DGA could call the shots


Another day of desultory contract talks between the WGA and studio reps might fuel continued chatter about prospects of a strike, but such speculation misses the elephant in the labor-management living room: the DGA.

The DGA looks ready to begin its own film and TV negotiations as early as November. Its contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers expires June 30, as does SAG's, but the directors have a much greater history of starting early negotiations on new pacts.

The DGA secured its last film and TV contract with the AMPTP in September 2004, a full nine months before the previous pact's scheduled expiration on June 30, 2005.

This time around, it's considered increasingly likely that the DGA and AMPTP could meet at the bargaining table as early as mid- to late-November. Negotiations veteran Gil Cates heads a DGA negotiating committee that already has begun preliminary strategy sessions for the impending talks (HR 9/21).

Could the WGA still pull the trigger on a strike immediately upon expiration of its current film and TV contract on Oct. 31?

Sure. But informed handicappers believe the surreal prospect of Hollywood directors' hammering out a deal while writers walk the picket line will keep the WGA's finger off that figurative trigger for some time.

There's considered little chance of a Nov. 1 lockout of writers by the studios. But it's also believed the AMPTP will shut down negotiations upon expiration of the current contract and commence preliminary outreach efforts with the DGA.

To be sure, studios and network execs have been holding meetings to update one another on the status of long-standing strike-contingency plans. But those preparations hinge more on the notion that nothing is entirely predictable in labor negotiations rather than any mass of opinion that a strike is imminent.

Mused one industryite recently, "It could become a self-fulfilling prophecy pretty soon, where those guys are forced to go on strike because they've said they might so many times."

On Tuesday, representatives of the WGA and AMPTP met for a brief morning session and a slightly longer afternoon session before breaking off about 4 and agreeing to meet again at 1:30 today.

The morning was devoted to an AMPTP presentation regarding certain rights issues on film and TV projects. The WGA led the discussion in the afternoon, laying out substantial changes affecting home video residuals.

There was no indication the parties made any more progress than in the half-dozen previous sessions held since the talks began July 16. From the parties' end-of-day press statements -- suddenly a routine part of the daily bargaining process -- it seemed the negotiating teams are still miles apart.

In its statement, the WGA acknowledged that it had made a proposal on home video and some other matters. But AMPTP president Nick Counter noted some sharp criticism of the WGA presentation.

"The WGA presented an untenable proposal to double the home video residual using specious numbers, a revisionist view of the bargaining history and a complete disregard for the costs and deficits that producers must bear," Counter said. When challenged on the questionable figures, (WGA West) executive director David Young said he would get back to us to break down how they arrived at these conclusions."

No bargaining is set for this morning, perhaps because WGAW president Patric Verrone is scheduled to appear across town at ICM in Century City, where he will brief talent agents on the guild's view of contract talks.

A big obstacle to successful bargaining has been unwillingness by the WGA team to discuss an AMPTP proposal regarding revised film and TV residuals. Management has proposed revising current residual schemes to allow studios and networks to recoup certain basic costs on film and TV projects before paying any residuals in the future.

The AMPTP is determined to leave that demand central to its negotiating proposals unless the WGA withdraws its demand that compensation be expanded for new-media projects. Management believes Internet pay and other new-media compensation should be studied only for the time being, a suggestion labor-side negotiators immediately rejected when first proposed in July.

One possible result of this standoff: The AMPTP will agree to keep its recoupment proposal in its hip pocket during early talks with the DGA while negotiating with the directors over details of a possible new-media compensation study.

Nellie Andreeva contributed to this report.