For guild members, it's all about the work

Much like its 12,000 members, the Directors Guild of America keeps a relatively low profile amid the glitz and glamour of Hollywood.

“Our instructions from the members are to keep the guild focused on the craft,” says DGA chief exec Jay D. Roth. “So we’re focused on core issues and we’re pragmatic.”

The guild will try to bring that spirit to its 53rd annual awards ceremony March 10 at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles — festive and fun, but not overdone.

“Our goal is to keep the length of the speeches down and the excitement up so that people can enjoy it and still get home at a decent hour,” says DGA prexy Jack Shea. “I’ve been extremely pleased with the quality of our nominations in the last few years with a lot of new faces coming in. The Steven Soderbergh situation, with him having two film nominations, is very exciting.”

Soderbergh is only the second director in three decades to score two noms in one year, after Francis Ford Coppola performed the same hat trick in 1974 for “The Conversation” and “The Godfather Part II.” But beyond its significance as a celebration of filmmakers by their peers in the purist sense, the DGA ceremony is one of the most accurate barometers of eventual Oscar glory. Since its inception in 1949, the DGA’s feature film winner and Oscar’s best director have differed only four times out of those 52 years.

Behind-the-scenes player

As for the day-to-day workings of Hollywood, the DGA remains much more than just a bystander. Its contract with studios and networks does not expire until mid-2002 so it doesn’t have to cope with the contract negotiations like those between producers and writers, or pending negotiations for Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists, which face a June 30 contract expiration.

But the DGA is very much involved as a behind-the-scenes player in attempting to prevent back-to-back strikes, and not just because it’s members won’t be drawing paychecks. When talks between the Writers Guild of America and the companies broke off on March 1 on economic issues, the DGA urged both sides to “make the strongest effort possible to avert a costly strike for their members and for all of Southern California.”

“One of the main challenges we face is to keep everyone working,” Shea says. “That’s been a major effort of ours because we believe a series of strikes would be a disaster. Our members want peace.”

The DGA repeatedly has disagreed over the past year with the WGA over creative rights issues such as unlimited access to the set, and the elimination of the possessory credit for film (“A film by …”) — a highly symbolic battleground between scribes and helmers. But its leaders also stress that it’s crucial for writers and actors to get a decent deal.

“We think the greatest concern among our members is keeping the industry working and reaching fair settlements for the talent,” Roth says. “There needs to be a continued understanding of the importance of this industry to the community, the state and the nation but that has to be tempered by the need to arrive at equitable settlements.”

Ante raised

Roth also notes the stakes will be elevated in upcoming negotiations since the DGA, SAG and AFTRA agreed in their last round of contract talks to postpone residual negotiations until this round. The DGA will keep a particularly close watch on how SAG and AFTRA use the data.

How soon will DGA negotiations start? No date has been set yet but Roth indicates the DGA would avoid a situation leading to a de facto strike, in which the worry about a work stoppage leads to a massive decline in activity even without a strike.

The DGA has also moved in several other areas over the past year:

  • It issued a call for a revamp of the Motion Picture Assn. of America ratings system. (Despite its difference of opinion with longtime MPAA chief Jack Valenti, the DGA will make him an honorary lifetime member March 10.)

    “We are going to keep talking about film ratings but contract negotiations are occupying most of our attention,” Shea says.

  • It blasted studios and networks for lack of improvement in the hiring of women and minorities.

    “They have come a long way but there’s so much more to do,” Shea says. “We want our membership to reflect the makeup of the population of the United States.”

  • It signed a four-year deal with commercial producers that included Internet jurisdiction.

  • Although the gesture received little notice, the DGA gave the SAG/AFTRA strikers free space in its midtown Manhattan offices for six months. The show of union solidarity was worth nearly $100,000.

  • It became the first Hollywood guild to promulgate an Internet contract nearly a year ago with single-picture agreements for productions made for the Web. The agreement was developed internally by the DGA rather than through formal negotiations with Web producers, along the lines of the DGA’s low-budget film agreements.

But there’s no doubt that the guild, like the rest of Hollywood, is keeping the labor situation under a microscope. In a recent message, Shea told members, “We want a peaceful and fair settlement to these negotiations for the writers, for the actors and, in 2002, for ourselves. We will aggressively and articulately represent the directors’ position.”

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