WGA asks DGA to delay scheduling decision

After two days of what the Writers Guild hailed as its first “substantive discussions” with management, the strike talks get a plot twist today as the Directors Guild negotiating committee convenes regarding its own pact with the companies.

The WGA, which is negotiating again today, is unofficially pressuring the directors to hold off on setting its own talks with the majors. On Tuesday, DGA negotiating committee chairman Gil Cates told Daily Variety it’s unlikely the panel will make a definitive scheduling decision at the confab.

“There’s so much to assimilate right now,” Cates added. “We hope that the WGA and the AMPTP do make a deal but we’ll make our decision based on what’s best for our 13,000 members.”

As the writers strike enters its second month, the town’s directors find they’re being placed in an increasingly uncomfortable position as to when to begin negotiations. Some worry that the writers and companies are making only moderate progress toward a deal as both sides remain far apart in a variety of key areas.

WGA leaders and members have made it clear that they would strongly oppose any early deal by the DGA as undermining writers efforts to nail down how Hollywood’s creatives are compensated for new-media work.

Cates said the DGA’s leadership has been hit with a rising tide of questions and a variety of conflicting suggestions from members — some contending that the DGA needs to break the logjam by scheduling talks, while others argue that the DGA needs to delay making such a move until the WGA concludes a deal.

A delegation of dual cardholders has been scheduled to appear at today’s committee meeting to ask the panel to hold off on setting talks with the AMPTP.

“We are in an awkward spot,” Cates admitted. “We are hearing a lot of rumors and getting a lot of calls.”

The question is further complicated by the fact that top TV showrunners — who are often also DGA members — have assumed a pivotal role in the strike, first in their early support and then in their back-channel efforts to get both sides to resume formal negotiations last week.

These players have been loath to offer even mild criticism of WGA leaders.

This is the third time that the negotiating committee for the Directors Guild of America has met since the strike started.

As for the ongoing talks between the companies and the WGA, both sides met for most of the day on Wednesday, recessed in the early evening and promised to resume this ayem.

The WGA reported that discussions included jurisdiction for original content for the Internet, reality, animation, and basic cable along with contract enforcement but indicated that the AMPTP hasn’t responded to its most recent proposals.

“For the last two days, we have had substantive discussions of the issues important to writers, the first time this has occurred in this negotiation,” the guild said. “However, we are still waiting for the AMPTP to respond to all of our proposals, including Internet streaming of theatrical and television product and digital downloads.”

The most recent round of negotiations come amid declining hopes that the WGA strike would spur a resolution over the thorny new-media issues, leading to the DGA then being able to incorporate the gains into its own deal.

Privately, some directors have been angered by what they perceive as a lack of willingness by WGA to knuckle down at the bargaining table — particularly the tendency to break from negotiating in the middle of a strike rather than going around-the-clock. They’re also perturbed over what they see as unrealistic expectations as to what the majors are willing to give to close a deal.

The DGA negotiating team, headed by Cates for the third consecutive time, has been laying the groundwork for the negotiations for nearly a year with a focus on new-media issues. In keeping with its close-to-the-vest approach, it hasn’t disclosed specific negotiating positions yet.

The DGA’s contract expires June 30. The directors usually begin negotiations six to eight months before their contract ends and it noted in a recent letter to members that it had already reached tentative deals at the same point in 2001 and 2004 and noted that it believes such a strategy carries the value of studios being willing to pay a premium in exchange for an early deal.

“The situation is fluid and we are watching developments closely,” said the letter, penned by Cates, DGA prexy Michael Apted and exec director Jay Roth. “The DGA has a duty to you and all our members to negotiate our industry agreements in a manner that best serves the interests of our membership. We cannot and will not delegate our responsibility to negotiate your contract to someone else. We must decided for ourselves, as have the writers, when and how to make the best deal for our members and what our priorities are.”

The DGA has typically negotiated deals quickly and without fanfare. It struck once for three hours in 1987 due to a reduction in residual payments.

In another development, the AMPTP has retained a trio of well-known advisers — Mark Fabiani and Chris Lehane of Fabiani & Lehane and Steve Schmidt of Mercury Public Affairs.

The AMPTP said Fabiani, Lehane and Schmidt had been brought on to assist in explaining its New Economic Partnership proposal, which the WGA has dismissed as a rollback.

The PR shakeup came in the wake of Barbara Brogliatti’s move last week to segue from full-time duties into a senior adviser role. Since then, several corporate PR execs from Sony, Fox, Warner Bros., CBS and ABC have stepped in to assist AMPTP spokesman Jesse Hiestand in handling media duties on a temporary basis.

With the WGA winning the battle in terms of general public opinion since the strike began, the AMPTP has recently adopted a less strident and more conciliatory tone.

Fabiani and Lehane are best known as senior aides and advisers to President Bill Clinton, Vice President Al Gore and other Democrats. They also worked briefly for SAG in 2002 as advisers on a failed referendum to revamp its agency franchise agreement; they’ve also applied their skills for sports teams and leagues, studios and individual films including “Fahrenheit 9/11″ and “Sicko.”

Schmidt is a close adviser to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and served as his campaign manager last year. He’s also served in the Bush White House, including as the lead strategist on the confirmations of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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