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The Delicate Art of Wooing the HFPA

I’d booked at the Westside’s most exclusive hotel of the moment … only to have members bitch about their preference for the Beverly Hilton and Century Plaza

After more than a decade wooing Golden Globe nominations, what stands out most to me are mortality rates and shrimp cocktails.

I entered Hollywood Foreign Press Association territory when a drama of ours had great U.S. ratings but little international buzz. My employer, a major television company, knew the actual journalistic reach of the membership – lots of freelancers affiliated with obscure media outlets, whose admission process made Skull and Bones look amateurish – didn’t amount to much. 

But a little fluffy PR from the Golden Globes show might pique the interest of foreign networks’ buyers.

I scheduled the requisite HFPA press conference and assigned a perky entry-level staffer to do phone follow-up with 15 or so members who hadn’t RSVPed. She soon shuffled into my office, her face ashen and eyes red-rimmed.

“They’re dead,” she declared sadly.

“All of them?” I asked, instantly imagining a modern-day “List of Adrian Messenger” scenario and wondering how fast I could complete a screenplay.

Apparently, something like five HFPAers had died in fairly short order since our working list had been produced. So the first thing I learned was that HFPA members were pretty old.

And cranky. I’d purposely booked at the Westside’s most exclusive, priciest new hotel of the moment … only to have members bitch about their preference for the Beverly Hilton and Century Plaza. We’d carefully arranged the room’s seating to be intimate and comfortable … and several members held up the event’s start to rearrange furniture.

I suggested they provide a how-to manual alongside an updated membership list.

Things improved significantly through the years. I found them a likable bunch. And I made a discovery: HFPA knew how to throw a hell of an entertaining awards show that didn’t let serious judging get in the way.

At least when it came to TV. With films, the Golden Globes are a credible part of the Academy Awards lead-up. But their TV nominations are based on every factor except the obvious ones.

This week’s “TV MoJoe” column on TheWrap.com  was spot-on: The shows just chosen by HFPA are mainly the safe ones. There’s a reason. Most Hollywood feature films wind up playing all over the world. But excluding a few must-haves that emerge from season to season, most U.S. television shows take years before they rack up international sales.   

And that often means Estonia, not France.

Also, “acquired” doesn’t mean “airing.” Shows can sit on the shelf for years and, then, wind up in a three-month run Tuesdays at 2 a.m. on Sweden’s equivalent of Ion.

So knowing they’re considering shows that might never make their homelands’ TV Guides, HFPAers use other criteria, particularly in the acting categories. Nominees often have established star power. Sex appeal. Notoriety from a recent high-profile scandal. A famous significant other. A famous maybe-significant other; the hope is that the couple will use the Globes for their coming-out.

I once repped an innocuous drama with modest ratings and minor international sales. Its chances of HFPA consideration – hell, its chances of HFPA attendance at a press conference – were so slim that we decided not to waste the money. Yet one of the lead actors had starred decades earlier in a hit series worldwide and, at that particular moment, was dating a major film star. Bingo: best actor nom.

Which brings me to crustaceans.

Long after losing my HFPA virginity, I handled PR for a sitcom that had hit the TV jackpot: killer ratings, worshipful reviews, every significant industry award, even tush time on Oprah’s sofa.

Everything except a Golden Globe.

It hadn’t even landed a nomination. The reasons were obvious. The humor and settings of most US sitcoms don’t translate well internationally. In this particular case, its quintessentially American storyline, smart writing and masterful performances (by solid actors rather than marquee stars) worked against it.

I adored the showrunner whose brilliant humor, warmth, love for massive amounts of food and Ph.D. in Jewish guilt made it feel like I was doing business with a relative. I didn’t have the heart to tell him the truth. I also didn’t want to lose my job.

The show wanted Golden Globes. I quietly surveyed HFPA members to gauge interest and the response was: meh, not so much.

Even so, we agreed to produce a nice press conference. The show wanted it held at a hip new LA restaurant; we had to explain the Beverly Hilton principle. They wanted ice towers of shrimp, oysters and crab legs; we had to negotiate for a good hot buffet. All the while behind the scenes, our PR team put aside other priorities to drive turn-out  – calling in favors, making other promises, offering to name our firstborns after France’s First Lady.

The showrunner never learned about the back-door effort. (I hope he isn’t reading this; Jewish guilt has long reach.) We got respectable turnout. He and the cast were marvelous.

It didn’t result in one nomination.

Long afterward – despite national adulation, guaranteed TV legacy and, most of all, great syndication points – the showrunner inevitably came around to mentioning the Golden Globes. And he always said the same thing: “It must’ve been the shrimp.”

Flackback will explore the art and artifice of entertainment PR.  The author has 25 years' corporate experience and has finessed everything from a celebrity's drunken surprise marriage to his best friend's 16-year-old daughter to a 20-minute advance warning that her company's president was being fired. And she sees little difference between these scenarios.  She's chosen candor over a byline.