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Can “shouting distance” be traversed in a matter of days?

Showbiz insiders were hopeful at the prospect that the Directors Guild of America could reach a tentative contract pact with the majors as early as this week, after DGA leaders spent Saturday and Sunday in formal contract negotiations with reps for the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. Those talks followed several weeks of highly productive informal conversations between DGA and AMPTP leaders that, by many accounts, narrowed the issues and set the parameters for the formal bargaining seshes.

The AMPTP and DGA have instituted a news blackout until the talks have concluded. It’s understood that headway was made at the weekend sessions, held at AMPTP’s Encino HQ, and the sides will be back at the table today.

Nobody’s saying it explicitly, but the vibe in the biz is that the deadline the AMPTP member companies face for breaking the stalemate with the WGA and getting the town back to work is dictated by the Feb. 24 Academy Awards. If the industry’s biggest and glitziest celebration of itself is torpedoed by labor strife, a la Sunday’s Golden Globe Awards, many predict that the turmoil in showbiz could extend well into the second half of the year.

In an effort to avert such a doomsday scenario, DGA leaders made a point of initiating extensive outreach to AMPTP and their key member companies to come to an understanding about the parameters of the talks and to identify the explosive issues for both sides, so that by the time the sides sat down for formal talks, each would have a deep understanding of the other’s priorities and sensitivities.

DGA exec director Jay Roth and negotiating committee chairman Gil Cates spearheaded these diplomatic missions with Peter Chernin, prexy and chief operating officer of News Corp., and Robert Iger, prexy-CEO of Walt Disney Co. It’s understood that Chernin, Iger and other key AMPTP chiefs met Thursday for an update and strategy sesh prior to setting the start date for DGA talks.

Industry observers were quick to laud the DGA’s approach, and the decision by both sides to channel the informal outreach 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 said.

DGA prexy Michael Apted sounded very optimistic in a note in a message sent to members Friday, after the guild and AMPTP jointly announced that formal talks would begin Saturday.

“As I have stated before, we would not enter negotiations with the AMPTP unless we were within shouting distance of an agreement on our two most important issues: jurisdiction for our members to work in new media and appropriate compensation for the reuse of our work on the Internet and other new-media platforms,” Apted wrote. “There are still hurdles to jump. However, we would not be going forward unless we believed we could make a good deal.”

In response to Friday’s announcement of the DGA talks, WGA and SAG issued a joint statement cautioning the town, and their own members, against placing too much weight on the Directors Guild negotiations.

“We wish the DGA well and hope that they achieve a fair deal that incorporates principles that will benefit all creative artists,” the guilds said in a statement. “The DGA has to do what is best for its membership, but it is important to remember that they do not represent actors and writers.”

DGA talks have taken on heightened significance in the context of the 11-week-old strike by the Writers Guild of America. The perception in the biz is that the DGA has become the de facto negotiator for the WGA given the lack of communication between the writers and the AMPTP since the latter broke off the last round of talks with the WGA on Dec. 7.

The AMPTP’s strategy since then appears to be squarely focused on getting a deal done with the DGA that could then be the basis for resuming talks with the WGA. Industry vets say that once the DGA has a deal in hand, the WGA will likely face pressure from some of its strike-weary members to make some concillatory steps to help get the AMPTP back to the table. The AMPTP ended the last round of talks last month after telling the WGA that it would not continue unless the guild dropped six of its bargaining points, including its bid for jurisdiction over reality and animation.

The fact that the DGA’s formal talks began on a weekend illustrates the sense of urgency and the extra burden the DGA has been saddled with in light of the deep freeze in relations between the WGA and AMPTP. Any deal forged with the DGA will likely be used by the AMPTP as the basis for the majors’ approach to SAG, whose contract expires at the same time as the DGA’s, on June 30.

The lack of fiery rhetoric and charged public commentary on the contract situation from DGA leaders created a much more welcoming environment in which top execs like Iger and Chernin could become actively engaged. Informed sources were quick to point out that the DGA has spent a good deal of time and resources on researching the key issue at stake in the negotiations, namely, how to compensate helmers when their work is distribbed on the Internet and other new-media platforms.

New-media compensation has been at the crux of the WGA work stoppage. Insiders said the DGA is zeroing in on the same issues of ad-supported Web streaming and paid digital downloads, but from a more measured perspective, aided by the guild’s own research into the financial underpinnings of the new-media landscape today and its growth prospects for the near term. As with the WGA, the DGA’s top priorities include gaining jurisdiction for original work done for the Internet as well as for new-media productions derived from existing film and TV skeins.

It’s possible that any new-media formulas developed will include a sunset provision that will force the sides to re-evaluate the terms in their next contract.

Knowledgable industry insiders characterized the DGA’s thinking on new media as one of determination to address the issue of the current lopsided, or in some cases nonexistent, compensation formulas, but realistic about what the congloms are willing to commit to when it comes to businesses they don’t yet fully understand. One key point of concern for congloms has been the uncertainty about the long-term impact of Web streaming and paid downloads of TV shows and movies on the old-fashioned profit centers of off-network syndication and homevid sales.

The optimistic view is that a DGA agreement will break the stalemate and get the AMPTP back to the table with the WGA.

With the economic toll of the WGA strike mounting by the day, the start of DGA talks was taken as good news by many in the biz last week, particularly after the downscaled Golden Globes became the poster child for the collateral damage caused by the work stoppage.

“If the DGA is successful in negotiating an agreement, I would hope the WGA would follow their example and help all of us get back to work soon,” Steven Poster, prexy of the IATSE-affiliated Intl. Cinematographers Guild, said in a message to members on Sunday.

Poster echoed the comments of Thomas Short, prexy of IATSE, whose members’ livelihoods have been severely affected by the strike.

“The industry is in trouble, and tens of thousands of people are out of work,” Short said. “I hope that the DGA and the AMPTP can reach an agreement that puts us all on the road to getting back to work.”

Dave McNary contributed to this article.