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Long before he became a lead negotiator for the Directors Guild of America, Gilbert Cates honed his skills as a fencer.

In college he would spend hours some days lunging at "suspended doughnuts" to sharpen his aim before facing a human opponent.

Cates is preparing for his next parry and thrust -- a labor negotiation with the major studios that could determine whether Hollywood returns to work any time soon. Writers are in the eighth week of a strike that has shut down scores of TV shows and idled thousands of production workers.

Hopes of a quick end to the walkout were dashed this month, when studios broke off talks with writers as the sides failed to reach agreement on how writers should be paid for work distributed over the Internet.

Some are now looking to Cates and the DGA to break the logjam.

"There is no question that the DGA is negotiating for everybody," said Bill Condon, who wrote and directed "Dreamgirls." "The issue that has united our membership and the DGA membership is new media."

A longtime Hollywood insider, Cates is seen by the studios as someone with whom they can deal, in contrast to the more aggressive adversaries who lead the writers. He and DGA Executive Director Jay Roth are known for their nonconfrontational style and have a history of settling contracts peacefully and quickly.

It's a reputation Cates doesn't dispute. "We all want a piece of the Internet. The difference is not in what we want but in the tactics we use to get it," he said in a recent interview.

A deal on a new contract between the directors and the studios could not only undercut the writers' demands, it could weaken the position of actors. The powerful Screen Actors Guild, whose contract expires in June, has supported the writers. But Hollywood has a history of "pattern bargaining," in which the first contract settled between one of the talent unions and the studios tends to become the template for subsequent contracts.

Cates can't afford to appear to rush into a deal. He and Roth must negotiate a contract that is acceptable to the guild's 13,400 members, who share many of the striking writers' concerns about Internet pay.

Cates, 73, will be pressured to forge an agreement that is palatable to writers. He's still remembered, none too fondly by some Hollywood scribes, as the deal maker who gave away the lion's share of income from home video sales during a contract negotiation more than two decades ago.

Beyond reaching agreement on a new contract, the directors say their broader goal is to help end a strike that has crippled the working lives of their members, who include production managers, assistant directors, associate directors and stage managers.

Some top writers, including a contingent who belong to both unions, hope Cates can break the stalemate in the WGA's negotiations. Studios have refused to bargain with writers until they take several proposals off the table, among them demands to extend union benefits to writers who work in reality TV and feature animation and the right to support other unions' strikes without fear of reprisal.

Over the last two weeks, several leading TV writers have been quietly lobbying directors to stress their mutual concerns, such as payment for work on the Web, and to make it clear they won't accept a deal that mirrors what the studios have already offered.

"I have the profoundest respect for the directors I work with, and I want them to get the same deal we're asking for," said Neal Baer, a WGA negotiating committee member and executive producer of "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit."

The writers previously rejected as paltry a studio proposal to pay them for the streaming and downloading of their work on the Internet. Among other things, writers complained that the proposal would pay them less than $250 a year for the reuse of a one-hour drama. The studios maintain that the writers' demands are unrealistic given the uncertainty about the growth of online entertainment.

The DGA spent more than a year and nearly $2 million researching the future of online entertainment with the help of outside consultants. In a meeting with WGA leaders last week, DGA officials shared their findings, which buttress studio arguments that Web business is still in the formative stage, according to people familiar with the research.

Writers Guild officials countered with their own findings that show rapid and strong growth of digital media.

In the past, the two guilds have been guarded about sharing such information, reflecting a history of strained relations.

The bad blood dates to 1984, when Cates negotiated a contract that included a discounted pay formula for residuals from home video sales. Writers had been seeking a higher rate and felt weakened by the DGA's agreement, which became the model for subsequent talent union contracts.

Over the years, writers have tried but failed to garner a bigger share of revenue, even as the home video and DVD business boomed.

Aware that their organization is sometimes viewed as being too cozy with the studios, DGA leaders stressed in a recent letter to their membersthat they weren't "pushovers. . . . We have never been that and don't plan to start now."

The directors say they would normally have already begun their negotiations for a new contract; the current one expires June 30. They held off to give writers a chance to settle their own contract, but the directors are off the sidelines now that the writers and the studios haven't returned to the bargaining table.

In fact, some believe that the writers strike gives directors more leverage because studios are eager to end what has been an economically painful walkout. A deal with the directors would also hand the studios an advantage in the public relations war with the writers, whom the studios portray as intransigent.

Despite their overlapping concerns, the directors are expected to be more flexible than the writers on residual payments. That's because directors typically rely less on residuals for income because they usually are paid more than writers. Furthermore, 40% of DGA members are production workers who tend to care more about health and pension benefits than residuals.

In the recent interview, Cates said he was well-prepared for next month's negotiations. The two sides have been talking for more than a year about the issues and last week agreed on an agenda for the talks.

Notably, the agenda focuses on the Internet and does not include such non-starter issues as the right to support other unions' strikes that the writers have kept on the table, according to people close to the situation.

"I promise we will know more about the issues than management does," Cates said.

A former dean of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, Cates has been active in DGA affairs since he joined the union's board back in 1975. He was president of the guild in the mid-1980s, when it led a successful fight against the practice of coloring black-and-white films. He also presided over the DGA's first "strike" in its 71-year history; the walkout lasted only five minutes.

Cates is known to the public as the impresario behind the annual Academy Award show. He is slated to produce his 14th Oscar telecast in February.

That places him in an especially awkward position because the Writers Guild has said it won't allow its members -- who pen everything from the cornball jokes to presenter remarks -- to work on the 80th awards show.

Although he is vilified by some writers as too close to the studios, Cates' supporters say he has used his extensive contacts in the industry to deliver solid gains for guild members.

In 1981, for example, Cates helped negotiate a deal for residual payments from HBO and other cable TV channels that ended up being far better than the pact the writers negotiated for themselves.

Writers Guild leaders, for their part, have publicly downplayed the significance of the DGA talks, emphasizing that their agenda won't be set by another union.

"We wish them well," the guild said this month, "but they do not represent writers."

richard.verrier@latimes.com

claudia.eller@latimes.com

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