DGA talks get off to fast start


With two days of talks already behind them, DGA and studio negotiators will be eyed daily for signs that they've reached a quick contract agreement.

That's how dramatically the labor spotlight has shifted yet again. First the industry's focus swung from fractious talks between the WGA and the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers to striking writers and their picket lines, and now industries will closely track the AMPTP's negotiations with Hollywood directors.

The DGA-AMPTP negotiations, announced with minimal fanfare Friday, may represent the industry's best shot at getting back to business as usual. The parties held bargaining sessions Saturday and Sunday, and though a press blackout prevented details from leaking, it appears the sessions went smoothly enough.

The DGA and the AMPTP met informally for weeks prior to the start of early talks, so many industryites believe a new DGA contract could be reached within a matter of weeks or even days.

"I'm optimistic," a high-ranking industryite said. "Bottom line, I think we'll make a deal (because) the directors will be more reasonable."

Negotiating chair Gil Cates and executive director Jay Roth are leading the guild's negotiating team, while AMPTP president Nick Counter is presiding over the management team, as usual. They are seeking to hammer out a new agreement to replace the DGA's main film and TV contract, set to expire June 30. Talks are being held at AMPTP headquarters in Encino, with a third session set for today.

After the DGA announced the start of its negotiations, the striking WGA — whose own contract talks have been put on hold by the AMPTP — issued a joint statement with SAG. The actors also are under contract through June 30 but unlike the directors have been closely aligned with the WGA of late.

"We wish the DGA well and hope that they achieve a fair deal that incorporates principles that will benefit all creative artists," the WGA and SAG said. "The DGA has to do what is best for its membership, but it is important to remember that they do not represent actors and writers."

WGA brass have said they might maintain their work stoppage and continue to mount picket lines even in the face of a DGA-AMPTP agreement, should the directors secure terms considered wanting by the WGA. A true doomsday scenario for industryites would see writers stay on the picket lines until actors can join them in July, though some believe it would be tough for the WGA to maintain rank-and-file solidarity over such a prolonged period.

It's been suggested that the DGA will emphasize jurisdictional issues in negotiating issues related to content distributed over the Internet and mobile platforms, while the WGA has been demanding sweeping new residuals for new media. But in a message e-mailed to members Friday, DGA president Michael Apted said the DGA is concerned about both new-media jurisdiction and compensation.

"(W)e would not enter negotiations with the AMPTP unless we were within shouting distance of an agreement on our two most important issues — jurisdiction for our members to work in new media and appropriate compensation for the reuse of our work on the Internet and other new-media platforms," Apted wrote. "We've spent the last few months discussing these and related issues with the studios, and we've been doing intensive research on these points for the past year and a half. Now we believe it is time to move forward with the goal to hammer out an agreement."

The AMPTP said on Dec. 7 that it would refuse to continue contract talks with the WGA until the guild removed certain demands from the bargaining table. The WGA has been on strike since Nov. 5, and its last film and TV contract with the AMPTP expired Oct. 31.

The DGA spent heavily to conduct exhaustive research on new media issues and how they might be addressed in negotiations. Veteran attorney and Hollywood dealmaker Ken Ziffren was a consultant during much of the DGA's prep work.

The DGA has been poised to enter early talks since November, but the directors twice postponed launching their own negotiations to give writers additional time to reach a deal. The WGA first entered talks with the AMPTP on July 16.

A statement issued Friday by IATSE international president and WGA critic Tom Short seemed to bolster the widespread notion that an AMPTP deal with the DGA would go far in ending the current writers strike, despite WGA's suggestions that it would resist using such an agreement as a template for its own contract.

"I'm glad to hear that the DGA is heading into formal negotiations with the AMPTP," Short said. "The industry is in trouble, and tens of thousands of people are out of work. I hope that the DGA and the AMPTP can reach an agreement that puts us all on the road to getting back to work."

There appears to be virtually no chance of the WGA's resuming its talks with the AMPTP until the DGA secures its deal. But with so much already sorted out in the informal prelims, many believe the DGA and AMPTP could sort out their negotiations in under a month.

The DGA reached its last pact with the AMPTP on Sept. 23, 2004 — exactly one month after beginning formal talks. The directors on average begin talks on a new contract about six months in advance of the expiration of any current agreement, believing management tends to reward them for early negotiations with more attractive terms.

For now, the WGA has turned its negotiating attentions to the indie production community.

If it can reach a deal with the AMPTP, the guild aims to reach narrowly drawn separate pacts with individual companies. So far, it has reached work agreements with United Artists, the Weinstein Co. and Worldwide Pants.

On Friday, Weinstein Co. co-chairmen Bob and Harvey Weinstein put out a statement formally announcing their interim deal with the WGA.

"We believe this strike must be resolved now," the Weinsteins said. "It's that simple. Each day more people are losing their jobs because of this strike, and a trickle-down effect is impacting the entire industry. There seems to be no end in sight, and this should be a concern to us all.

"While we understand and respect both sides of this issue, this agreement is a catalyst in bringing both sides back to the table so real conversations can begin," they said. "We should not forget that this time of year should be a time of celebration for our industry, and it won't be until this strike is resolved."