Inside the enigmatic Golden Globes voting bloc

Los Angeles (AFP) - Millions of television viewers will tune in on Sunday to watch the Golden Globe Awards, one of Hollywood's biggest and glitziest affairs that sets many movies on the path to Oscars glory.

But few are likely to know who actually decides on the winners.

This year, the voters include a Russian former body-builder turned actor, an ex-Miss Universe from South Africa and an ex-engineer from Egypt.

They are all members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, a somewhat opaque group of about 90 journalists -- and one of the most exclusive and secretive clubs in Tinseltown.

Though some members of the HFPA work for well-respected foreign media outlets, many are freelancers employed by obscure publications.

Founded in 1943 by a small group of foreign journalists seeking more access to the showbiz world, the association over the years has mushroomed into a formidable institution.

Still, the Globes -- which honor the best in film and television -- have repeatedly been dismissed by some as a publicity tool for Hollywood studios who wine and dine HFPA members year-round with an eye towards awards night.

But the sheer magnitude of the event -- and the momentum it can create for some films ahead of the all-important Oscars -- has upped its credibility.

"It used to be considered a joke in Hollywood," said Howard Suber, who has taught film at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) for 51 years.

"It ceased being a joke when it became a show with good ratings and every manager, publicist, producer, studio exec saw that it was another way to advertise their goods," he explained.

"It's still considered an inside joke in terms of who these people are, but it's treated seriously because it's on television," he added.

- Who belongs to the HFPA? -

Becoming a member of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association is not that simple.

Any foreign journalist seeking entry must be sponsored by two members, and a newcomer's application can be rejected if one member of the association vetoes it.

Once admitted, members have to produce six articles a year to maintain active status, all the while gaining unfettered access to press conferences and special events.

Several major media outlets, including France's Le Monde, The Times of London and the New Zealand Herald, have complained in the past of being shut out.

- Past scandals -

The association has also been embroiled in a number of scandals.

In 2011, outgoing publicist Michael Russell filed a lawsuit alleging he had been sacked for denouncing shady practices within the association.

In his suit, which was settled for an undisclosed amount, Russell claimed that "HFPA members abuse their positions and engage in unethical and potentially unlawful deals and arrangements which amount to a 'payola' scheme."

The group's former president Philip Berk, who has been with the HFPA for decades, in 2014 took a voluntary leave of absence after fellow members became upset over what was written about them in a memoir he published.

One of the most memorable scandals to rock the HFPA came in 1982 when Pia Zadora accepted a Golden Globe for her performance in "Butterfly" before a gobsmacked Hollywood.

Just weeks before, Zadora's then-husband, billionaire businessman Meshulam Riklis, had invited members on an all-expenses paid trip to Las Vegas for a private screening of his wife's film.

HFPA members denied that the junket had influenced their decision.

Even Ricky Gervais, who has hosted the show four times including last year, has poked fun at the association and insinuated that the studios can influence the voters.

"The Golden Globes are to the Oscars what Kim Kardashian is to Kate Middleton. Bit louder, bit trashier, bit drunker, and more easily bought," he told the audience in 2012.

- 'Wizard of Oz' -

In recent years, the organization has embarked on a course toward more respectability and sought to attract younger members. It has also earned accolades for its charity work.

Current president Lorenzo Soria, who has been with the HFPA since 1989, said four new members were admitted last year, including two who work for publications in China.

Soria, who spoke briefly with AFP, said the shrinking pool of foreign correspondents worldwide made it harder to recruit new members.

"Keep in mind that ... not many publications can afford to have correspondents the way they did in the past," said the Argentina-born Italian journalist.

A Globes victory can help cast the spotlight on films that might otherwise be overlooked for the Oscars, which take place in late February.

"The Academy is pretty mainstream in its taste when it comes to foreign films," said Fredell Pogodin, a publicist who specializes in foreign-language and documentary films.

"That's not always the case with the HFPA members. I find their choices very often more interesting than the Academy's."

Still, some say the association has a long way to go before achieving the credibility of the Oscars.

"They are the Wizard of Oz," said Suber.

"They hide behind this curtain and everyone believes that they are really powerful. But then you pull the curtain back and what you see is a little old man with a microphone."