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For the DGA, the old adage “You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t” was never more apparent than a year ago. In the midst of the 100-day writers strike, it decided to sit down and negotiate a new contract for its 14,000 members with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers.
The DGA’s willingness to negotiate with the very companies that a “sister” union was striking against divided the industry. Some felt the move undermined the WGA’s walkout, while others were more concerned about the ever-increasing economic pinch from the strike.
Either way, for the DGA it was a necessity.
“It was a tough decision because we did take some heat for it, but we felt everybody was hurting, and [the strike] was going nowhere,” says DGA president Michael Apted.
As he enters the final six months of his three-term presidency, Apted says he’s proud of the guild’s contract, which has been used as a building block for other industry unions and guilds, including the WGA, AFTRA and IATSE, to negotiate their own contracts.
“Their leadership had an obligation to get a deal that is best for their membership,” says labor attorney Scott Witlin of Akin Gump. “No union is going to abdicate to a third party what is in the best interest of their membership. I couldn’t have imagined the leadership of the DGA just handing over to the WGA the negotiating reins.”
The DGA’s decision to negotiate can be traced back to 2006, when several consultants were invited to a retreat to present seminars to guild leadership and discuss the impact of new media and technology on directors and the industry.
Two separate consultants then contributed to a $1 million-plus study.
“Fortunately, their findings were in sync,” Apted says. “And in the end, when it came time to knuckle down and prepare all our demands, we put it all together, and that became our template.”
The study allowed the DGA to start early — as usual — with the AMPTP, informally meeting with the studios prior to the WGA strike and setting up several key issues that needed to be addressed in the new contract, including gaining jurisdiction over new media and focusing on ad-supported streaming media, electronic sell-through and clips.
The study is evergreen and is constantly updated for each board meeting. New media isn’t the only focus, however. An important part of the study, Apted says, is the research into traditional media and its changing environment, including home video, box office, cable and video-on-demand.
“We realized that if you ignore traditional media, you’re in peril,” Apted says. “All the talk is the Internet and all the deals we did for the future. In a sense, that’s sort of fog. The real money and the real deal are in traditional media, and you don’t hear much about that. That’s where our membership money comes from, and that’s a fast-changing horizon as well.”
The guild estimates traditional media is a $100 billion-plus business, while new media represents just one% of that. It will take years before new media residuals will match the numbers traditional media brings in.
But there are limits to the contract, which has been a major sticking point with SAG and its six month stalemate with the AMPTP. Apted admits the contract isn’t perfect, but it’s a start.
“We felt strongly you have to have a balance between the freedom for the Internet to develop, to expand itself and try things, and protecting our future hold on that,” he says.
Going into the talks, the DGA stood firm, telling the AMPTP it had to partner with the guild rather than start up a whole business plan based on the Internet and not include the DGA.
“For them to agree, we had to give them a certain leeway to try things, to take things that are done in garages in Iowa by a load of kids and develop it,” Apted says. “That sort of stuff is happening anyway. That’s YouTube for you. We just have to be smart about it.”
It’s this boy scout approach and willingness to partner that have earned the DGA a reputation for being the most level-headed group among Hollywood’s main unions and guilds.
“They took the time and money to invest in the subject, so that when they did come to the table, they weren’t freelancing or winging it,” says one studio executive. “They had a specific agenda and plan. And so they drove a hard bargain.”
Apted credits a director’s “DNA” for the guild’s ability to get along: “We are interested in getting things done. The writers have a different DNA, and the actors have a different DNA, but our skills are organizational, and our institution represents that.”
For Apted and his successor as DGA president, the focus is always on the next round of negotiations as the guild continues to track and enforce the provisions of the contract. But that’s not the only thing the organization has its sights on.
Under Apted’s watch, the DGA has been shifting into a virtual guild, where members from around the world can access a portal providing all the information they need, from downloading forms to watching seminars, without having to go to the guild’s headquarters or branches. The DGA also remains politically active, closely watching President Obama’s administration and its role in fighting piracy, as well as reducing runaway production.
And it is fighting to improve an issue that Apted admits has been one of his few disappointments in six years at the DGA’s helm: diversity in Hollywood.
“We don’t employ people, so all we can do is nudge the networks and studios,” he says. “We’ve had success with companies like ABC and people like (producer) John Wells, who have diversity programs, but minorities and women still look at me and say, ‘What are you doing?’ We do the best we can.”
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