When Ricky Gervais bounces on to the stage at the star-packed Beverly Hilton Ballroom tonight to host the Golden Globe Awards, Hollywood will be abuzz with feverish speculation. Can the Avatar director James Cameron triumph over his former wife, Kathryn Bigelow, the director of The Hurt Locker, in both best drama and best director categories? Can the double-nominated Meryl Streep compete against herself in the best actress race? And will the voting panel even dare to consider Quentin Tarantino or George Clooney when Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman are in the running with their reverential Nelson Mandela picture, Invictus?
But all this is mere marketing froth and media chatter, of course. The real question most industry insiders will be asking is whether the Golden Globes can pull out of television ratings freefall, claw back some of their fading credibility and re-establish their wobbly claim to be a dress rehearsal for the Oscars in March. Indeed, as the opening act of the movie awards season, the Globes are a key test of whether any big-brand prize show still matters in an increasingly fragmented entertainment market.
The Academy Awards began in 1929, founded and backed by the big studios. By contrast, the relatively youthful Golden Globes were launched in 1944 by a small group of European journalists in Hollywood, partly as a way of cementing transatlantic cultural ties after the Second World War. Since then, the two ceremonies have enjoyed an unequal but symbiotic relationship, bookending the ever more crowded film awards season between January and March.
Meanwhile numerous rival ceremonies have sprung up, many of them competing with the Globes to become the definitive pre-Oscars barometer. The Baftas, Britain's answer to the Academy Awards, were launched in 1947. Most of Europe, Asia and Australia soon followed suit, while the US continues to produce industry prize shows. The SAG (Screen Actors' Guild) awards arrived in 1995, closely followed by the Broadcast Film Critics Association Awards, commonly called the Critics' Choice Awards.
Although typically pitched as the younger, cooler, more irreverent cousin of the Oscars, the Golden Globes are held in much lower esteem by many Hollywood insiders. Writing in The Los Angeles Times in 2008, the film reporter Sharon Waxman called the Globes "the entertainment industry's dirty little secret", claiming: "The glitzy annual ceremony watched by millions of people is a con on the viewing public."
Waxman echoes many pundits in attacking the prestigious-sounding Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA), the organisation behind the Globes, for its small and largely static membership, many of them minor journalists on obscure publications. The group has also been notoriously susceptible to flattery and free gifts in the past, such as the embarrassing case in 1981 when Pia Zadora was crowned "new female star of the year" just days after HFPA members were treated to a Las Vegas holiday by the starlet's film-producer husband, Meshulam Riklis.
Steve Pond is an Oscar correspondent with the Hollywood news website The Wrap and author of The Big Show: High Times and Dirty Dealings Backstage at the Academy Awards. In his view, there is no competition between the two ceremonies. "I don't think we should care who the Hollywood Foreign Press Association thinks made the best movie," he says, "but the Academy does have an 82-year history of being the established gold standard in the movie business.
"With the Oscars you're dealing with close to 6,000 people who actually have significant careers in the movie industry. With the Golden Globes, it's 84 writers who cover Hollywood for various foreign newspapers and magazines- I think 90 per cent of people who watch the show have no idea this is being voted on by fewer than 100 people." Damon Wise, contributing editor to the UK film magazine Empire, confirms that Golden Globe voters are more swayed by glamour and celebrity than Academy voters. "The Globes is the most star-struck awards show in town, and it shows in their choices," Wise says. "You can almost make them up before they're announced. The only big surprise this year is that they didn't nominate Brad Pitt for an award, or Angelina Jolie. She didn't have a film out in 2009, but then neither did Martin Scorsese, and they've rustled up something to give to him."
Whatever their credibility in industry circles, the Globes have long traded on their public reputation as a crystal ball for the Oscars. But even this selling point has slipped in recent years. Since 1999, the two sets of Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Actress nominations have coincided less than half the time. This year, with the Academy Awards adopting the Globes format by fielding 10 best-picture nominees instead of five, that gap looks set to widen.
Both the Golden Globes and Oscars have been pulled forward this year, creating more distance between their two sets of ballots. To meet their mid-January awards date, the Globes had to respond very quickly to a rush of Christmas releases including Avatar, Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes and Rob Marshall's Nine. The voters gambled on Nine, giving it five nominations, one more than Avatar. Marshall's musical has since flopped spectacularly while Cameron's eco-fable has breached the billion-dollar mark and is racing towards Titanic-sized success.
As a marketing exercise, the Oscars clearly remain the global brand leader. But what exactly are they selling? The commercial value of a nomination or win is very hard to calculate. According to figures published in the film business trade paper Variety, all five of last year's best picture choices enjoyed a ticket spike of up to 350 per cent on the day after nomination. Similarly, the former best picture winners Schindler's List, Shakespeare In Love and The English Patient all saw a jump of 40-50 per cent in box office receipts during their first post-Oscars weekend.
Then again, Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor, but experienced only a modest 11 per cent increase the following weekend. It is hardly an exact science, and the effect of a major award on an actor's future box office clout seems to be even more nebulous. "Hilary Swank's film Amelia died a death, not at all helped by her two Oscars," says Wise. "It's easy to forget Oscars have also been won by Marcia Gay Harden, Alan Arkin, Mira Sorvino, Jim Broadbent and Marisa Tomei. A perfectly good film released in the US last year, The Brothers Bloom, has yet to be picked up in the UK, despite featuring Oscar winners Rachel Weisz and Adrien Brody."
Of course, the main product the Academy Awards and Golden Globes are selling is themselves. In which case, they are in trouble. While global film admissions have risen steadily for the past decade, viewing figures for the big prize bashes have suffered in an increasingly overcrowded, celebrity-saturated market. A typical 30-second advertising spot during the Oscars broadcast can still command around $1.6 million (Dh5.9m), but ratings have been falling since an record high in 1998, when a domestic audience of 57 million watched Titanic sweep the board. Ten years later, that figure had sunk to a two-decade low of 32 million, although it enjoyed a modest surge last year to around 37 million.
But the Golden Globes ceremony has yet to bounce back. A fixture on the US television network NBC since 1996, it saw its viewing figures peak at 27 million in 2004. Three years later, when 20 million tuned in, the Globes still earned $6m for the HFPA and $27m in advertising revenue. But the Hollywood writers' strike reduced the 2008 broadcast to a bare-bones news conference, hitting ratings hard.
Viewers were still way down last year, at 15 million. Which is why NBC pressed the HFPA to hire a big-name host tonight, for the first time in 15 years. They chose Gervais, the British comedian whose "slightly dangerous" edge the hope will nudge figures up by 10 per cent. But beyond the jokes and the celebrity frocks, the nagging question remains of how relevant these big-brand awards can claim to be in an increasingly atomised, narrowcasting media world. With a vast range of alternative entertainment options on DVD, cable television, online and elsewhere, the notion of a shared global film culture once embodied by the Academy Awards now seems quaint and outmoded.
But Wise is not so sure, predicting the Oscars will make a comeback this year. If the ceremony becomes a "love-in for James Cameron", as he expects, Hollywood can justifiably claim to represent mainstream tastes after years of favouring small-scale niche movies. "Two months ago I would have said their relevance is getting less and less, but Avatar has changed things," agrees Pond. "This coming Oscar show could conceivably have the largest audience in many years, because of Avatar. In recent years the Oscars have tended to concentrate on small movies, and as a result they've lost any claim on a wider audience. Certainly the way in which entertainment is consumed now is dramatically different. So if the Oscars are more relevant this year, it's not because of anything the Oscars did, it's because of what James Cameron did."