From the current print edition of BTL:
DGA Enters Strike Fray
By Jack Egan
The question now hovering over Hollywood is whether the decision by the Directors Guild of America to schedule its own contract negotiations with the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers can also break the logjam in talks between the Writers Guild of America and the AMPTP that has led to a strike now in its second month. Calling the current situation “dire,” the DGA’s leadership announced Dec. 13 that the guild will seek to schedule talks with the studios soon after the start of the new year. That move has raised hopes that the writers, concerned they will be hung out to dry if the directors and studios reach a quick deal, will become more eager to seek a prompt resumption of the stalled talks.
A contrary outcome could also be in the cards. The WGA may decide to further dig in its heels, hoping to strike a better deal than the directors get. Or they could decide to lash out, escalating the bitter war of words that has flared since the breakdown in the talks on Dec. 7, which would make it harder to get back to the bargaining table. The studios, for their part, sensing they’re holding a stronger hand, could also become more recalcitrant.
Indeed, the same day the DGA revealed its negotiating timetable, the WGA filed an unfair labor practices complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging the alliance of studios violated the law by unilaterally breaking off talks on Dec. 7. AMPTP responded by calling the complaint a “baseless, desperate” move.
The DGA has traditionally begun talks with AMPTP well before its contract expires – in this case on June 30 – in order to cut a deal early, expecting to have an easier time negotiating its demands by not going to the brink.
The WGA has been amply criticized for deliberately delaying the start of its current talks with AMPTP until a few weeks before its contract expired at the end of October. IATSE president Tom Short has been especially vocal on the matter, repeatedly predicting it would lead to an industry-wide shutdown.
Film LA issued a report in mid-December generally confirming Short’s prognostication, at least when it come to television production. Over 50 scripted television series have stopped shooting since the writers struck on Nov. 5, according to the permitting agency. Requests for new permits to shoot scripted dramas or sitcoms have slowed to a trickle, dropping 91 percent from a year ago. However, some of the slack, has been taken up with an increase in reality shows. And production of theatrical features is up 45 percent compared over a year ago, as studios ratchet up starts on projects that have completed scripts.
The DGA leaders explained that they had been expecting to start their talks with AMPTP several months ago but didn’t want to pull the rug out from under the WGA. “This year we held off starting our own formal talks with the AMPTP for two months out of respect for our sister guild,” DGA president Michael Apted and Gil Cates, chairman of its negotiating committee, wrote in a joint announcement. The two officials declared they were “deeply disappointed” by the breakdown in the talks, so they decided to go ahead with negotiations with the AMPTP on behalf of its own members.
“Because we want to give the WGA and the AMPTP more time to return to the negotiating table to conclude an agreement,” reads the statement, “the DGA will not schedule our negotiations to begin until after the new year.” According to reports, some 50 writers who are also members of the directors guild had implored the DGA to hold off starting talks until the WGA was closer to reaching a satisfactory settlement.
To be sure, the DGA won’t be a pushover in its talks with the AMPTP. The directors want residuals extended to cover distribution of their work over new technology platforms like the internet and mobile phones. That has been a key demand of the WGA. But it has proved to be a stumbling block in their talks with the studios.
Despite the nod toward solidarity with the WGA, the move by the DGA also turns the screws on the writers’ union to reach a settlement sooner rather than later. The WGA, already feeling the heat over its strategy, has now been consigned to a corner by the DGA’s desire to proceed with its own negotiations.
Short, who leads the organization that represents the town’s 18 below-the-line unions, chimed in with his own response. Short – who has been extremely critical of the WGA leadership, likening them to “a huge clown car that’s only missing the hat and the horns” – issued a statement praising the DGA’s intention to start negotiating after the beginning of 2008. “IATSE
fully supports the Directors Guild’s desire to try and get the industry working again,” he said, adding that “the DGA has chosen to something very difficult and I am sure those who don’t want the strike to end will attack them for it.”
He stated the WGA and AMPTP “must now get down to business to hammer out a fair deal,” and expressed hope that the DGA’s announcement “will spur them to do just that.” If a resumption in talks doesn’t take place, “then for the sake of all the working people in our industry, the DGA deserves a chance to bring its voice of reason to the table.”
Meanwhile, collateral damage from the strike mounts daily. The award shows like the Golden Globes and the Oscars may not only go without lines written for the host or presenters, but could face picketing and boycotts from invited attendees. More seriously, layoffs of below-the-line crew and other entertainment industry workers by the tens of thousands loom.
Expressing frustration at being caught in the crossfire, nearly 1,000 grips, costume designers, prop makers and many other members of local IATSE unions held a march through downtown Hollywood on Dec. 9 behind a banner that read: “We’re Walkin’ So They’ll Keep Talking.” The demonstration gained widespread attention from local and national media.
In an attempt to isolate the writers and get backing for its own stance from other entertainment guilds, AMPTP has expressed sympathy for the plight of IATSE members in a press release: “While the WGA’s world-class health care benefits remain secure, tens of thousands of below-the-line workers are seeing their health insurance jeopardized by the continuing strike.”
Whatever the motive, the threat to the health and pension benefits of IA guild members from a prolonged strike is very real if the WGA strike lasts a lot longer.
A crew worker must put in at least 300 hours of work every six months in order to qualify for benefits. Up to 450 hours can be for future use, if a worker falls short of the requirement. But when the banked hours drop below 300 and someone is out of work for six months eligibility for medical care and pension contributions vanishes.
But with the directors now jumping into the negotiating fray, recent predictions that the WGA strike might go on for another three to six months before a settlement is achieved may turn out to be far too pessimistic.