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Negotiator for Producers Works in Quiet Ways

While Directors Guild President Gilbert Cates has courted public opinion with frequent interviews and sharp rhetoric, movie and TV company negotiator J. Nicholas Counter III has preferred to work in quiet ways.

Tall, with graying hair, the 47-year-old president of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers has generally avoided reporters and dodged the TV cameras.

Behind the scenes, however, Counter has worked feverishly to maintain consensus among more than 200 production companies--about 20 of which hold individual veto power over any move by the alliance because of a stringent rule of unanimity.

“We’ll have a (new) consensus by Friday,” Counter said of the producers’ scramble to come up with a reply to a complex series of contract proposals submitted by directors after their old three-year contract expired last week. “We’ll be very ready to reply.”

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While guild counterpart Cates is the son of a dressmaker who once ran a manufacturer’s trade group, Colorado-born Counter is the son of a one-time mill hand who worked his way into management of a Colorado steel company.

Counter himself received an electrical engineering degree at the University of Colorado. Shortly afterward, however, he went on to law school at Stanford “because engineering was too locked into the mathematics and figures. I wanted to get involved with the people problems.”

Sources familiar with the bargaining sessions between the alliance and the directors variously describe Counter--who does virtually all the talking for the producers even though up to 100 company representatives are often present--as “cool,” “rational” and “extremely tough.”

Counter maintains that the producers’ unanimity and resolve to get contract rollbacks is “the strongest it has been” in the five years since he took charge of the alliance. He attributes the resolve to the rapidly deteriorating economics of movie and TV production.

The current Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers was formed in 1982, indirectly succeeding an industry bargaining group that dissolved in the 1970s after companies such as 20th Century Fox and Paramount decided to conduct negotiations on their own.

A long-time labor lawyer with Mitchell, Silberberg & Knupp--a Los Angeles firm that represented the old bargaining association--Counter has led the producers through 20 bargaining sessions with Hollywood unions, including the Directors Guild, the Writers Guild and others, since 1982.

None, he maintains, has had a clear-cut winner or loser. In Counter’s words: “Negotiations just end with your ability to make a deal.”


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