Laboring to make a deal

Enigmatic AMPTP will play some tricky cards

Toting an untidy acronym and fuzzy public image, the AMPTP calls to mind Winston Churchill's remark about democracy being "the worst form of government — except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."

The Alliance of Motion Pictures & Television Producers was formed in 1982 when a pair of predecessors merged, capping a torturously complicated history of tried and failed studio bargaining entities. Since then it's been the vehicle via which studios have negotiated dozens of largely successful contracts with entertainment labor groups, and Wednesday its negotiators resume talks with the WGA, whose film and TV contract expires Oct. 31.

Certain positions taken by management and labor in the fledgling WGA talks already are well known: Chiefly, management wants residuals revised to allow for limited cost recoupment, while labor wants compensation on new-media content expanded.

Yet while most industryites boast at least passing understanding of the WGA — actually two guilds, in the East and West, both with elected officers and paid staff — few around town are well acquainted with the AMPTP. Many know the organization's 25-year president, Nick Counter but little else of its makeup or governance.

Even for this report, AMPTP officials declined to name those representing the various studios on the group's 11-member board. Most are labor-relations execs on the various lots, whose names seldom pop up in the media.

"They're not people who are in the senior management ranks at their respective companies, and that's a problem," said one industryite with close dealings on both sides of the management-labor divide. "They don't go back and report to the studio chiefs. They get on the phone to their general counsels or that sort of person."

That can make for a lack of clarity in the chain of communication, the industry insider said. "People always say how the guilds are so dysfunctional," the source noted. "Well, there's a good bit of dysfunctionality on the board of the AMPTP."

Those on the AMPTP's board also sit on its negotiating committee, so perhaps it only makes sense that their executive portfolios are labor-related. And AMPTP insiders insist the group works well at finding consensus among disparate constituencies.

But consider:

Of the 350 member companies of the AMPTP, only the seven studio companies enjoy board representation.

Even the entertainment conglomerates that dominate the town hold unequal representation on the board, based on how many movies and TV shows are produced on their respective studio lots.

Disagreements on various negotiating positions arise regularly among rival studios that comprise the AMPTP board.

Even the generally good-humored Counter must feel like he's herding cats at times, trying to keep things running smoothly from his operational command post in Encino.

"Big cats," he agreed with a chuckle. "Maybe more like lions and bears."

To wit: Two of the more lionhearted studio chieftains from the group's member companies recently clashed over how to structure the AMPTP's proposal with the WGA at the outset of negotiations in July. The result: Counter and staff fashioned a highly unusual presentation in which the guild was offered a choice between two alternate proposals.

One of the proposals — quickly nixed by the WGA and just as promptly withdrawn by management — aimed to postpone any expansion of Internet residuals for three years, to allow time for a study on new-media compensation. The other involves a no less controversial proposal to revise existing compensation formulas to let studio and network producers first recoup certain basic costs before paying out residuals to film and TV writers.

"I don't see that happening," WGA president Patric Verrone recently said of the recoupment proposal. "They put a proposal on the table that seeks to do away with not only what we hope to achieve but what we have achieved in a key part of writers' livelihood, which is residuals. Our members have reacted with horror."

AMPTP insiders believe their unconventional, two-pronged proposals represent a master stroke of management consensus and a potentially lucrative template for parties on both sides of the negotiating table; labor-side negotiators were simply left scratching their heads.

"I've never seen anything like it," muttered more than one guild rep during the brief first phase of the talks, which broke off for two months on July 18.

The protracted hiatus was triggered by the AMPTP's need to focus on final bargaining sessions with the Teamsters and four basic crafts unions. Those negotiations were wrapped within two weeks, but the interruption in talks with the WGA continued while guild brass shifted its attention to officer elections completed this week.

Now it's finally back to the bargaining table, with the question of Internet compensation still expected to loom large.

The AMPTP apparently might be willing to dicker on the length and scope of an Internet study, but only if the guild first embraces the study approach. Barring that, management negotiators are committed to hammering home the need for an overhaul of current film and TV residuals, AMPTP insiders insist.

There is, however, the possibility of pushing so hard as to trigger a strike, or even a studio lockout of guild writers.

"The last thing that (CBS chief) Les Moonves wants right now is a work stoppage because CBS is on top," offered one well-placed source. "Fox, on the other hand, is strongly based in reality programming, and they probably feel better about their ability to withstand a strike."

But, Counter cautioned, if the AMPTP's inherent company rivalries cause anyone to question its resolve in the negotiations, think again.

"Our solidarity pact basically says if you strike against one you strike against all," he said. "We work toward a consensus, and though theoretically a company can veto any position, that has never happened."

It's a consensus often formed by jawboning late into the night — and without the formality of a board vote ever being taken.

"In the 25 years I've been doing this, I've never had to take a poll of the companies," Counter said. "It makes for longer meetings, but we just keep going, sometimes into the morning, until we reach a consensus. We don't want to have a split in the negotiating room."

That could prove easier said than done.

"It's harder for Nick to get a consensus out of his group today than it used to be," said Ken Orsatti, national exec director and chief negotiator at SAG for 19 years until 2000. "Today, some of them (on the AMPTP board) have cable concerns, others have broadcast television concerns, others are focused on features — it's all over the map, and I think that makes it more difficult."

So how might the AMPTP's lion tamer wrangle a successful conclusion to the difficult talks with the WGA?

"You never now what the end zone's going to look like," Counter shrugged, "but you keep marching down the field until you get there."