LOS ANGELES (CN) – Longtime publicists for the Golden Globes claim the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which owns the awards, defamed and fired them after they warned the Press Association to stop taking “payola” bribes in exchange for nominations and votes. Cinepoint Productions and The Michael Russell Group demand $2 million for defamation, fraud, interference and other charges.
Co-plaintiffs Michael Russell and Stephen Locascio claim that during their 17 years of employment with the awards show, they repeatedly urged HFPA President Philip Berk to end the shady practices and open up membership to “legitimate journalists.” They say “Berk refused to do so because he and the HFPA were profiting from the existing arrangements.” Berk is also named as a defendant.
According to the complaint in Superior Court: “Russell and Locascio were aware that many HFPA members abuse their positions and engage in unethical and potentially unlawful deals and arrangements … allowing its members to improperly profit from their association with HFPA and the Golden Globes. These deals and arrangements include, but are not limited to: accepting money/per diem, lavish vacations, junket lodging, gifts and other perks each year provided by studios and producers in exchange for support or votes in nominating or awarding a particular film,” and “selling media credentials for profit in the form of space on the red carpet, to low profile or unknown ‘media’ entities, to cover the Golden Globes, and selling tickets and other membership privileges for the show.”
The Golden Globes awards show, which was held last night (Sunday), is a heavily promoted, heavily covered movie industry event.
Russell and Locascio claim that to bolster the event’s credibility, in December 2009 they helped Chrysler and charity organizer Stars for a Cause sign up “A-list” celebrities for a publicity tour and auction to raise money for Haiti earthquake relief. But the publicists say that when Berk didn’t get the kickbacks he expected from the auction, he retaliated against them and against Stars for a Cause.
Berk was upset, as he wanted to receive benefits directly from Chrysler, and Stars was only giving the proceeds from the charity campaign to charity and not to Berk,” the complaint states.
“For example, on Jan. 27, 2010, Berk refused to approve a press release, which identified Stars and [entertainment attorney and Stars for a Cause co-founder George] Braunstein as sponsors of the Chrysler charity campaign, even though Stars had worked with the HFPA and the Golden Globes, raising money for charity from the past four years.”
The plaintiffs claim Berk also began a smear campaign against them and Stars: “Berk and HFPA board member Frances Shoenberger carried out their defamatory phone and email campaign by contacting representatives of Chrysler, NBC, DCP, Entertainment Tonight (Stars’ media partner), and Access Hollywood. Berk and Shoenberger made false claims about Stars, and claimed that Stars had been sued by Cunard Line. This was a false statement, as Stars was not sued by the Cunard Line, and had an excellent relationship with them. Berk and Shoenberger also told the head of Chrysler and other executives that if Chrysler continued to work with Stars, then Berk would ensure that Chrysler did not work with the HFPA.”
Berk did this to claim credit for the Chrysler campaign, according to the complaint: “This is evidenced by a phone call from Berk to NBC marketing in New York demanding that Berk be paid a commission for referring Chrysler to NBC (who paid DCP [HFPA’s partner in producing the award show] a $2,000,000 advertising fee for the promotion with Chrysler as part of the Golden Globes after show), and that Chrysler provide him with a car and driver for the month of January 2010. These requests were denied.”
When the publicists’ contract ended in February 2010, HFPA announced without explanation that it would not be renewed as promised, according to the complaint.
Russell and Locascio say they began providing public relations services for the Golden Globes in 1993, when it was without a network TV contract and its credibility was low due to a 1982 corruption scandal, involving kickbacks for rigging the best newcomer award.
The plaintiffs claim the Golden Globes’ network license fee more than doubled on their watch, from $12 million to $26 million per year.
The plaintiffs demand punitive damages for fraud, defamation, wrongful termination, breach of contract, intentional interference with prospective economic advantage, promissory estoppel, failure to pay wages and other charges.
They are represented by Timothy McGonigle of Santa Monica.