He drives a hard bargain for the studios

Times Staff Writer

For 25 years, Hollywood’s biggest studios have relied on a bespectacled former college halfback to make peace with their workers.

In overseeing some 400 labor contracts with writers, actors, film crews, musicians and scores of other professions, J. Nicholas Counter III has deftly kept Hollywood working, save for one major strike by writers in 1988. Despite his being the designated nemesis of Hollywood labor and taking the public slings and arrows that come with being the industry’s chief negotiator, even his opponents can rarely recall Counter losing his cool.

But Counter’s nerves are in for a big test starting next week. Formal talks begin with an increasingly restless union for about 12,000 TV and film writers, followed next year by similar negotiations with representatives of nearly 120,000 actors. At a time when digital distribution and the Internet are upending Hollywood, its talent guilds are bent on making significant strides regardless of which technologies flourish.

In addition, Counter, 67, must keep in line his own small club of powerful studio bosses. Their businesses have spread beyond the days when they were all largely film and TV operations. Now they are also involved in cable, music, the Internet, publishing, theme parks, video games and other entertainment areas. What’s good for one company may not necessarily benefit another.


“Nick has got one of the toughest jobs in Hollywood, keeping not only our group together but keeping the relative peace that has existed between labor and management over so many years and over so many thorny issues,” said Warner Bros. Chief Executive Barry Meyer.

“When everyone else about him is losing their cool and their heads, Nick is the rock that keeps everything in shape.”

Counter’s formal title is president of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, a group housed in the same Encino building as the industry’s trade group, the Motion Picture Assn. of America. Although Counter technically represents more than 350 film and television producers, big studios and media giants such as Warner Bros., Walt Disney Co. and News Corp. hold sway in contract talks. An 11-person board, each member holding veto power, controls the alliance.

Counter’s tactics often involve putting opponents on the defensive, portraying their positions as unreasonable while rattling off statistics showing the industry’s economic woes. When leaders of the Writers Guild of America recently telegraphed their demands, including securing “fair compensation” for entertainment distributed over emerging technologies, he publicly blasted them as an “assault on the industry.”

Guild leaders dismiss such remarks as ploys to unnerve the rank and file.

“That’s the sort of thing he does,” said Patric M. Verrone, president of the Writers Guild of America, West. “It’s worked well for him in the past, but I don’t know that it worked this time.”

He’s also good at saying no. Dan Petrie Jr., a former president of the guild, recalls presenting 35 proposals to Counter at the beginning of 2004 negotiations.

“He said no to every single proposal,” said Petrie, who had found it so absurd he ultimately giggled.


But Counter also tries to disarm his foes by building relationships with them and showing a soft side. During one session with the Writers Guild in 2004, Counter gave an emotional speech paying tribute to Petrie’s father, a prominent director who had just died.

Anne-Marie Johnson, a former top Screen Actors Guild officer, recalls how Counter consoled her when in the middle of negotiations in 2001 she learned of the passing of her “In the Heat of the Night” co-star Carroll O’Connor.

“He just commented on the work we had done and what a great show it was,” she says. “I’ll never forget it.”

After Alan Rosenberg was elected SAG president, Counter invited him for drinks. Counter had done his homework, surprising Rosenberg by knowing his golf handicap.


“What makes him so tough in my opinion is that he’s extremely likable,” Rosenberg said.

The affable grandfather heads a staff of about 35. His makeshift desk is a large oak table overrun with files, one marked “action items,” and yellow legal pads with notes scribbled on some of the 80 contracts he handles.

A leather sofa nearby is covered in legal binders and actuarial charts from various health and pension funds on which he serves, calling it “the most rewarding part of my job.” Counter is known for a near-photographic memory, which gives him intimate knowledge of contracts that can span 600 pages.

His fascination with labor issues developed while he worked summers in a Colorado steel mill where his was father rose from salesman to vice president. “What I learned was that unions come about because of bad management,” he said.


He was an amateur boxer and a star football player in high school, later playing halfback at the University of Colorado, where he earned a full scholarship to study electrical engineering. His playing days are on display on the bridge of his nose, still flattened from an ill-fated tackle. As for his toughness, Counter the peacemaker once threw himself into the middle of a fight between a teammate and a burly rival, who turned out to be future Hollywood Teamsters official Leo Reed.

Counter shifted to law, studying at Stanford University before becoming a labor attorney in Los Angeles. The studios tapped him in 1982 to unify the newly formed alliance, whose members had previously squabbled over how labor negotiations should be conducted.

“I planned on doing it for three years and then getting back to my practice,” Counter said.

He insisted that companies act with one voice, viewing a “strike against one as a strike against all.” Instead of responding to union demands, he made companies craft proposals.


“He was a catalytic force in building trust among all the employers as well as with the unions,” said Tom Wertheimer, a former top MCA executive.

Counter’s biggest test came six years later during the 1988 strike by writers that lasted 22 weeks and cost the industry an estimated $500 million. Counter and his labor counterparts became convinced that future disruptions could be avoided if negotiations began well before contract expirations.

In those days, Counter had an important backer in powerful MCA Chairman Lew Wasserman, who could settle disputes with one phone call. Today, however, Counter reports to a board of midlevel labor relations executives, whose top bosses rarely get directly involved.

“Everybody has different ideas and different concerns and priorities,” said former Warner Bros. Chairman Bob Daly


Despite Counter’s combative rhetoric, opponents say he is cool and stone-faced at the negotiating table. He speaks in a monotone and is sometimes so quiet people complain that he mumbles. Occasionally, his sentences trail and his statements leave the other side guessing just what he said.

“He’s wily,” said Gil Cates, who chairs the negotiations committee of the Directors Guild of America. “I’ve learned to listen to him very carefully.”

He’ll often negotiate late into the night -- one marathon session in 1983 lasted 41 hours -- and staff have to remind him to allow time for bathroom and meeting breaks.

When he’s angry, his face turns beet red. He glares at opponents, sometimes wagging a finger, while raising his voice in outrage, saying things like, “That’s a strike issue,” or “You don’t want to go there.” One of the most sensitive areas is giving writers and actors a bigger slice of DVD sales. The guilds believe they have been shortchanged, while Counter contends that the revenue is needed to offset movie losses.


Still, he has a sense of where compromise can be reached, knowing that the other side has to save face when presenting a contract to members for a vote. Often it can involve a sweetener in the form of a pay bump or added health benefits.

“You have to be very creative in this industry to figure out what works for both sides, and where there’s a point of compromise that the unions can sell and that I can sell to management,” he said.

Added Thomas Short, president of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees: “With Nick, what you see is what you get. His word has always been good with me.”

Once a deal is reached, Counter lets the unions do the talking, sensitive to coming off as grandstanding.


“Nick never allows his ego to get in the way of making a deal, which is a remarkable thing in Hollywood,” said John McLean, a former Writers Guild executive director.