Will the New Election Help the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. Clean Up its Mess?

Monday election will end the divisive reign of Aida Takla-O'Reilly. Most recent documents show the group spent $3.6 millon on lawyers

After a few messy years, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association – which runs the Golden Globe awards – is facing a crucial election.

At a time when the organization is beset by grumbling by members and studios who pamper the 80-odd journalists who make up the HFPA, that membership will go to the polls late Monday afternoon to elect a new president.

Getty ImagesThe election will end the reign of Aida Takla-O’Reilly. Members will choose between Dutch photographer Theo Kingma and Russian journalist Ali Sar. As is HFPA custom, Takla-O'Reilly will remain involved as chairman of the board of directors – and there’s no telling if the policies that have embroiled the group in lawsuits and made them the subject of derision within the film industry will continue.

In recent months, TheWrap has been contacted repeatedly by members of the HFPA and by studio reps who deal with the group. None wished to be identified, but all complained in increasingly strong terms about HFPA policies and practices and described the upcoming election as pivotal. 

Also read: Insider Charges HFPA With Racism After Golden Globe Voters Reject Black Applicant

By the standards of the HFPA, whose last two presidents – Takla-O’Reilly and Philip Berk – were both on the high side of 70, Kingma and Sar represent new blood. And both, according to both members of the HFPA and studio reps who deal with the organization, are a significant step up for the HFPA, which is currently composed of 85 full and part-time entertainment journalists for foreign publications, plus three “lifetime members” who do not vote for the Golden Globes.

Getty ImagesFor the past year, Sar has served as treasurer, and Kingma has been an alternate on the board of directors. Sar has ties to the old guard that has run the HFPA in recent years, including Takla-O’Reilly (right), Berk and longtime member Judy Solomon, but he also has extensive experience as an editor in the Los Angeles area (leaving entertainment journalism for a number of years to work in news) and as director of the L.A. Press Club.

Kingma is younger than Sar and less affiliated with the widely-disliked past presidents; he is known for what one member called “a lively, bon vivant personality” and has by most reports been more actively campaigning for the job and most vocal about wanting to change the image of the HFPA.

TheWrap asked an HFPA representative if the organization would comment on the complaints on Monday morning, but did not immediately receive any comment. Kingma originally agreed to speak for this story, but cancelled when he did not receive permission from HFPA leadership to do so.

During Takla-O'Reilly's tenure, the HFPA settled one lawsuit against its former publicist, who alleged that the members accepted money, gifts and vacations in exchange for nominations. And it lost its legal battle against Dick Clark Productions, which retains control of the Golden Globes telecast that is responsible for the vast majority of the organization’s revenue.

Also read: BOMBSHELL: Former Golden Globes Publicist Sues HFPA for $2M, Claims Fraud, Payola 

According to the HFPA’s most recent public filing with the IRS, in the fiscal year running from July 2010 through June 2011 the organization had revenues of $7.8 million from the Globes telecast, and only $3,418 in membership dues. It gave out $1.8 million in grants, paid $3.6 million in legal fees and paid a total of about $65,000 to outgoing president Burk and incoming president Takla-O’Reilly.

The non-profit organization had total assets of $21.4 million, down slightly from the previous year.

Studio sources say that stars are increasingly beginning to balk at the idea of kowtowing to a small group of sometimes questionable journalists, particularly when those journalists are out of town so often that it can be difficult to schedule Los Angeles-area press conferences that fit their schedule.

According to a document obtained by TheWrap, a single two-week period in late April and early May found the group travelling to London, Berlin, Las Vegas and New Orleans (in three separate trips), in an itinerary that included four set visits, 10 interviews, one optional Beyonce concert in London and screenings of “Star Trek” in London, “The Hangover Part III” in Las Vegas and “Now You See Me” in New Orleans.

The Beyonce concert to which they were invited took place in London, ostensibly to promote the animated film “Epic” – even though voices are redubbed in non-English-speaking countries, meaning that she isn’t in the version of the film shown in the countries where most HFPA members’ coverage would appear.

Also read: Hollywood Foreign Press Settles with Former Publicist in 'Payola' Suit

The HFPA pays for its members’ airfare from a travel budget that was nearly $700,000 in fiscal 2010, but studios pick up the most of food and lodging and give the members a daily per-diem on trips. Some of its trips, such as a yearly junket to Cancun sponsored by Sony, also include the junket press, not just the HFPA.

(TheWrap has on occasion accepted free travel to film festivals and interviews, though in most cases we pay our own way.)

HFPA members are only required to attend two or three press conferences per month to qualify for the free travel, a rule that has also caused grumbling among members who feel that it rewards the part-time journalists whose presence has hurt the group’s credibility.

If both Kingma and Sar win praise as smart guys and legitimate journalists, even supporters of the two wonder if they can turn around the climate in an organization that has long countenanced questionable policies.

Getty ImagesOn member warns that the presidential race is only part of the problem – the HFPA is also electing a number of other offices, including vice president, treasurer and the board of directors. (The controversial former president Berk, left, is running for treasurer.) One member surveyed the 13 candidates for the board and concluded, “there’s just one who’s up to the job, two who are harmless and no fewer than 10 who are useless, unpleasant or both.”

Last week, the HFPA made another organizational change, hiring its first chief operating officer and general counsel, former MPAA executive vice president Gregory Goeckner. In addition to his time at the MPAA, Goeckner also worked as special counsel at O’Melveny & Myers, the HFPA’s law firm.

As for what the election may mean for an organization that badly needs to change, one HFPA insider was skeptical: “Ali and Theo are both smart guys who are open to change – but any time a vote goes to the board, the board still errs on the side of ‘What’s beneficial to us?’ A lot of people are aware that the organization is seen as a joke, but they don’t care because they still want those air miles.”