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DGA’s Roth key to guild accords

Writers, thesps on edge as talks loom

Meet Jay Roth, Hollywood’s new Lew Wasserman.

Through a series of unexpected events, the DGA’s national exec director looks like the showbiz point person on making a deal to ensure Hollywood’s labor peace.

It’s an unusual position for Roth, who came onboard in 1995 after a long career as a labor attorney specializing in the entertainment biz.

Though the New York native is engaging in private and respected in Hollywood circles, he’s assiduously avoided the spotlight during his nine-year tenure, always preferring that the president — starting with Gene Reynolds, followed by Jack Shea, Martha Coolidge and now Michael Apted — operate as the public voice of the guild.

But with critical contract negotiations launching Aug. 24 between the directors and the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers, Roth’s emerged as the go-to figure.

In a surprising show of union solidarity, SAG and the WGA have checked their egos and maneuvered themselves into alignment with the DGA. Essentially, they’ve handed the keys of the Hollywood guild car to Roth with the understanding that the DGA’s probably their best shot at getting an improved deal.

The three guilds want the same things: more money for health and pension plans; a change in the 20-year-old residuals formula that covers the lucrative DVD market; and jurisdiction over reality TV.

On the face of it, there’s reason for the studios and networks to be confident that they can reach a deal with the directors:

  • The DGA is viewed as the most unlikely of the major showbiz unions to stage a work stoppage, having struck only once in its history — a three-hour one in 1987.

  • Directors probably have the best understanding of the intricacies of studio finances.

  • Successful directors are more likely to opt for consensus and compromise.

  • The DGA plays its cards close to the vest and avoids inflaming its members.

  • Finally, the DGA shows up at the table focused on key proposals rather than peripheral issues.

The thinking is that a DGA deal will require the guild to achieve some kind of major gain. In the 2001 negotiations, the AMPTP agreed to revamp the contract so that film-style TV shows would be covered by the film terms rather than the less advantageous freelance provisions — even if they were shot on digital video.

What’s not entirely clear is why the studios and nets have allowed themselves to be put in this awkward position in the first place — especially after SAG and the WGA thoroughly rattled the town’s cage in 2001 with the threat of strikes because their contracts expired back-to-back.

One explanation: There’s no current equivalent of Wasserman to close the deal. For top execs, hammering out intricate labor deals is a big headache that they’d just as soon avoid.

Additionally, some observers believe the massiveness of the mega-congloms makes it harder for the individual heads of studios and nets to get completely on the same page.

“You wind up in a situation in negotiations where they make a lousy offer and keep saying ‘no’ to any alternatives in hopes of stampeding the guilds into a bad deal,” one insider notes.

The guilds’ aligning began in earnest last February, during the height of award season. SAG decided at that point to seek a one-year extension without hikes in residuals and move its expiration back to next June 30 — same as the DGA’s.

The WGA then negotiated for two months until talks broke down June 2 and told its members to keep working under the expired contract — essentially betting that AMPTP president Nick Counter wouldn’t take the potentially explosive step of locking out the scribes with DGA negotiations approaching while assuring the town that they won’t call a strike authorization vote.

“To put it plainly, our strategy is based on the fundamental premise that we are much more likely to get the result we want by doing what we can to move ourselves out of the schedule the producers would like to impose on us, and into one that puts us at the table at the same time as our sister guilds,” WGA West exec director John McLain and negotiating committee chair John Furia Jr. said Aug. 25.

“With this in mind, we believe it makes much more sense to keep our powder dry until our sister guilds are back at the table — at which point our negotiating leverage increases.”

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