“Honestly, when I look across our country and see what diversity, equity and inclusion is demanding of organizations across the country, there’s so much of how the HFPA has been approaching this that I think is really wonderful,” new Hollywood Foreign Press Association chief diversity officer Neil Phillips says of the much tainted Golden Globes-presenting group. “I mean this is an organization that got called out because of missteps, transgression, and deservedly so. They should have been, and then they have responded.”
Appointed last month as the HFPA’s first chief diversity officer, the former charter school CEO and pro basketball player stepped into a situation of much skepticism throughout the industry.
Careening from bad to worse, the much-criticized 78-year-old organization earlier this year was slammed for its lack of Black members, token reform promises, and questionable conduct and standards. As ex-HFPA president Phillip Berk attacked the Black Lives Matter movement, newly hired consultants jumped ship, and studios, networks and top PR firms refused to deal with the group anymore. NBC hit the pause button on the 2022 Golden Globes in May.
Since then, a publicly contrite HFPA has proposed and passed a number of reforms, including expanding the number and makeup of its membership, in a desire to get back in Hollywood’s good graces and on the awards-season calendar. Oddly, even though NBC isn’t broadcasting a Golden Globes next year and not paying the $60 million fee for the show, the HFPA declared there will be a Globes on January 9 – and we hear it won’t just be a press release like back during the writers strike of 2007.
Amidst all that, Aspen Institute Education Entrepreneurship fellow Phillips has been on board for just over a month now. He spoke with me about his role, what he sees as the real goals of the HFPA, the upcoming Globes and reaching out.
DEADLINE: After years and years of being so closed off and paying lip service to inclusion and representation, on a number of levels, can the HFPA really change?
NEIL PHILLIPS: Well, I can tell you that I joined this team because I felt like what I was learning about the situation at hand and the efforts on the part of the HFPA to make substantial changes, these are real.
Those efforts are committed efforts.
They have resulted in substantial change to policy, procedure, to approach, to expanded outreach efforts, to expanded critical hires, me being one of them. To the constitution of the association membership to philanthropic partnerships.
Honestly, when I look across our country and see what diversity, equity, and inclusion is demanding of organizations across the country, there’s so much of how the HFPA has been approaching this that I think is really wonderful. I mean this is an organization that got called out because of missteps, transgression, and deservedly so. They should have been, and then they have responded.
DEADLINE: How confident are you that that what the HFPA is trying to do is substantial and will be long lasting?
PHILLIPS: I feel really confident. I’ve been impressed by what I’ve seen the HFPA doing about it. I know that this is just the beginning. Any quick judgment about whether or not these efforts are enough or the HFPA has done enough, those are the wrong questions. The right question is, is this organization doing the things necessary to be an organization that’s really committed to deep-rooted diversity, equity, inclusion interest over the long haul. It’s far too early to make any judgment on that, but so far these efforts I think they’re real.
DEADLINE: OK, but clearly there is a stained history here and, I think it is fair to say, a skepticism that this is just a response to the outrage of the HFPA’s lack of Black members for most, if not all, of its tenure, and NBC pulling the plug on the 2022 Golden Globes …
PHILLIPS: Gender, religious, ethnicity, geographic diversity is highly represented in the HFPA. Skin color was not and that has started to be addressed, and it needs to continue to be addressed from a numerical standpoint. Even beyond the numbers, part of what happens in situations like this is that the organization has been under fire. Again, rightly so. But it can feel like, wait a second, we’re missing the opportunities here that expansion can provide.
DEADLINE: How do you mean?
PHILLIPS: We don’t want to have some set number of Black journalists because that’s the number we need to have. We want to have increased number of Black journalists because it’s going to make the association better. It’s going to make the association more expansive. It’s going to expand the voice and the reach. That’s the way we want to be thinking about diversity, equity and inclusion. Part of this is reacting to a crisis, but I can tell you with great confidence and assuredness I am not here to help the HFPA through a crisis.
DEADLINE: But you know that’s the perception that’s out there …
PHILLIPS: That’s not the finish line for the role of chief diversity officer of the HFPA and certainly not for me and how I approach this. I am looking at what opportunities can come with an expanded view of all that diversity, equity, inclusion in a deep-rooted way, all that it can bring to our organization and the industry beyond our organization
DEADLINE: To that, despite the shunning by studios, streamers and publicists, the HFPA announced there will be a 2022 Globes next month, even if NBC won’t be broadcasting it. With the reforms, new hires and new by-laws the group enacted over the past six months, what form will the 2022 Globes be taking?
PHILLIPS: Unfortunately, I can’t give you much of a sense, Dominic. I have not included myself in the detail of any of those conversations around the planning for the upcoming event. I know that those plans are going to be made public soon. I also was made aware very early on that the HFPA planned to give awards this year in some fashion, in some way, shape or form.
DEADLINE: You are the first Chief Diversity Officer the HFPA has had, but the second person in the new role, so to speak. Earlier this year, after barely a month in the job, your predecessor of sorts, Diversity and Inclusion Advisor Dr. Shaun Harper of USC, quit – as did Smith & Company, the strategic advisory/crisis management firm run by former Scandal co-executive producer Judy Smith. For all the internal changes the HFPA has been working on of late, the new president Helen Hoehne is a longtime high-ranking member, and the Interim CEO is Todd Boehly, the guy who owns the company that owns Globes producers dick clark productions. All of which is to say, power is still in the hands of the people it has always been in, no?
PHILLIPS: Well, I think time will tell and I’m a part of this team because I believe that the changes are going to be much more than window dressing.
PHILLIPS: Yes, one of the real truths is that the people who have criticized you for the transgression, and again rightly so and deserved in many instances in this case, are typically not the people that are going to be the first to rush to the line to say now you all have done everything that you need to do and everything is wonderful. That’s really not the litmus test, the commentary from the folks who feel like this is window dressing. The litmus test is going to be over time how the HFPA conducts itself as an organization, how it embraces these opportunities to be better in these areas.
DEADLINE: Spike Lee once said, and obviously I’m paraphrasing to some extent, it’s wonderful that people want to make our movies, but what I really want is a Black executive be the person who has the power to greenlight my movies. Again, we look at the current upper leadership of the HFPA and it looks very white. That seems to be a deficit, for lack of a better expression. What are your feelings about that and how can that be properly addressed? General Counsel/Chief Operating Officer George Goeckner remains firmly in place, but I know that there are still some leadership roles to be fulfilled.
PHILLIPS: Definitely. I agree with Spike Lee’s sentiment. I agree with his expression. I think it’s appropriate not just for the HFPA, not just for the entertainment industry but far beyond. I’ll state humbly that I think the creation of the chief diversity officer position is a significant one. I’m seeing my hire and the access that I have to the organization leadership and to the membership and the access that I’ll be building with industry executives beyond the HFPA as meaningful and as a step in that direction.
DEADLINE: I know that in late September, early October, Helen Hoehne sent an email to some significant power players in town, hoping to mend some fences – not sure how many takers she got. However, a number of people — Ava DuVernay, Shonda Rhimes to name two — have expressed that they felt for many years the HFPA was, I’ll just be blunt with my words, a racist organization, disinterested in Black stories and Black filmmakers …
DEADLINE: .. So, what kind of outreach have you been participating in so far and where do you see that going in the coming months of the new year?
PHILLIPS: I appreciate that question, Dominic. Since I joined last month, I’ve done a lot of outreach internally for my own benefit. It’s going to really position me well to do my job as well to get to know the folks within the organization. So, right now, I’m spending a lot of time meeting members and board members, and having conversations individually just to learn what I can.
I’m also reaching out to folks, industry executives, people beyond the HFPA to get their perspective, some of whom are folks that have been affiliated the HFPA. Others are not but who certainly will have opinions. It would be my honor to speak with folks who have had these kinds of issues and perceptions and beliefs about the HFPA in the past. It’d be my honor to hear from them and it would benefit me greatly so that I could factor some of those perspectives in to how I shape the work ahead.
I mean I just think whenever you’re doing this kind of work you want to get as broad a base of impressions and experiences as you can because that’s the way that informs the work ahead. I hope to have the opportunity to speak with some of the folks that you mentioned.
DEADLINE: As of yet however, you haven’t spoken with the Shonda Rhimes or the Ava DuVernays or reached out to their respective organizations?
PHILLIPS: As of yet, I have not spoken with them. That’s correct.
DEADLINE: So, where does the HFPA and you, in your role, go next?
PHILLIPS: We would all be mistaken to consider this the sort of final answer as to whether or not the HFPA is doing the things it needs to do. None of this is quick fix. I have spent a significant amount of time in this work of equal human value and diversity and equity. We all make the mistake of thinking things are going to happen immediately.
In some ways, you can make some things happen quickly. You can change numbers. You can change titles. You can do some things which may be meaningful, but the goal here goes far beyond the next few weeks. Far beyond the next few weeks and we all have to recognize that. Yes, this is important. Yes, beyond this particular award cycle I think is even more important.