DGA talks likely before end of '07

Striking scribes could be sidelined

December is now the focus for DGA-watchers.

Barring a resumption of talks between the WGA and studio reps, the directors are likely to begin their own negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers sometime next month. There appears little chance that the DGA's much-anticipated talks with the AMPTP will be announced before Thanksgiving, so it probably will be Dec. 1 at the earliest before the parties could start talking turkey.

Historically, the DGA tends to strike its deals about six months before the end of current contracts. With the guild's current film and TV pact expiring June 30, that alone would suggest an imminent start to its AMPTP talks.

Still, the WGA's ongoing strike against studios and networks presents a situation that hasn't existed since 1988. That's not necessarily going to slow down the DGA in launching its talks, but it does suggest at least three possible scenarios:

The WGA and AMPTP get back on track with their talks, and the DGA decides to wait out those negotiations.

The strike continues, but the DGA — which has yet to engage substantively with studio reps about holding early talks — suddenly sees signs that its own talks could prove intractable.

The DGA receives informal assurance that the AMPTP will embrace early talks with a welcoming attitude and directors begin negotiations while writers are still walking picket lines.

There is often a spectrum of opinions at the AMPTP over issues and strategy. But one top studio exec reflected a broad sentiment when he recently suggested that early talks with the DGA wouldn't have to come at the expense of a long impasse with the WGA.

"We should resolve everything as quickly as we can," the studio insider said. "So if (DGA executive director) Jay Roth were to call, I'd drive to his house right now."

Negotiations vet Gil Cates chairs the DGA's negotiating committee that has been named for the next round of talks with AMPTP. The committee, which will work in sync with top guild staff led by Roth, already has met several times to forge negotiations strategy.

Had the WGA's unproductive talks with the studios dragged on beyond the Oct. 31 expiration of the writers' contract, the DGA likely would have already engaged with the AMPTP by now. But the writers strike gave directors pause, and it was deemed necessary to wait a few weeks to see if guild picketing and studio disruptions might bring the parties quickly back together.

With little evidence of an imminent resumption of the writers' talks in the offing, the DGA can now proceed with its own negotiations — with one big proviso.

Should the AMPTP sign off on December talks with the DGA, there also must be evidence that an attractive contract would be on offer. Most specifically, the studios must signal that they won't bring their hated "cost recoupment" proposal into the directors' negotiations.

At the start of the writers' negotiations in July, the AMPTP had two key proposals. One would have revised current compensation formulas to allow studios to recoup certain basic costs before paying any residuals in the future, and the second would have delayed any new Internet residuals for three years while the matter was studied.

There is "zero chance" the directors would begin talks unless assured that the first proposal is dead, a source said. And indeed, the concept was pulled from the writers' negotiations after it became a big impediment.

The DGA isn't thrilled with the idea of a new-media study, either. But it's less clear whether the guild might be willing to accept a more narrowly drawn study than the one proposed to the WGA, which rejected the proposal out of hand.

Notably, there appears broad optimism that prenegotiations assurances can be secured and that the DGA and studio reps will engage in actual contract talks soon.

If that happens, and a DGA deal is quickly secured, WGA leaders will have one big decision: use that deal as a template for its own resumed talks or continue to strike for a deal more in line with writers' agendas. Certainly the area of new-media content could give rise to different DGA priorities than those at the WGA.

Both guilds aim to expand compensation for creative contributions on new-media content, but the directors tend to put more weight in negotiations on establishing jurisdictional rights. Also, the DGA has shown a willingness to give ground on certain compensation issues to reap gains in other areas.

Three years ago, the WGA's contract expired, and writers worked under terms of the old pact for five months. Eyeing the impasse, the DGA reached out to management to launch its own talks, with the directors sidestepping a fractious debate over DVD residuals to secure a deal providing $60 million in health and pension gains.

The WGA ultimately accepted a similar new contract.