Studios taking direct approach

DGA talks may start next week

The DGA and studio representatives are slow dancing.

Despite the parties' protracted tango about how — or even whether — to engage in early contract talks, an announcement of actual negotiations appears likely within the coming week.

The scene-setting discussions between the DGA and the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers have primarily involved conference calls between guild and studio reps, with little face time between those who actually would be sitting across from one another at the bargaining table. It has taken the better part of a week to contact some of the interested parties, with executives still getting back from holiday vacations.

If the parties continue their informal talks into the weekend, an announcement could come more quickly. But on Thursday, well-placed sources said it appeared that the preliminaries could drag well into next week.

Once the informal phase of talks is concluded, the start of negotiations would be almost immediate.

The situation still could implode if the AMPTP fails to assure DGA brass that the guild will be rewarded for entering early contract talks. The DGA is under contract through June 30, but the guild has a history of negotiating new contracts about six months early and has signaled an interest in commencing formal talks soon.

The AMPTP would love for them to do just that, if only to show that at least one Hollywood labor organization is willing to engage with the studio organization despite the ongoing writers strike, which marks its 61st day today. The WGA walkout came five days after its contract with the AMPTP expired Oct. 31.

New-media residuals — or how writers should be compensated when their work is reused over the Internet or mobile platforms — represent the central issue in the WGA's standoff with the AMPTP, though other matters such as reality TV jurisdiction and the right to go out on sympathy strikes have further complicated the impasse. The DGA also is expected to focus on new media and has gathered exhaustive research on how to tackle the subject in negotiations.

Some suggest that the directors will prove more interested in jurisdictional rights over new-media content than in residual minimums, which often are covered in the personal contracts of top directors. Certainly, WGA leadership is concerned that whatever deal the DGA cuts will be forced upon writers as a template and have vowed to resist any such effort.

Jonathan Handel, a TroyGould entertainment attorney and former associate counsel at the WGA West, said he believes that a preliminary chat about new-media issues likely has figured prominently in the DGA's prenegotiation discussions with the AMPTP.

"I would be shocked if they had not shared some of the findings of their (new media) study in an off-the-record sort of basis," Handel said.

The DGA hired veteran attorney and Hollywood dealmaker Ken Ziffrin to conduct much of its new-media research. Scuttlebutt has it that the study largely supports the AMPTP's claim that new-media businesses are still works in progress, a finding that could shape the directors' approach to negotiations with the studio group.

The AMPTP proposed to the WGA simply studying the matter of new-media compensation for three years, delaying any expansion of residuals until the writers' next contract. The studio group eventually backed off that proposal, but its alternate proposal for modest improvements in writers' current new-media terms held little more sway with the WGA.

The DGA could take a middle-ground approach to the question, Handel said. The guild might suggest expanding new-media compensation only modestly, but in doing so secure a specific agreement from the AMPTP to revisit the issue in the parties' next round of contract talks.