Guild will wait only until new year

Action heated up among the directors and writers on Thursday as the DGA said it would head to the bargaining table with the majors early next year, while the WGA filed an unfair labor practices complaint with the National Labor Relations Board.

The helmers announced Thursday morning they’ll wait until after the new year — but no longer — before it schedules talks with the AMPTP.

In its usual measured tones, DGA leaders said they’re willing to hold off negotiations until next month in order to give the majors and striking writers one last chance to make a deal — in a nod toward recent WGA lobbying to hold off negotiations.

“We are deeply disappointed by the breakdown of talks between the WGA and the AMPTP, with no end to the strike in sight,” DGA president Michael Apted and negotiating committee chief Gil Cates said in a statement. “Like everyone else in the industry, we had hoped that the two parties would be able to reach a fair and reasonable deal that adequately compensates talent for the work they create.”

And any wisp of a chance of the WGA and AMPTP resurrecting their talks is probably dead for now. The firefight between the scribes and the congloms resumed in full force Thursday as the WGA declared that the AMPTP’s acted illegally when talks collapsed last week and the AMPTP replied by saying the guild’s desperate and out of touch with its members.

In their announcement, Apted and Cates said they were going ahead with firming up plans for negotiation because of the strike, saying the work stoppage has created such a dire situation that the DGA can’t wait any longer.

“The WGA-AMPTP impasse has cost the jobs of tens of thousands of entertainment-industry workers, including many of our own members, and more lose their jobs every day the strike continues,” they added. “With so much at stake and no end to the standoff in sight, we can no longer abdicate our responsibility to our own members. Because we want to give the WGA and the AMPTP more time to return to the negotiating table to conclude an agreement, the DGA will not schedule our negotiations to begin until after the new year and then, only if an appropriate basis for negotiations can be established.”

That language indicates the DGA’s expecting that talks will launch with both sides having been briefed on the outlines of what the other expects. The directors haven’t disclosed the contents of their proposals but Apted and Cates have pointed repeatedly to the groundwork the DGA’s performed in attempting to explain how Hollywood can effectively monetize the digital world.

The DGA’s also using Ken Ziffren, credited for brokering an end to the 1988 writers strike, as a consultant.

The AMPTP issued a cautiously optimistic response Thursday: “We look forward to talking with the Directors Guild of America in an atmosphere of professionalism and respect. But no one should be under any illusions: this will still be an extremely difficult process. All of us – producers, directors, writers and everyone working in the entertainment business — need to get this right, because in the rapidly evolving new media marketplace, there is little margin for error.”

The measured tone of the announcements offered a stark contrast with the rhetoric of Thursday afternoon, when the WGA came out with its guns blazing, alleging that last week’s ultimatum by the majors — drop six of your proposals or we walk away — is illegal. The guild filed an unfair labor practices complaint with the NLRB, citing three cases in which the agency has held that an employer can’t require a union to resolve specific proposals as a condition to discussing other topics.

“We are in the midst of the holiday season, with thousands of our members and the membership of other unions out of work,” the WGA said in its statement.  “It is the height of irresponsibility and intransigence for the AMPTP to refuse to negotiate a fair agreement with the WGA.  We reiterate our demand that the AMPTP immediately return to the negotiations, rather than going on vacation, so that this town can be put back to work.”

It’s unlikely, however, that the NLRB would rule on the filing for several months. And the AMPTP shot back by denying the WGA’s claims and issuing a dismissive statement.

“The WGA’s filing of a complaint with the NLRB reminds us of the old lawyers’ adage: When the facts are on your side, argue the facts.  When the law is on your side, argue the law. And when you don’t have either the law or the facts on your side, you pound the table.  The WGA has now been reduced to pounding the table, and this baseless, desperate NLRB complaint is just the latest indication that the WGA’s negotiating strategy has achieved nothing for working writers.”

WGA assistant exec director Jeff Hermanson told Daily Variety that the guild’s move is straightforward rather than severe. “What they’ve done is untenable and the simple way to remedy it is to get back to the table,” he added.

But Jonathan Handel, a former WGA attorney who works at Troy Gould, told Daily Variety that the move obliterates recent back-channel efforts to convince both sides to get back to the table via a compromise that would narrow the focus to new-media compensation issues rather than holding on to other proposals covering reality and animation jurisdiction and sympathy strikes.

“What the WGA’s done destroys any possibility of constructive engagement,” he added.

The WGA’s statement also addressed concerns by members are fearful that a DGA deal will undermine the WGA’s clout.

  “The DGA has to do what is best for its membership, and we will do what is best for ours,” it said. “We wish them well, but they do not represent writers. Our strike will end when the companies return to negotiations and make a fair deal with the WGA.”

Apted, in his letter to members, sought to play down any friction between the guilds — even though relations between the orgs have been chilly for many years.

“Those who want to make that the fight only strengthen our true adversaries,” he added. “The real issue is how to ensure that we get the best and most equitable deal for DGA members.”

The Directors Guild has about 13,400 members, the WGA about 12,000. About 1,400 writer-directors belong to both.

Apted told Daily Variety he expects that he’ll be attacked for not waiting longer to start negotiations.

“I’m sure that we’ll take a lot of heat for it,” he noted. “It’s a situation where you can’t make everyone happy.”

IATSE president Tom Short weighed in with a not unsurprising reaction to Thursday’s DGA announcement and portrayed the WGA as being frivolous.

“To the crewmembers — the thousands of editors, cinematographers, set designers, costumers, art directors, grips and so many others that IATSE represents — the Writers’ strike is not a party. Every day that the current labor stoppage continues, it wreaks havoc on the lives of about one- half of the IATSE’s over 110,000 members, their families and others who are part of our industry. Work is being shut down and IATSE members and so many others are now faced with the reality of losing their homes, their savings and their livelihoods.”

Picket lines remained Thursday at all major lots in Los Angeles and Hermanson said strike activities will continue next week.

In New York, about 300 WGA members and supporters picketed Viacom headquarters in freezing temps. “Sopranos” cast members Steven Schirripa, Arthur Nascarella, and Sharon Angela were among the picketers along with Griffin Dunne, Seth Meyers, Tony Gilroy, Liz Tucillo and Tom Fontana.

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