Dialogue with AMPTP kept industry chugging

While the Screen Actors Guild and the Writers Guild of America have been grabbing headlines for the past year, the Directors Guild of America has mostly gone back under the radar.

A year ago, the DGA achieved a rare stretch of public notice when it came to an agreement with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers on Jan. 17. That fomented hope that the writers strike might end, after talks broke down between the WGA and the producers six weeks earlier.

By the time the WGA put down its picket signs on Feb. 12, the DGA’s profile outside of Hollywood had receded. Insiders remember, though, that the DGA leaders had averted an impasse that would have compounded the WGA stalemate — partly by conducting its own research over the previous two years into the parameters of new media and by maintaining an extensive dialogue with the AMPTP and key member companies.

DGA president Michael Apted, national exec director Jay Roth and negotiating committee chief Gil Cates headed a series of informal meetings with Peter Chernin, prexy and chief operating officer of News Corp., and Robert Iger, Disney prexy and CEO.

“It’s like any other business — you don’t just go in with your guns blazing and just start negotiating,” Apted observes. “When we went in, we knew there was a deal at the end of the line. We did it with the people (who) matter. I think we had an instinct that we could not allow the CEOs to abstract themselves from the process, because there were major philosophical policy decisions that were made, and they had to pay attention.”

For the DGA, there were two keys to closing the deal — spelling out the specifics of jurisdiction over new media productions and reuse, and guaranteeing access to the new-media deals and data. A year later, Apted stresses, enforcement of that contract — both in new media and traditional formats — has become the top priority for the DGA leadership.

“It’s so complex how you monetize new media that enforcement can get lost in the fog,” he says. “It’s all very well to spend all this money doing research for the deal, but you have to enforce the deal. And that is complex. We have whole departments who are constantly monitoring it. As time goes on, we’ll get more data on how much money there really is in it.”

For its part, the WGA filed a grievance in November over how the companies are interpreting the effective dates of the provisions of the contract, alleging that residuals for programs sold as electronic downloads cover feature films produced after 1971 and television programs produced after 1977. The companies are taking the position that only programs produced after Feb. 13, 2008, are covered by the provision.

The DGA, which saw its contract go into effect 4½ months after the WGA’s on July 1, is far more circumspect due to the amount of time and expense for the companies to get new systems up and running to handle the new revenue streams.

“It’s going to take time, and it’s a very complicated process,” Apted notes. “I think there is good will — they have an obligation to us, and we haven’t been trying to cream them. We’ve got our foot in the door, and we want an honest, honorable accounting. And it means that we will have hard figures in the next negotiation.”

Apted won’t be president at that point and hopes instead to be shooting the third installment of the “Chronicles of Narnia” franchise, “The Dawn Treader.” He’s planning to step down as DGA prez this summer after three two-year terms, saying it’s important that “new blood” be brought into the guild’s top slot.

Evaluating the future of the DGA’s 14,000 members, Apted isn’t particularly optimistic.

“We’re hurting,” he notes bluntly. “… Our health and pension plan is in good shape, but no one knows the depths of this with layoffs all over the place. It’s a very, very worrying time for me and for all of my members.”

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