Guild selects co-chairs of negotiating committee for upcoming contract talks

The Directors Guild of America has given a strong signal that it plans to be first to the bargaining table in the next round of talks with feature and TV production companies.

The DGA tapped Secretary-Treasurer Michael Apted and Fifth VP Thomas Schlamme as co-chairs for its negotiating committee at its national board meeting Sunday. The DGA has not yet set a timetable meeting with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers for a successor deal to its current master contract, which expires on June 30, 2014 — but it’s far ahead of the WGA and SAG-AFTRA at this point.

“As we look ahead to the next round of negotiations, we are carefully examining the creative and economic issues faced by our members working in film and television,” said DGA president Taylor Hackford. “As part of that process, we have asked Michael Apted and Thomas Schlamme, two of our most prominent and experienced feature and television leaders and working members, to serve as the co-chairs and lead our negotiations and they have graciously agreed.”

Hackford succeeded Apted as president in 2009 and announced recently that he won’t seek re-election in May. The DGA’s current three-year successor pact — negotiated at the end of 2010 –contains a 2% annual wage hike and a boost to 15.5% from 14% in pension and health contributions.

It will be the first time since the 1990s that Gil Cates, who passed away in late 2011, has not headed the negotiating committee.

The DGA has tended to be the first of the major Hollywood unions to reach a deal on its master contract with the congloms during each negotiating cycle, though SAG went first during the 2010 cycle as part of its previous pact with the AMPTP. Both SAG and the DGA reached a deal before the end of 2011 — more than six months before the master contracts expired.

DGA leaders have long espoused the notion that negotiating well before expiration is the best strategy for extracting the best terms from the AMPTP with a “premium” in exchange for the guarantee of labor peace.

The DGA, SAG and AFTRA contracts covering that sector all expire on June 30, 2014, but the WGA contract runs out on May 1, 2014. The WGA West’s leaders told members recently that they don’t expect negotiations to start until next year — which is line with the writers strategy of negotiating closer to expiration in hopes that the looming threat of a work stoppage may encourage companies to make the best deal possible.

As for SAG-AFTRA, the performers union will launch negotiations on Feb. 14 with the ad industry on a deal that’s expiring March 31. It’s the first national contract negotiated by SAG-AFTRA since members voted to merge last March.

SAG-AFTRA leaders have already indicated that they don’t expect to launch the prep work for the feature-primetime contract through the required “wages and working conditions” meetings until after the union’s first convention in September. As a result, it’s likely that the DGA will be ready for talks with the AMPTP first.

The DGA came into the spotlight in early 2008 during the latter stages of the bitter WGA strike, closing an agreement spelling out specifics of jurisdiction over new media productions and reuse, and guaranteed access to the new-media deals and data. The new-media provisions in the DGA pact subsequently became the template for the WGA, SAG and AFTRA deals.

The DGA has continued to spend funds on consultants and its own research department to generate data and projections for the negotations. Its leaders tout that data as being more accurate than what’s generated by the individual companies because of the broader scope of the guild’s sources.

Apted pledged Sunday that the DGA will be ready to negotiate. “While we don’t know yet when negotiations will begin, we are preparing well in advance, as we always do, with extensive up-to-the-minute research and a robust and thorough staff and member process to determine our key priorities, so that we will be ready when the time is right,” he said.

Schlamme said the DGA’s core mission is to protect and extend the creative and economic rights of members. He said he and Apted will be working closely with creative rights committee co-chairs Steven Soderbergh and Jonathan Mostow, who have already begun work with their committees.

Apted served as DGA president for three terms from 2003-2009 and oversaw the negotiations in 2004 and 2008. He was first elected to the DGA national board in 2001 and joined the DGA in 1978. He’s also had an extensive career in film with “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” “The World Is Not Enough,” “The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Trader” and the “7Up” documentary series.

Schlamme has served as Fifth VP since 2009 and been a DGA member since 1978. He’s best known for collaborating with Aaron Sorkin on “The West Wing,” for which he won three Emmys.

The DGA said it will appoint the full negotiations committee later this year. National exec director Jay D. Roth will continue to serve as chief professional negotiator.

In recent years the unions have remained on relatively good terms with employers — so much so that the last round of negotiations in 2010-11 with the AMPTP was completed largely under the radar and without controversy. In all three successor contracts, the key gains were a 2% hike in minimums and a 1.5% increase in employer contributions to the pension and health plans.

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