DGA: Let's talk after Jan. 1

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The Hollywood spotlight soon could shift from striking writers to film and TV directors, with the DGA taking a major step Thursday toward announcing a start date for early contract talks with studio reps.

In a letter to members and an accompanying press release, DGA president Michael Apted and negotiations chair Gil Cates said they will wait until Jan. 1 to see whether the WGA re-engages in its own negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers. Barring such a scenario — which few believe will happen unless the WGA reverses itself on certain demands — the DGA will seek talks with the AMPTP on a new pact to replace one set to expire June 30, they said.

"Although the DGA has a long history of early negotiations, this year we held off starting our own formal talks with the AMPTP for two months out of respect for our sister guild," Apted and Cates said. "Instead, we watched the writers' negotiations closely while preparing for our turn at bat.

"We are deeply disappointed by the breakdown of talks between the WGA and the AMPTP, with no end to the strike in sight," the DGA duo said. "Like everyone else in the industry, we had hoped that the two parties would be able to reach a fair and reasonable deal that adequately compensates talent for the work they create."

Apted told The Hollywood Reporter that a next step in launching talks with the AMPTP could come soon after Jan. 1, when Cates and DGA executive director Jay Roth would meet studio reps in an informal session to swap perspectives on which issues most bear on the negotiations.

"We would have a first planning meeting, to make sure we're on the same page," Apted said. "We would want to make sure we agree on the issues and make sure we're not putting anything on the table that they would find hateful and vice versa."

The WGA's negotiations with the AMPTP broke down Dec. 7 over the guild's refusal to withdraw demands, including a call for first-time jurisdiction over reality TV and animation writing, mandatory arbitration when residuals involve vertically integrated studio units and the right to go out on sympathy strikes.

Still, the biggest issue for both the WGA and DGA in this round of contract talks is compensation for new-media content and jurisdiction over that burgeoning area of film and TV distribution. So if the DGA launches early contract talks with the AMPTP, it will bear watching whether its approach to securing such contract details deviates in any way from the WGA's.

"We obviously see new media as being of great importance," Apted said. "But I don't want to be drawn out on details. We've never negotiated in the press and don't wish to."

The DGA president said he is pessimistic that the WGA will get back to the bargaining table anytime soon, rumblings of back-channel attempts at restoring a dialogue with management notwithstanding.

"Back-channel discussions are always quite seductive, aren't they?" Apted said. "But not that much gets done."

The move toward early DGA contract talks had been anticipated (HR 12/13). The directors have been primed to announce early negotiations since November but twice backed off when the on-again off-again talks between the WGA and AMPTP took a couple of positive turns.

When the WGA's talks with studios collapsed anew last week, speculation over the DGA's imminent entry on the scene heated up again.

The start of DGA talks likely would mean the WGA couldn't resume its talks with the AMPTP until the directors' negotiations are concluded. Once the writers do come back to the table, they could feel pressure to accept terms accepted by the DGA but perhaps considered less than ideal for WGA membership.

Three years ago, writers worked five months under an expired pact, only to watch directors shift emphasis from DVD residuals to health and pension fund payments. The WGA's leaders at the time swallowed hard and followed suit.

"The WGA-AMPTP impasse has cost the jobs of tens of thousands of entertainment industry workers, including many of our own members, and more lose their jobs every day the strike continues," Apted and Cates said. "With so much at stake and no end to the standoff in sight, we can no longer abdicate our responsibility to our own members.

"Because we want to give the WGA and the AMPTP more time to return to the negotiating table to conclude an agreement, the DGA will not schedule our negotiations to begin until after the new year, and then only if an appropriate basis for negotiations can be established," the DGA leaders added. "If that's the case, then the DGA will commence formal talks in the hope that a fresh perspective and the additional pressure we can bring to bear will help force the AMPTP to settle the issues before us in a fair and reasonable manner."

The WGA responded to the news by saying it had filed a claim with the National Labor Relations Board against the AMPTP, charging that the studio group had refused to bargain in good faith.

"We are in the midst of the holiday season, with thousands of our members and the membership of other unions out of work," the WGA West and WGA East said in a joint statement. "It is the height of irresponsibility and intransigence for the AMPTP to refuse to negotiate a fair agreement with the WGA. We reiterate our demand that the AMPTP immediately return to the negotiations, rather than going on vacation, so that this town can be put back to work.

"The DGA announced today that it may commence negotiations with the AMPTP in January," the WGAW and WGAE continued. "The DGA has to do what is best for its membership, and we will do what is best for ours. We wish them well, but they do not represent writers. Our strike will end when the companies return to negotiations and make a fair deal with the WGA."

The AMPTP said it welcomed news of the DGA's interest in early contract talks.

"We look forward to talking with the Directors Guild of America in an atmosphere of professionalism and respect," the studio group said. "But no one should be under any illusions: This will still be an extremely difficult process. All of us — producers, directors, writers and everyone working in the entertainment business — need to get this right, because in the rapidly evolving new-media marketplace, there is little margin for error."

IATSE international president Thomas Short, who often has clashed with WGA leaders, applauded the developments.

"IATSE fully supports the Director Guild's desire to try and get the industry working again," Short said. "The DGA has chosen to do something very difficult, and I am sure those who don't want the strike to end will attack them for it. But while sound bites may make good press copy, they are no substitute for the kind of good-faith bargaining it will take to end this strike."

Separately on Thursday, FilmLA issued statistics underscoring the dramatic shutdown in almost all scripted TV production since the strike began Nov. 5.

Just four network primetime shows were in production this week, with two of those slated to end production today and another set to wrap production next week, the organization said. That will leave only ABC's "October Road" still in production locally with additional episodes.

Also on Thursday, the WGAW and WGAE continued their picketing at sites in Los Angeles and New York, respectively. The WGAW spotlighted writers on indie films in a specially mounted protest at Paramount.
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