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Directors uncertain about their contract talks

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As film and TV writers are walking the picket line, the directors who bring their scripts to life are walking their own fine line.

Directors are in a quandary over when to begin their contract talks with the major studios.

Historically, directors have begun negotiations six to eight months before their contract expires. By that measure, they would have begun negotiations by now to replace their contract, which expires June 30.

But that option is fraught with complications now that writers are in their second week of a strike against the studios that has generated deep animosity between the sides.

In such an emotionally charged climate, directors have so far been reluctant to pull the trigger on their negotiations because the move probably would be perceived by writers as undercutting their fight.

Writers fear that directors might accept pay terms, especially in the area of Internet residuals, that are less favorable than those they are demanding in their own deal, setting an undesirable precedent.

The Directors Guild of America, which represents 13,400 members, is said to be concerned that starting talks now might short-circuit efforts to end the strike quickly and get writers and studios back to negotiating.

"The directors do have a bit of a dilemma," said entertainment attorney Jonathan Handel, former associate counsel for the Writers Guild of America, West. "They want to make a deal, and it's to their advantage to be the leaders. By the same token, directors don't want to appear opportunistic and look as though they're swooping in on the writers guild during their hour of distress and cutting the legs out from underneath the strike."

Directors hope writers resolve their dispute first, letting them set the template for contracts that they and actors could subsequently adopt.

In a recent letter to its members, the DGA said that in deference to the writers, no talks had yet been scheduled with studios.

But the directors' negotiating committee has met three times this fall, most recently Saturday.

On Wednesday, negotiating committee Chairman Gil Cates said in a statement: "We are carefully evaluating the current very fluid situation at this time, and no dates for our negotiations have yet been scheduled."

The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers declined to comment.

For their part, studio executives appear ready to begin bargaining with directors, but the parties haven't discussed a timetable and are waiting for directors to initiate the process.

Bargaining with directors during a strike, however, could be just as tricky for the studios. The move would undoubtedly inflame the writers, possibly making the prospect of a resolution even more elusive.

On the other hand, an early deal with directors could give studios more leverage in their negotiations with writers.

"We're now focusing on what kind of deal we can get with the directors," one studio executive said. "They want to make a deal."

Directors have typically been able to negotiate deals without the kind of rancor that leads to work stoppages.

In fact, in their 71-year history, directors have struck just once, in 1987 -- and it barely qualified. Responding to a cut in residual payments, the walkout lasted five minutes on the West Coast and three hours and five minutes on the East Coast. The lack of labor unrest is hardly surprising, given that directors are inherently closer to management than writers by virtue of their jobs.

"The nature of the director is different from a writer," said director Martha Coolidge, a former DGA president. "Writers end up being creative alone in a room. As directors, once we're hired, we're always looking at what we do from both sides," referring to their dual creative and financial responsibilities.

Similarly, in contrast to writers, directors are known for their less combative approach to negotiations. "Directors make very tough deals with us but they're not as confrontational," the studio executive said.

The guild's executive director, Jay Roth, who has been the union's chief negotiator since 1995, has a strong working relationship with Nick Counter, the studio's chief negotiator. Roth has been an advocate of early negotiations, reasoning that studios are more apt to give ground if they don't have to prepare for a strike by stockpiling scripts and accelerating production.

Even before negotiations, directors have had an informal, ongoing dialogue with studios in the last year on a number of issues, including the changing economics of new media.

Like writers and actors, directors have voiced concerns about getting their fair share of revenue from digital downloads of shows and movies. Last year, the three unions criticized the ABC television network for using a controversial pay formula that applies to DVD sales for determining residuals on TV episodes sold through the Apple iTunes store.

"I don't think they're going to have an easy time of it," John Wells, writer-director ("ER" and "West Wing"), said of upcoming negotiations. "These are issues that affect all three guilds."

Still, directors may be willing to accept a lower rate for Internet residuals than writers want, analysts say. Typically, directors rely less on residuals than writers because of their higher initial pay. About 40% of the members are not directors but are unit production managers, assistant directors, associate directors and stage managers who get mostly small residual payments.

In previous negotiations, the union has put greater emphasis on getting increases in its health and pension plan. In 2004, for example, the guild negotiated the largest benefits package in its history, worth $60 million.

That enabled the writers to go in a few weeks later and get the same deal. Even so, writers complained that directors had undercut them by refusing to push for higher home video residuals. That formula gives writers about 4 cents for every DVD sold and has been a major source of friction between the unions dating to 1985.

Writers had been seeking a higher pay rate and felt undercut when directors agreed to the formula the year before. When the home video and DVD business boomed, writers thought they had been shortchanged.

Now, many writers feel a sense of deja vu. Striking writer-director Paul Haggis ("Crash") said he was not counting on the DGA to do the heavy lifting.

"The DGA has never been supportive of the WGA," he said. "But the writers will be fine being out there on their own."

claudia.eller@latimes.com

richard.verrier@latimes.com

Times staff writer John Horn contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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