DGA waiting for cue on talks

Guild ready to negotiate with AMPTP

The Directors Guild of America is waiting in the wings should contract negotiations with showbiz scribes remain unproductive.

The DGA signaled Thursday that it’s nearly ready to start negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers. Members were receiving a letter from DGA prexy Michael Apted disclosing that the guild’s negotiating committee held its first meeting last week.

The development came with no progress reported from Thursday’s bargaining session between the WGA and the companies. The five sessions so far — three in July and two this week — have been marked by acrimony, with no apparent progress toward a deal.

Negotiators recessed Thursday with a joint WGA-AMPTP statement announcing only that the resumption date would be determined in “a day or so.” With next week blocked out for pension and health trustee meetings, the earliest date would probably be Oct. 1; the WGA’s contract expires Oct. 31.

Unlike the previous session, in which AMPTP chief Nick Counter blasted the WGA as unresponsive and unprofessional, neither side characterized Thursday’s session in any way.

Even before Apted’s letter went out, the DGA had been widely expected to start negotiations well before the Screen Actors Guild, which faces the same contract expiration date of June 30. SAG prexy Alan Rosenberg said in a recent interview that the guild won’t launch its “wages and working conditions” member meetings — part of the official process of working up a contract proposal — until early next year.

SAG spokeswoman Pamela Greenwalt said Thursday that a negotiations timeline would be discussed by SAG’s national board at its Oct. 27-28 meeting.

Many expect the WGA and AMPTP won’t be able to reach a deal by the Oct. 31 deadline — particularly given the absence of any positive news so far.

Worries have emerged recently that the WGA will strike Nov. 1 or that the studios and nets will lock writers out on that date. But the scenario expected to play out would see scribes continue to work under terms and conditions of the expired contract.

Doing so would enable whatever gains the DGA and SAG can achieve to be included in a deal that’s acceptable to writers.

A similar scenario played out in 2004, when the WGA couldn’t make a deal by the May contract expiration; the DGA made a deal four months later, in September, with major hikes in its health plan. The WGA then reached its current deal in October.

Given the history, it’s also unsurprising that the companies would prefer to negotiate with the DGA, viewed as the most unlikely of the showbiz unions to stage a work stoppage. The directors have staged only one strike in the guild’s history — for less than a day.

Additionally, the DGA’s leadership has been far more stable than that at the other guilds. Apted’s in his third term; Gil Cates is heading the negotiating committee for the third time; and DGA exec director Jay Roth has been in his slot for 12 years.

The DGA’s also viewed as the most likely to show up at the negotiating table with a focus on specific proposals and a united front. However, this negotiation will be daunting, since both sides will have to hammer out a way of resolving the headache-inducing issue of how to pay talent for digital downloads.

In his letter, sent out Tuesday, Apted said the negotiations committee had its first meeting Saturday “to begin the process of examining the complex issues we will be facing and to start preparing our proposals.”

Apted disclosed few other details. He said that future meetings are scheduled in the months ahead and that Cates will be communicating periodically to update members.

“I wish our brothers and sisters at the WGA success in their negotiations with the AMPTP before their contract expires on Oct. 31, 2007,” Apted concluded.

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