering by telling HFPA leaders they need to deliver public demonstrations of industry support before the network goes out on a limb with an endorsement. Sources close to the situation also say there has been no discussion of carrying the Globes on a different NBCUniversal platform such as Peacock. It’s NBC or bust.

An NBCUniversal spokesperson declined to comment.

“The HFPA has always maintained close communications with its studio, streamer and distributor partners. We keep them apprised of all our activities, including those related to the Golden Globes and the success of our ongoing reform efforts and institutional changes,” an HPFA spokesperson told Variety. “All discussions in regards to NBC are confidential and we are not at liberty to discuss them, but we remain confident the 80th Golden Globes will be a historic and memorable event.”

The HFPA started working with the NAACP last year (that group declined to comment on the matter). in addition to the meetings with awards specialists and creative executives at most major media companies, four individuals with knowledge of the meetings said, the group has also asked to meet with corporate diversity, equity and inclusion officers at these companies to prove they’ve overhauled their culture. They’ve also shared information about the efforts they have made to implement clearer codes of conduct that could prevent ethical lapses by its members.

The group has for decades been accused of impropriety as well as misconduct towards talent, industry folks and prospective members. HFPA members have been called out for accepting lavish movie set visits and selling their allotted  ceremony tickets to top-paying bidders. In 2016, the entire voting body was forced to return a gift set of Tom Ford fragrances, swag sent by designer in support of his film “Nocturnal Animals” (Aaron Taylor Johnson, who plays a shirtless murderer in the film, went on to win best supporting actor in a drama). In 2019, Beyonce collaborator and “Queen and Slim” helmer Melina Matsoukas told Variety that the HFPA members refused to attend screenings for her film, which was subsequently snubbed of any nominations. (It also failed to garner any love from the Oscars.) Jada Pinkett Smith shared a similar sentiment around the 2017 film “Girls Trip,” saying her costar Tiffany Haddish deserved more recognition for her breakout role but the voters would not show up to screenings.

If the Globes are to return, they will need a broadcast partner. The final decision to bring back to the Globes rests ultimately with NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell, though direct purview is with Susan Rovner, chairman of entertainment content for TV and streaming,  and entertainment networks chairman Frances Berwick. According to sources, the triumvirate is said to be nervous about looking too eager to get the show back on the air, especially if talent decides to sit out the festivities again. Sources close to the situation say there may well be other hurdles between the HFPA and NBC if there are any lingering contractual disputes after NBC bowed out of the 2022 telecast.

The HFPA has tried to galvanize its supporters. Over a dozen recipients of the group’s annual grants – which include independent film festivals and amnesty groups representing marginalized communities – wrote an open letter to NBCUniversal Chief Diversity Officer Craig Robinson and heads of business affairs in early May, pleading with the network to let the show return to air. Unprompted by the HFPA, several signatories to the letter told Variety on the condition of anonymity, they applauded moves like the HFPA’s preservation of historic films and financial support of journalists on the ground reporting from Ukraine. They also acknowledged the group’s past shortcomings.

In conversations with a dozen people intimately familiar with the alliance of publicists demanding change from the HFPA, the consistent sentiment is that the group has not yet demonstrated meaningful progress – and that its membership remains stacked with people from the previous regime. Other publicists think steps have been taken. That’s a view shared by the HFPA itself, which provided Variety with a six-page document listing new practices and policies that have been implemented since the fallout.

These include DEI training, the hiring of independent advisors and consultants that includes the NAACP partnership, the installation of a 24/7 hotline to report misconduct (“Who is monitoring that?” one top talent rep wondered), and the addition of 21 new members that immediately gained voting power for the awards. The new members identify as follows: 48% as women, 29% as Black, 24% as Asian, 29% as Latino, 19% as Middle Eastern or North African.

For now, much of the chatter around town about the Globes is still focused on the organization’s continued impasse with Novak. The two parties remain cold toward one another. Many insiders Variety spoke with called Novak a fierce advocate for nonwhite industry professionals and talent. While Novak believes taking on the Globes is the right thing to do, others noted that her HFPA crusade was conveniently timed alongside her candidacy for a seat on the board of governors at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the governing body of the Oscars).

The Academy announced its new board on Wednesday, and the seat Novak campaigned for went to IMAX president Megan Colligan. Those close to Novak deny her AMPAS run was related to her work with the HFPA, and she put numerous high-powered peers and an A-list director on the phone with Variety to dispute this claim.

While some of the reps grandstand or dig their heels in, a majority of the group has formed a separate alliance and is working to address the DEI issues raised by the Globes scandal on an industry-wide scale. Variety learned that last Friday, this group hosted the first in a series of virtual unconscious bias training. The event is said to be a step in a larger plan to create standardized antiracist resources and tools for the PR community. 

Meanwhile, industry sources with knowledge of the situation say NBCUniversal may use this moment of major transition for the HFPA to attempt to renegotiate the terms of the eight-year contract that NBCUniversal struck in 2018 with the HFPA and Dick Clark Productions (now known as MRC Live and Alternative) for rights to the awards show. That deal came with a huge step-up for NBC in the annual license fee that is now estimated to be about $60 million. Even before the HFPA’s travails, NBCUniversal was known to be unhappy with that deal given the sharp decline in ratings for the Globes and many other live events. Sources cautioned that it’s unclear if either side will try to crack open the existing deal for renegotiation. But one veteran dealmaker with knowledge of the financials around the Globes observed, “it wouldn’t shock anyone.”

Cynthia Littleton contributed to this report. 

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