Formal talks won't begin until November

Now that the DGA has set the date for the start of its contract talks with the majors, the big question on the horizon for Hollywood labor-watchers is when will the WGA take its turn at the bargaining table?

The DGA, which has traditionally gone first in contract talks with the majors, announced Wednesday that it will wait to start its formal talks until mid-November, after SAG and AFTRA have concluded a seven-week period for negotiations starting Oct. 1 that was established last year as a deal point in SAG’s current contract.

The WGA would not comment on its timetable for negotiations, even though the scribes’ contract expires on May 1, 2011, two months before its sister guilds. That’s an indication that the WGA will opt for its usual strategy of waiting until the expiration is only a few months away before launching its talks with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers.

In a statement, DGA prexy Taylor Hackford and negotiating committee chairman Gil Cates said specifically that the DGA would wait until after the performers unions have completed scheduled contract talks with the AMPTP. The SAG-AFTRA primetime-feature talks are scheduled to run from Oct. 1 to Nov. 15. The DGA duo also said they’ll meet informally with the congloms prior to November.

The SAG, AFTRA and DGA deals all expire on June 30, 2011. Reps for the WGA, AMPTP, AFTRA and SAG declined to comment.

With a far more moderate elected leadership in place at SAG than during the 2008 talks, the fall negotiations could lead to SAG and AFTRA reaching a deal prior to the DGA — a scenario that has not occurred in the recent rounds of bargaining.

The DGA has traditionally gone first to the negotiations with the AMPTP but SAG negotiated the seven-week bargaining period into its current contract — after SAG leaders complained extensively that the DGA had been allowed to go first and “set the template” for the subsequent deals.

The DGA’s strategy of going to bargaining at least six months prior to expiration is based on the belief that starting talks early carries the highest probability of obtaining a “premium” from the AMPTP in exchange for the assurance of labor peace. The WGA’s strategy of waiting out the companies stems partly from the belief that the companies will make the best deal when they’re faced with the real probability of a work stoppage.

In 2007 the WGA launched its contract talks with the AMPTP just 3½ months before its contract expired, and the impasse that arose between the sides fueled the 100-day strike. The DGA began talks in January during the third month of the strike and quickly hammered out a deal with specifics for new-media compensation, which became the template for other guild pacts.

“As is our custom, we will engage with the AMPTP to clarify and narrow the issues before the beginning of formal negotiations,” Hackford and Cates said Wednesday. “We will use these discussions to confirm that both parties are committed to negotiating a fair agreement that will protect the economic and creative rights of DGA members while accomplishing the important objective of keeping our industry working in this challenging period.”

The DGA leaders noted that they began serious preparations for the negotiations well in advance of its contract expiration with Cates tapped as negotiations chair in January. It’s the fourth consecutive time that Cates has headed the DGA’s bargaining committee, which will be appointed in June.

“Our consultants and research department have begun updating our business and revenue forecasts and assimilating the data collected in the last few years,” the duo said Wednesday. “Our councils, committees and staff have also begun their work to identify issues and prepare proposals. Our full Negotiating Committee will be appointed in June and will begin meeting this summer to prepare the DGA proposals.”

Hackford and Cates also said they “wholeheartedly” support SAG’s and AFTRA’s decision to move forward with joint negotiations.

SAG announced earlier this month that president Ken Howard would head the guild’s negotiating committee.

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