As the Hollywood Foreign Press Association continues to try to rehabilitate itself in the wake of a 2021 exposé that jeopardized the future of its Golden Globe Awards, another organization of entertainment journalists — this one without a multimillion-dollar TV deal, but with no shortage of star power at its events — is facing questions of its own. And in recent days, as a result of tensions within the group, the Hollywood Critics Association, 10 of its members — roughly 7 percent of its membership tally just two weeks ago — have left (nine resigned and one was expelled), including its president.
The Hollywood Critics Association was established in 2016 as the Los Angeles Online Film Critics Society, and changed its name in October 2019. The group has annually presented awards recognizing work in film since 2018 and in television since 2021 (the latter, as of this year, at two separate ceremonies, one for streaming shows and the other for broadcast network and cable shows). Though HCA ceremonies are not televised, they have nevertheless drawn the attendance of dozens of A-listers including Rami Malek, Mandy Moore, Andrew Garfield and Sydney Sweeney; landed hosts such as Annaleigh Ashford and Tig Notaro (the latter of whom had to bow out at the last minute due to a positive COVID test); and been tweeted about by the likes of Apple CEO Tim Cook. The most recent HCA TV Awards ceremonies, which took place on Aug. 13 and 14, packed the International Ballroom of the Beverly Hilton hotel — the same room in which the Golden Globes have long been held.
But with the fast-growing profile of the HCA — which is comprised almost entirely of young writers from small independent outlets — has come increasing skepticism, from both inside and outside the group’s membership, about the financial and ethical conduct of its leadership, as well as bare-knuckled barbs. In recent days, the saga has come to resemble a cross between a Christopher Guest comedy and All About Eve, featuring Hollywood strivers, showmanship and, in the views of some, possible swindling.
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The HCA was the brainchild of We Live Entertainment web journalist Scott “Movie Man” Menzel, who approached then-Access Hollywood on-air correspondent Scott “Movie” Mantz in the summer of 2016 about starting a critics group that, unlike most others, would be gender balanced and racially diverse. (Both Menzel and Mantz are white males.) Mantz liked the idea, so the two Scotts, along with former Bachelor bachelorette/journalist Krisily Kennedy, launched the organization later that year, with Menzel listed as its founder and Mantz as its president. Kennedy dropped out of the group in 2018, followed in September 2019 by Mantz, who was displeased that Menzel had independently appointed his wife, Ashley Menzel, to be the group’s vice president, and had begun making other major decisions without consultation.
“He approached me because he knew that if I was a part of this group with him, my name and good standing would get him what he needed,” Mantz now vents, asserting that he was indeed able to book top talent to attend the organization’s first two film awards ceremonies. “So do I think that he used me? Do I think that he used my name and reputation? Absolutely.” (In 2018, Mantz was terminated by Access Hollywood, after 17 years of employment, for not disclosing that he had embarked on this side venture, he says.)
Menzel acknowledges, “The problem with Scott Mantz and I is that we both wanted the same thing, and that is to be front and center — we wanted to do the spotlight stuff — and neither of us wanted to do the stuff that it takes for an organization to work, which is the fucking un-fun part of reaching out to studios saying, ‘Here’s the nominations. Now we need to ask you for money for a table, because if you don’t give us money for a table, we can’t do the show.’”
During the Mantz/Menzel era, the group generated so little revenue that it didn’t even cover its costs, both men confirm. “I think we had 20 members that first year and they were all bloggers or writing for really obscure outlets,” Mantz, who is 53, explains. “And honestly, making money was something I never even considered. I was just happy to be putting my name to good use.” Menzel, 39, notes, “I was still working full-time at my job at Paleo [delivering meals for the food prep company One Paleo Delivers],” but he says he fronted $23,000 out of his own pocket to reserve a venue for the first awards ceremony. “My wife was freaking the fuck out, ‘Oh, my God, Scott, you’re going to bankrupt us because you have this fucking passion of wanting to do this thing!’” Menzel was eventually made whole thanks to studio sponsorships, and the ceremony moved forward. “It was the funniest thing on the planet,” he says. “There were 72 or 73 people in the room. It was literally a fucking award show for nobody.” (Well, not exactly nobody: Guillermo del Toro, Patrick Stewart, Edgar Wright, Jordan Peele and Jessica Chastain were all in the room.)
A month after Mantz’s exit, Menzel renamed the group — somewhat controversially, but helpfully for its profile — the Hollywood Critics Association. In the time since, the HCA, while advertising itself as a nonprofit, began to grow in every sense. Its ceremonies moved from Hollywood’s Taglyan Complex (described by Mantz as “kind of a dump”) to the AVALON Hollywood (labeled as “janky” by a top publicist) to the Beverly Hilton. And from its most recent gatherings, it was deriving revenue from sales to studios and networks of tables (ranging from $20,000 for one to $60,000 for six), tickets ($1,250 for one, $2,000 for two) and program ads ($1,500 for a full page, $2,000 for a spread or two full pages) — this on top of submission fees required to be eligible for TV awards ($285 per series entry and $85 for acting, writing and directing entries) and YouTube shows featuring HCA members discussing episodes of TV programs, sometimes with talent from the show (and not always with a disclosure that the content was paid for by the network behind the show).
Menzel says that he decided to pursue nonprofit status for the HCA in 2019, shortly after the organization’s name change. “I sent in the application through LegalZoom, and then LegalZoom hooked me up with 1-800Accountant,” he recounts. Then the pandemic hit, and he didn’t hear back about his application until 2021, when the IRS called him and said that he had submitted the wrong form — a 1023-EZ, which is for an organization with revenue of $50,000 or less, as opposed to a 1023, which is for an organization with revenue over $50,000. “The people at 1-800Accountant went back and they filled out the right form,” he says. But since then, he was notified that the HCA was “misfiled” as a 501(c)(3), when it should have been a 501(c)(4), so that is now being corrected.
In order to apply for federal nonprofit status, Menzel says he was also told by the IRS that the HCA needed a board of directors. He already had a board in place — one that had spent months drafting bylaws before he disbanded it on June 7, 2021, prompting a backlash from multiple board members, including Terence Johnson, who wrote, “There has been a lack of transparency in how decisions are made and how money is spent, even with the board in place.” And then, on Dec. 2, 2021, Menzel sent an email to members inviting anyone who was interested in serving on the board to let him know.
One of dozens who asked to be considered was Shannon McGrew, a 39-year-old Huntington Beach resident who runs a horror website called Nightmarish Conjurings. McGrew applied to join the HCA in 2020 because, she says, “I had started a website, I was writing reviews, I became part of Rotten Tomatoes, and I felt like the next step would be to become part of a critics organization.” McGrew enjoyed her membership — she attended and was a presenter at the 2021 HCA Film Awards and at the 2022 HCA Film Awards (she was seated at a table with Guillermo del Toro at the latter) — but also says she knew that “other members felt like their voices weren’t being heard,” so she offered her services for the board.
Her Zoom interview with Menzel on Jan. 5, 2022, while perfectly cordial, left her somewhat troubled. “At that time he told me three people within the organization wanted to kick me out,” she tells THR. (Menzel says that he was just being candid with McGrew, as other members had told him that her frequent tweets reflected poorly on the group.) “I never heard back about the board,” she continues — a new board, which included several Menzel chums, was announced on April 22, 2022 — “but they talked to me about being on the marketing team. They were like, ‘Yeah, we’d really love that. We’ll get back to you.’ And then they never got back to me. I was hearing other stuff from people who were having their own issues. And I was like, ‘I just want to find out what’s going on.’”
On Aug. 15, the Monday after the HCA’s weekend-long TV awards, McGrew posted on the HCA’s private Facebook page a series of concerns about the financial management of the group. Politely but firmly, she asked what HCA membership dues were being spent on; why the organization requires TV networks to pay a submission fee in order to be eligible for an HCA nomination or award; and what had become of funds raised through an HCA GoFundMe fundraiser for Ukraine five months earlier.
Menzel, who had stayed the night at the Beverly Hilton after the previous evening’s ceremony, quickly replied on the thread to her concerns, noting that dues fund events for members; that the HCA charges a submission fee for TV content because “almost everyone including BAFTA, CCA and the Emmys charge a submission fee”; and that the GoFundMe for Ukraine was set to automatically distribute donations to CARE, a nonprofit organization.
He says he then called McGrew on his drive home, though she did not pick up.
When Menzel next checked the thread, he says McGrew’s comments had “spiraled into more of an accusatory” tone, and other members had also begun to weigh in. One HCA member, Debbie Elias, engaged in a back-and-forth with McGrew and ended up calling her a “bitch”; Menzel immediately reached out to Elias, who he says opted to resign rather than be expelled. But with more HCA members now taking sides, McGrew posted a series of defiant tweets, some of which HCA board members interpreted as threatening. (One, from Aug. 17, read, “You went ahead and fucked around and now you’re gonna find out the consequences of your actions.”)
On Aug. 19, the law firm Rosenberg & Koffman, acting as counsel to the HCA, sent McGrew a cease and desist letter. In it, attorney Ronald G. Rosenberg declared, “As a member of the HCA, it is certainly within your rights to ask questions regarding the organization and its policies. The problem here, however, is the manner in which you have been posting. You have portrayed yourself as being an ostracized and victimized HCA member, motivated by a pure sense of honesty and justice. Other than not being placed on the board, we are uncertain why you feel this way.” The communique then itemized her “relentless and prolonged tirade against the HCA,” which it suggested was in violation of the HCA’s bylaws, before asserting, “Given the gravity and intensity of your harassment that resembles a smear campaign, and the severe damage already done to the reputation of the Hollywood Critics Association and its board members (affecting them financially, institutionally, psychologically, and emotionally), we demand an immediate stop and removal, from both public and private dissemination channels, of all false, defamatory, and unsubstantiated claims and insinuations.”
Four days later, on Aug. 23, while being interviewed by THR, McGrew received an email from the HCA’s board notifying her that she had been expelled from the group for violating numerous HCA bylaws, including harassment, bullying, slander, sharing member-only information with non-members and breaking the code of conduct. McGrew soon after tweeted, “There’s a special place in hell for all the women on the board that stood by and let this happen. Y’all are gonna be in for one hell of a shock soon. I hope it was all worth it.”
Shortly thereafter, several other HCA members — Kaitlyn Kennedy, Rosie Knight, Kristen Lopez and Simon Thompson — resigned in solidarity with McGrew. And a number of other members who worked for higher-profile publications also bowed out, including a trio of Variety employees, Jazz Tangcay, Clayton Davis and Angelique Jackson, as well as — and this hasn’t previously been reported — HCA president Lauren Huff of Entertainment Weekly. (Variety is owned by Penske Media Corporation, which is also the parent company of The Hollywood Reporter.)
“The response [from the HCA] was completely out of scale with what Shannon had done,” says one member who resigned, who also alleges (and provided substantiating documentation), “In the days after this stuff kind of exploded with Shannon, there were things that were removed from the private members forum. There were things that were changed on YouTube channels. Now the list of members has been hidden. It stayed up there until the shit hit the fan with this thing with Shannon.”
The member further argues that McGrew’s questions were “not an out-of-the-blue request for transparency,” but rather something that many members “have been asking for for the last couple of years, as the HCA has moved from being more of a critics group to a content creation platform as much as anything else. There have been a number of things where members will raise red flags with regard to what money is coming into the company, how much money is coming in, where that money is going and who that money is going to, because there is no transparency on this. It’s very much a general, ‘Oh, it’s spent on stuff,’ which is not the greatest of answers. When you ask for transparency, the response you get is, ‘Trust me.’ It feels very reminiscent of an administration that we just went through for four years.”
While Menzel confirms to THR that all HCA revenue goes into a bank account to which only he and vice president Nestor Bentancor have access, he says that any insinuation that he is absconding with or getting rich off of the organization’s money is laughable. “I’m doing Whole Foods deliveries on the side, I make about $60K, I live in Moorpark and I drive a Camry,” he volunteers. “This was the first year where we didn’t actually lose money [on HCA activities]. In terms of the TV Awards, there was some revenue left over this year, somewhere between $30,000 and $40,000, which will pretty much make up for all the losses that I faced in the years leading up to this.”
Menzel says that McGrew’s “attacks” have “traumatized” the HCA and have been perceived by HCA members, board members and even himself as threats. “Multiple people are going to be going after restraining orders against her because they’re afraid to go to screenings and they’re afraid to go to events,” he asserts, adding, “We had another board member say they’re going to leave; they literally said that they’ve got to go dark for a couple of days because their Apple Watch is telling them that their heart rate’s been very high. Another person has said that they’re very depressed. This has been a really traumatic experience for people … I mean, I’ll tell you the truth: I feel unsafe.” He continues, “You’re dealing with people who have had so many struggles, people who are from different countries, who don’t normally get a chance to be put front and center, who are very proud to be in this organization, who feel attacked because they feel so close to this organization because it welcomed them with open arms.”
Menzel calls McGrew’s Ukraine insinuation “the most comical thing” of this whole situation. He notes that the fundraiser in question raised only a “pathetic” $530, but that, upon hearing McGrew’s concerns, he asked GoFundMe to send him confirmation that the money had, in fact, been sent to its intended destination, so that he could provide that to McGrew. When he did so, though, McGrew interpreted the date on the confirmation as the date on which the funds had been sent, leading her to accuse Menzel of only sending the funds after she raised the issue. “I just think that this is someone who is craving attention and is trying to make statements that are very false and that I’ve debunked,” Menzel says, adding, “I like my drama in my movies and TV shows, not in my life.”
A GoFundMe spokesperson confirmed Menzel’s assertion to THR: “The fundraiser you reached out about is currently still open and accepting donations on behalf of the nonprofit CARE, which is registered as a PayPal Giving Fund charity, meaning donations go directly to the nonprofit and the organizer of the Certified Charity fundraiser never has access to the funds raised.”
But other concerns raised by HCA members — for instance, about the HCA’s lack of transparency as far as its voting and vote tabulating processes — may have more legitimacy. Menzel says that after the HCA’s 2022 film awards ceremony, he and his board “brought in a third-party person to help tabulate the votes” moving forward, but prior to that it was primarily overseen by him. And several members say they found the outcomes of HCA awards contests to be suspect.
Ahead of the second film awards, Mantz says he confronted Menzel after Menzel sent out a press release declaring that The Hate U Give, a movie that was well reviewed but was nevertheless not a real part of the larger awards conversation, had been voted the winner of the HCA’s best picture prize over that season’s much higher-profile contenders including Green Book, Roma, The Favourite, A Star Is Born, BlacKkKlansman and Black Panther: “He said, ‘Ashley [Menzel’s wife, who is now listed on the HCA’s website as its co-founder] and I were going through the final votes, and it was looking like Roma was going to win. I didn’t want us to be just like everybody else. So Ashley and I, when we saw which way the votes were going, voted for The Hate U Give. This movie speaks more to what our organization is about, so that’s why I thought that it would be good if we showed that this movie won.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, but if the members are voting and you are looking at the votes and you’re voting another way to give your preference, you are manipulating the vote. That’s voter fraud.’ I said, ‘Scott, ethically I have a very big problem with this.’” (Mantz adds that he didn’t and doesn’t believe that The Hate U Give actually came anywhere near that close to topping the voting.)
Menzel denies making any such admission to Mantz, though he does confirm that he and his wife voted for The Hate U Give and says that unexpected results like that film winning best picture were likelier in those days because the HCA membership was then still very small. “You’re going back to that second year. We had 30-something members. It’s just numbers, that’s it.” He adds, “We have a lot of people of color within our organization who really liked the movie.” (Menzel says he no longer has access to the email account to which votes were sent.)
But Mantz points out that Menzel had publicly ranked The Hate U Give and subsequent HCA best picture winners Promising Young Woman and CODA as his personal favorite film of their respective years, and that quotes from Menzel had appeared on the DVD covers of both The Hate U Give and Promising Young Woman, things Mantz doesn’t believe are coincidences.
McGrew, for her part, recalls seeing the HCA’s nominees for best horror movie — her area of expertise — and immediately doubting them. “I was like, ‘These are bullshit. I don’t know who is voting for these.’ And then I would hear people [speaking about another movie that wasn’t nominated], ‘Oh, we all voted for this.’ And I was like, ‘Well, that’s weird, because it seems like it would have been nominated.”
Mantz and numerous other HCA members also expressed amusement that the HCA had given a special award to Kristen Stewart in 2020, “Actress of the Decade,” because Menzel is — and this is a word used independently by all of them — “obsessed” with her. (Stewart also won the HCA’s best actress prize this year.) Menzel confirms with a chuckle, “Yes, I’ve been ‘obsessed’ with Kristen Stewart since I saw her in Speak at Sundance [in 2004]. You’re allowed to be a fan.”
Menzel openly acknowledges the accuracy of another allegation made by some HCA members: that he has tipped off publicists about the results of voting before those results were announced on the show in order to guarantee their clients’ attendance. “Of course, yeah,” he says, adding, “We’ve gotten better with it. We’ve been able, as we’ve been growing, to tell less and less people. The first year that it happened and the second year that it happened and the third year that it happened, the winners were in the room because of the fact that we told them … This year, we were very lucky that we were actually able to get a bunch of people there without telling them the winners.”
Mantz says that Menzel, as part of an effort to try to repair their friendship, invited him to attend the HCA’s film awards ceremony earlier this year, and that he accepted. Mantz was stunned by how much things have evolved since he was a part of the group. “I can’t believe it,” he marvels. “On the one hand I’m like, ‘I should be thrilled that this group that I helped start has really taken off.’ But on the other hand, especially after all of the controversy over the Golden Globes, it just surprises me that everyone has jumped in on this group so quickly. They get support from basically everybody. I’m just surprised that there wasn’t more caution as far as, ‘Wait, who are these people? What is this? Where is the money going?’”
McGrew concurs and says she has no plans to stop asking questions. “I think their whole goal is just to silence me,” she says. “They just had to be transparent. I don’t think they’re being transparent because I don’t think they’re doing the right thing. I just want them to be held accountable. The whole board should be dismantled at this point because you can’t trust anybody.”
Menzel counters, “It’s crazy to me that there’s this narrative of, ‘I asked for information and that’s the reason why I got booted.’ You got your answers right away. You inspired us to create an FAQ thing explaining things [on the HCA website]. We gave you everything you needed.” He continues, “Where did the money go? It’s all there. We served a full dinner both nights of the [TV awards]; we did not put hummus on the table and call it a day. We had an afterparty that we paid for … The production team alone on this was $174,000. The Encore fee, for the hotel company that has to be there on-site, was $50,000. The hotel itself, all in, was about $183,000, with the food and the drinks and all that stuff. So it’s there.”
Above all, Menzel insists that he has nothing to hide. “I talked to somebody at the TV awards,” he says. “Afterward, they were like, ‘I can’t believe you pulled this off. How did you do it? How did you do all this stuff?’ I said, ‘The number one thing that makes me different from the other people who are doing this [running an awards group] is that I’m not in it for the money.’ Am I hoping that I’m going to eventually get a salary out of it so that I don’t have to do side gigs? Sure. But I’m never looking to be like, ‘I have half a million dollars because of this organization.’ That’s not who I am.”
Beatrice Verhoeven contributed to this story.