Nick Counter leaving AMPTP

Negotiated 311 major labor deals during tenure

Behold the changing of the guard.

Nick Counter, president and chief negotiator of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, plans to retire March 31. His latest five-year contract expires that day.

Counter has been at the helm of the AMPTP, which represents the studios and networks in industry contract negotiations, for 27 years. During that time, he negotiated 311 major labor agreements with SAG, AFTRA, the DGA, the WGA, IATSE, American Federation of Musicians, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Laborers Local 724 and Teamsters Local 399.

The announcement was not unexpected; Counter's current contract was renegotiated in 2004 to include an additional five years, plus five years as a consultant to the AMPTP on all labor issues, including the current SAG impasse.

Carol Lombardini, the AMPTP's executive vp business and legal affairs, will serve as acting president until a successor is named. Counter will remain engaged in the SAG talks even after he moves into the consulting role.

Counter and Lombardini declined interviews through an AMPTP spokesperson.

The impact this transition will have on the stalled SAG TV/theatrical contract is likely to be minimal because Lombardini has been with the AMPTP as long as Counter and occasionally has taken the lead in negotiations the past few years anyway.

The departure of president and COO Peter Chernin from News Corp. at the end of June could cause greater reverberations within the AMPTP. In the past few years, Chernin has taken an increasingly hands-on -- not to mention a hard-line -- approach in guiding the studios within the AMPTP. He also will play a major role in deciding on Counter's replacement.

Although widely described as a pleasant fellow, Counter was often cast as a union-buster -- the demonized figurehead of labor opposition. Despite rumors about possible health-related issues, sources close to the producers said Counter is in good health and that his retirement had been planned for more than six months.

A Stanford Law School grad, Lombardini joined the AMPTP when Counter did in 1982, just as the organization was taking on its role as the entertainment industry's official collective bargaining representative.

As Counter has played the role of chief strategist, Lombardini has been the nuts-and-bolts repository of logic and specifics as they pertain to historical precedent and individual negotiating sessions. Described by one observer as the "hub" of the AMPTP, Lombardini has been responsible for drafting the contracts and watchdogging their specifics.

"What's more important than anything else is that Carol stay around," one industry insider said. "She's one of the few people in this industry that knows all the (80-plus) contracts. I don't mean just the few people at the AMPTP. I'm talking about anywhere."

Although seemingly a natural choice for permanent successor, Lombardini is, for the moment, a temporary replacement. It could be that the AMPTP and its industry clients are looking for a younger person it can groom for the long term in an industry at a new-media crossroads. If so, Lombardini would be a perfect mentor to guide that transition.

Meanwhile, the SAG TV/theatrical contract dispute sits quiet for at least another week while the actors union works on its new commercials contract with the advertising industry.