Directors Guild reaches tentative deal with congloms

Now it’s the WGA’s turn.

With expectations dampened by the still-shaky economy, the Directors Guild of America reached a tentative three-year deal Tuesday with the majors on a new master contract.

The DGA agreement was reached as three weeks of negotiations concluded at the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers headquarters. Neither side disclosed details about the pact, with the DGA asserting it will release details once its national board meets today to approve the deal, which would trigger a ratification vote by its 14,500 members.

The Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists, which wrapped up their jointly negotiated contract with the majors a month ago, and IATSE issued congratulatory statements. But the Writers Guild of America, which is next up at the bargaining table, had no comment about the DGA deal and hasn’t set a date for its talks.

The WGA’s current pact, hammered out after a bruising 100-day strike that began in November 2007, expires on May 1. The guild has started to return to negotiations footing, tapping John Bowman and Billy Ray as heads of the negotiating committee. It has also issued a list of potential demands, including improving new-media language and improving pay, particularly for cable writers. Those may be nonstarters for the AMPTP, which held annual pay increases to 2% in the SAG-AFTRA deal and presumably in the DGA pact as well.

Prior to the Nov. 16 launch of the DGA talks, the DGA leaders singled out the need to boost employer contributions to the DGA pension and health plans while noting that the new-media residuals carved out in the last round of talks had yet to yield significant revenue for its members.

For its part, the AMPTP sent a clear message four months ago when the companies insisted they would not sway from a 2% hike in wage rates for Teamster drivers. The majors made it clear they would have been ready to endure a strike by the drivers had the Teamsters held out for a 3% increase.

The 3% annual hike used to be standard in the AMPTP’s deals, but since the global financial meltdown in fall 2008, the companies have adhered to capping salary gains at 2% or less in a dozen different agreements. So there was little surprise when SAG and AFTRA reached their deal with 2% annual wage hikes.

Gil Cates, who headed the DGA’s negotiating committee for the fourth consecutive round of talks, noted before the negotiations began that employers haven’t increased their contribution to the DGA’s pension and health plans since 2005, while benefits have been tightened.

The talks started with exactly 7½ months remaining on the current DGA contract, which expires June 30, in keeping with the guild’s strategy of attempting to reach a deal well before expiration — allowing employers to offer the best possible terms as a premium for the assurance of labor peace.

The AMPTP issued a brief statement endorsing the DGA’s tactic of starting negotiations well before the contract expiration. The statement also offered a hint that the DGA had achieved gains in pension and health.

“These early talks allowed us to bridge the gaps created by uncertain economic times and deliver increases in areas critical to DGA members,” the AMPTP said.

For the DGA, employers contribute to the DGA plans an additional 14% of the total compensation paid to directors — 8.5% to health, 5.5% to pension. The WGA receives 14.5% (8.5% health, 6% pension), while SAG receives 15% (9.25% health, 5.75% pension) as does AFTRA (9.75% health, 5.25% pension).

SAG and AFTRA’s tentative deal for features and primetime boosts the employer contribution to 16.5%. All the guild plans are operated separately from the unions and are overseen by a board comprised of reps from the studios and the unions.

A joint board of SAG and AFTRA reps voted Saturday to endorse the deal, which also eliminates first-class air travel for thesps.

The settlement of the Teamsters, SAG/AFTRA and DGA contracts have all been conducted by Carol Lombardini, who succeeded the late Nick Counter as AMPTP prexy a year ago. Lombardini, the AMPTP’s longtime specialist in contract language, faces the same kind of challenge in the current environment of maintaining a unified front among congloms with divergent interests.

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