January 4, 2008 / 3:25 AM / 10 years ago

Studios and directors begin informal contract talks

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - The Directors Guild of America has begun casual contract talks with the studios, and an announcement of formal negotiations appears likely within the coming week, a step that ensures the writers strike will persist for some time.

With its focus turned to the DGA talks, the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers (AMPTP) has little incentive to seek an accommodation with the Writers Guild of America (WGA), which has been on strike since November 5.

The situation still could implode if the AMPTP fails to assure DGA brass that the union will be rewarded for entering early contract talks. The DGA is under contract through June 30, but the guild has a history of negotiating new contracts about six months early and has signaled an interest in commencing formal talks soon.

The AMPTP would love for the DGA to do just that, if only to show that at least one Hollywood labor organization is willing to engage with the studio organization.

Discussions between the directors and studios thus far have primarily involved conference calls, with little face time among those who will sit at the bargaining table. It has taken the better part of a week to contact some of the interested parties, with executives still getting back from vacations.

Sources said it appears the informal talks could last well into next week. But once the informal phase is over, the start of negotiations would be almost immediate.

New-media residuals -- or how writers should be compensated when their work is reused over the Internet or mobile platforms -- represent the central issue in the WGA’s standoff with the AMPTP, though other matters such as reality TV jurisdiction and the right to go out on sympathy strikes have further complicated the impasse. The DGA also is expected to focus on new media and has gathered exhaustive research on the subject.

Some suggest that the directors will prove more interested in jurisdictional rights over new-media content than in residual minimums, which often are covered in the personal contracts of top directors. Certainly, WGA leadership is concerned that whatever deal the DGA cuts will be forced upon writers as a template, and they have vowed to resist any such effort.

Entertainment attorney Jonathan Handel, a former Writers Guild executive, said a preliminary chat about new-media issues has likely figured prominently in the DGA’s prenegotiation discussions with the AMPTP.

“I would be shocked if they had not shared some of the findings of their (new media) study in an off-the-record sort of basis,” Handel said.

The DGA hired veteran attorney and Hollywood dealmaker Ken Ziffrin to conduct much of its new-media research. Scuttlebutt has it that the study largely supports the AMPTP’s claim that new-media businesses are still works in progress, a finding that could shape the directors’ approach to negotiations with the studio group.

The AMPTP proposed to the WGA simply studying the matter of new-media compensation for three years, delaying any expansion of residuals until the writers’ next contract. The studio group eventually backed off that proposal, but its alternate proposal for modest improvements in writers’ current new-media terms held little more sway with the WGA.

The DGA could take a middle-ground approach to the question, Handel said. The guild might suggest expanding new-media compensation only modestly, but in doing so secure a specific agreement from the AMPTP to revisit the issue in the parties’ next round of contract talks.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter

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