The Century Plaza will be filled Saturday night with Hollywood’s most notable filmmakers, but don’t be surprised if the most sought-after conversation during cocktail hour at the DGA Awards is with the guild’s labor lawyer.
Indeed, at a time when the Directors Guild’s successful contract negotiations with the AMPTP– and the Writers Guild’s lack thereof — are the morbidly obese elephants in the room, DGA executive director Jay Roth might be as compelling a figure as there is … well, maybe outside of guild negotiating committee chair Gilbert Cates.
It’s probably no coincidence, then, that the DGA chose this year to crown Roth, a 13-year guild veteran, with its Life Member Award — an honor often given to creatives (Carl Reiner received it last year), but also bestowable to org denizens.
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Roth’s role became prominent four years ago when the DGA settled with producers while WGA negotiations hit a stalemate — and then again 2½ months ago when the WGA rocked the town by staging a bitter strike.
With Roth working alongside Cates, the DGA was able to come to an agreement with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers on Jan. 17 after six days of negotiating, fomenting the first ray of hope regarding the writers strike since talks broke down between the WGA and the producers in early December.
In an effort to avert an impasse that would have greatly compounded the WGA stalemate, DGA leaders maintained extensive dialog with AMPTP officials and their key member companies before negotiators started to come to an understanding about the parameters of the talks and to identify the explosive issues for both sides. The goal: By the time the sides sat down for formal talks, each would have a deep understanding of the other’s priorities and sensitivities.
Roth and Cates spearheaded these diplomatic missions with Peter Chernin, prexy and chief operating officer of News Corp., and Robert Iger, Disney prexy and CEO.
Industry observers lauded the decision by both sides to channel the informal conversations through just a few people who were empowered to speak for their respective sides. The small group was able to engage in the kind of earnest and frank communication that was sorely lacking in the WGA’s fitful negotiations with the AMPTP, insiders say.
Still, regardless of any bargaining triumphs or lifetime achievement kudos, the New York-native Roth — who had a lengthy tenure in Hollywood labor law through a private practice before joining the DGA in 1995 — doesn’t do press. In fact, a guild memo from high up that went out to org members before negotiations started pretty much sums up Roth’s position on matters media: “Our goal is the best deal possible for our members, not good press copy,” it read.
Then again, news blackouts can only go so far, with Cates and DGA prexy Michael Apted releasing the unsurprising glowing statements about Roth during the announcement of his kudo last month:
“I have worked with him for going on 25 years now and no matter how difficult or obscure the situation, it is his laser-sharp ability to slice through to the core of the problem that most often reveals the best solution,” Cates said.
“If there’s anyone who can find himself in a labyrinth, pick his way through and come out the other side, it’s Jay,” Apted added.
Of course, even if the DGA is reluctant to talk, money isn’t — Roth remains one of the highest-paid labor lawyers in the entertainment business, receiving $686,673 in salary and other disbursements in 2006. He took home another $1.02 million in deferred compensation in 2005 as a bonus for length of service, a common incentive for retaining top corporate execs, DGA officials maintain.