HFPA's Sony Trip to Vegas: Just a ‘Burlesque’ Junket?

When Sony hosted HFPA members in Vegas for a Cher concert, it was press business as usual, says the studio

Sony and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association acknowledged on Thursday that the studio hosted HFPA members on a Las Vegas trip including a Cher concert and hotel stay, a junket that raised eyebrows in the wake of Golden Globe nominations for the critically-panned Cher film "Burlesque."

The studio characterized the trip as a "long-lead international press junket" for foreign entertaiment press.

Nonetheless, nominations for "Burlesque" have some scrutinizing the association once again. "Burlesque" was nominated for Best Picture in the musical or comedy category on Tuesday, and also got nominations for two songs.

The film got a 26 percent from top critics on Rotten Tomatoes.The New York Times' Manohla Dargis called it "achingly dull," while the L.A. Times' Betsy Sharkey observed: "'Burlesque' is top-heavy from start to finish. Maybe that's what you do when you have nothing new to say."

The junket was first reported by The Los Angeles Times' Patrick Goldstein, who wrote on Wednesday:

"Globes voters have been involved in all sorts of scandals and gaffes over the years. If you talk to the top award-season consultants, they can barely disguise their lack of respect for the HFPA members, who often put themselves in indelicate situations, as with this year's crew, which took a Sony-sponsored trip to Las Vegas to see Cher in concert, then gave her film a stunning best picture nod."

Sony had no comment about the junket or the nominations; nor did an HFPA spokesman.

The HFPA commonly pays for air travel for its members to press junkets, while studios pay for hotel and other expenses.

And the HFPA compared the trip to other international press junkets financed by studios. Comparisons were made to a Cancun junket trip for "Eat Pray Love," one to London for the latest "Harry Potter" and another in Bora Bora last year for "Couple's Retreat."

Neither Sony nor the HFPA would disclose how many members actually saw the performance, believed to have been conducted sometime during the Sept. 24-Oct. 31 leg of the singer's Caesar's Palace concert series. ("Burlesque" opened Nov. 24).

The attendees paid for their own transportion, the HFPA said, with their studio-provided back-row tickets valued at $82. HFPA bylaws put a $100 limit on such a benefit, a press representative for the group said.

This is only the latest scrutiny for the 81-member HFPA, which has routinely had the credibility of its signature awards show — as well as its core association body — questioned over the years.

Just on Saturday, for example, TheWrap obtained a February letter from the HFPA's former PR chief, Michael Russell, in which he warns HFPA president Philip Berk that the organization's "unsavory business dealings" could further undermine its credibility.

Russell, however, has yet to offer the specifics to those alleged transgressions.

But there are plenty of documented specifics to be found from the past.

With the Golden Globes telecast bringing in around $6 million a year for the HFPA, according to tax documents, and generating about $27 million in ad revenue for broadcast partner NBC, the HFPA backs a pretty big business.

But the list of unprofessional conduct stretches back pretty far for the cliquish organization of only 81 awards-voting members, which touts a small cadre of full-time journalists, surrounded by a collection of largely freelancers, few of them film or TV experts.

Perhaps most infamously, In 1981, producer Meshulam Riklis flew HFPA members to Las Vegas just weeks before they voted his wife, Pia Zadora, "new female star of the year."