Guild girds for next chapter

DGA preps for studio contract negotiations with deep pockets and even deeper unity

In its typically matter-of-fact manner, the Directors Guild of America started 2006 with major construction under way on an apartment building on its property next to its Hollywood headquarters.

The guild — the wealthiest in Hollywood with $68 million in assets listed in its most recent filing with the Labor Dept. — hasn’t tooted its own horn about the project. It’s simply taking advantage of owning valuable property on Sunset Boulevard.

That low-key approach is in line with the course set by DGA president Michael Apted, who was unanimously re-elected last fall for a second two-year term. Unlike the political battles that often rage within Screen Actors Guild and the Writers Guild of America, the DGA manages to maintain a united front.

“We are unified because we don’t rush into things,” Apted noted in a recent interview. “We use a very complicated system of councils and committees, so we’re a confident organization that uses a lot of information and internal discussion.”

Even when a dispute emerges, the DGA seeks a middle ground. For example, when Steven Soderbergh and M. Night Shyamalan engaged in a recent public squabble over movie release windows, the guild set up a committee headed by Cameron Crowe to research and develop a position on the matter.

“That’s what our members expect us to do,” Apted insists. “Unit production managers and assistant directors are good managers. The entire organization demands good management because it’s in our DNA.”

Of course, having a unified base of middle managers and a flush bank account helps when studio contract negotiations loom amid a flurry of technological innovation.

“We’re trying to figure out which technology is flying by the seat of its pants and which will become a viable business model,” he says. “There are a lot of minefields, looking to 2008.”

The DGA’s already heavily into prepping for its next contract negotiations even though the current pact with studios and nets won’t expire until mid-2008. In 2004, it scored significant gains on health care but could not budge studios from their rock-hard resistance to changing the two-decade-old homevideo residuals formula.

Some of the more aggressive members of SAG and the WGA grouse over the DGA’s strategy of winding up negotiations at least six months prior to expiration; DGA leaders contend they’ve managed to steadily improve contracts amid sometimes bewildering changes in how showbiz operates.

Apted notes other key endeavors this year for the DGA:

  • communicating in more depth with members via a new quarterly magazine focused on the nuances of the craft and the history of the guild;

  • overhauling the DGA computer system to get more and better information about residuals;

  • organizing reality TV programs, with more than 100 shows under DGA jurisdiction. The guild is honoring reality shows for the first time at its awards show this year; and

  • continuing to support legislative efforts to slow down runaway production, such as in California, where Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has earmarked $75 million a year in incentives to keep filmmakers and productions at home.

Apted also remains busy on the professional front; he just scored his third DGA nomination for directing an episode of HBO’s “Rome.”

“The whole idea of a president being a working director is that you need to be in touch with concerns of other working directors,” he notes. “And it’s important to set an example.”

Apted’s been in London since September working on “Amazing Grace,” the story of antislavery crusader William Wilberforce; he’s completed the “49 Up” portion of his “7 Up” documentary series and he’s working on a “Married in America” docu.

“I’ll be in L.A more this year,” he adds. “Hopefully it’s good for the DGA and better for my family.”

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