Overwrought: judges were treated to a private concert by Cher

Wafting over the red carpets this awards season, amid the expensive cologne and forced smiles: a dubious whiff of scandal. The Golden Globes, supposedly Hollywood's second most prestigious awards event after the Oscars, is finding its voting process at the centre of unwelcome controversy.

At issue is a decision by members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA), organisers of the annual exercise in back-patting, to shortlist two recently released but derided studio films – The Tourist and Burlesque – in the "best motion picture (musical or comedy)" category for next month's event.

The move initially surprised pundits, since both films received unsympathetic reviews and apathy from the public. Burlesque, which, according to the aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes, got positive write-ups from 38% of critics, opened fourth in the box-office charts and made back just $34m (€26m) of its $55m budget. The Tourist, panned by 79% of reviewers, returned $22m of its $100m budget.

Disbelief later turned to outrage after it emerged Sony, the studio behind Burlesque, flew Golden Globe judges to Las Vegas for an all-expenses-paid trip that included luxury hotel accommodation, free meals and a private concert performed by the film's star, Cher. Dubbed "achingly dull" by the New York Times and described by Variety as "overwrought" and "underwritten", the judges later nominated it as the best comedy or musical they had seen all year.

The allegation is nothing new: HFPA members have always been regarded as easily swayed. In 1999, Sharon Stone presented each member with a gold watch days before they received voting forms. She was duly nominated for the "best actress" award.

In 1981, most famously, the unknown Pia Zadora won a "best newcomer" award for her role in the universally derided film Butterfly. It later emerged the movie's producer, who was also her husband, had flown the entire HFPA to Las Vegas for a weekend holiday immediately before they voted.

Part of the reason for criticism may be that, as a private organisation with only 81 members, the HFPA is beholden to no one and considered relatively easy to influence. To win a Globe, you need to charm only a few dozen voters. To win an Oscar you must lobby roughly 6,000 members of the Academy.

The other explanation for bizarre voting patterns at the Golden Globes – where the best drama has gone on to win best picture at the Oscars only once in the past six years – lies in its status as a made-for-TV event. It makes $6m a year for the HFPA, and about $27m in advertising revenue for its broadcaster, NBC. Those figures are dependent on viewers and some believe the judges nominate A-listers so they can guarantee the celebrity quota at their event.

Robert Licuria, editor at the awards tracking website Gold Derby, told reporters last week the nominations were "hideous", adding that it was "the best example of how [the Golden Globes] ... are sometimes perceived to be driven by who they can invite to the party".

Angelina Jolie said she reacted to her nomination for The Tourist by treating it as a joke. "We were laughing because it's the first time that I've been in the comedic category so it's new for me."