Studios’ top negotiator is all ears
Carol Lombardini may have the least glamorous job in Hollywood. As the chief negotiator for the major studios, she must find consensus among a group that often has conflicting interests and priorities.
But Lombardini, the new president of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, has had plenty of time to learn what she’s getting into.
The 54-year-old former labor attorney has spent most of her career at the alliance, where she worked under her longtime mentor, Nick Counter, who died last week after retiring this year.
In a recent interview, conducted before Counter passed away, Lombardini shared her thoughts on the new job.
Company Town: You were up until 3 a.m. the other night negotiating a contract with the American Federation of Musicians. Clearly, you don’t keep bankers’ hours.
Lombardini: It happens more often than I would like. There are days when I wish I had a 9-to-5 job.
So how many labor contracts have you been involved in during your career?
I think I’ve participated in more than 300 deals. This is probably one of the most heavily unionized industries in the U.S. When you step foot on a set in Hollywood, you’re automatically dealing with 25 unions. It’s very challenging because you have to know what’s in each contract.
You have a thankless job: The nemesis of Hollywood labor.
As the chief negotiator, you are the target of negative attention from the other side. But the irony of the situation is that, in reality, I’m labor’s closest ally because if I can’t convince my bargaining committee to do something they are asking for, they are not going to get it.
You’re the first female negotiator for the major studios. Are you ready to break up the boys’ club?
We have broken up the boys’ club. When you look at our bargaining committee, I would say we’re 30% women. Women have done a really remarkable job in labor relations. When I first came to this job 27 years ago, there were many people on the management side who probably never would have considered a woman for the top position.
Nick Counter was known as a pugnacious negotiator. Will you adopt a similar approach?
I’m a good listener at the bargaining table. I try to be. I’m still a representative of management. I represent major studios, each of whom has different businesses and in some cases different interests. All of that is the same as it was for Nick. The one area where we may really differ a lot is getting out in front of negotiations. Having regular communications with the guilds and unions, so that we can share perceptions or disagree about what the world looks like, is very important. I’ve already had discussions with representatives of the Writers Guild and the Screen Actors Guild about doing that.
In fact, during the writers strike, it seemed that you were practically speaking different languages.
I think increased dialogue between the parties would have helped on some issues, particularly in new media, where the companies felt it was too early to negotiate a deal, and the Writers Guild felt they were going be left in the dust and have this whole market develop around them and not be part of it. It may not have prevented a strike, but having discussions about that at an earlier stage might have been very helpful. We really didn’t have a functioning relationship.
And you have one now?
We’re working on it. I’ve made efforts to reach out to the WGA leadership to change that dynamic.
Looking ahead to 2011, when contracts for actors, writers and directors all expire, conditions would seem ripe for another showdown between studios and talent.
I hope not. Everybody endured some battle scars from the last round. The economy in L.A. and elsewhere suffered tremendously as a result of the last strike. A lot of people lost their jobs. Nobody really wants to revisit those consequences, so I’m optimistic that people will say, “Let’s find a way to get this done.”
Yet both sides have ample grievances. Actors and writers are having a tougher time earning a living, and media companies are facing their own economic issues.
This is an industry that is challenged by a number of things: by the introduction of new media that doesn’t have a workable business model yet. DVDs are down substantially. Box office is doing pretty well, but we aren’t really increasing attendance any. We’re just charging higher prices. Piracy is obviously an enormous problem. Our whole television business model is very much challenged. We need to find a way to have our contracts reflect a more efficient system of production.
That sure sounds like you’re going to be asking for rollbacks from talent.
I don’t necessarily mean wages will be cut, but maybe there are more efficient ways to produce. We have to look at whether on crews, for instance, we can assign work to a smaller group of people.
What do you say to critics who have said that AMPTP is too large and unwieldy to bargain effectively on behalf of the studios?
You have a certain number of companies who are signatories to those contracts, and each of those companies needs to have a voice. I don’t think that this organization is incapable of negotiating contracts. The labor executives are a very strong group. They are in touch with their CEOs and aware of what [they] want them to achieve at the bargaining table. Unfortunately for me, they don’t all have identical agendas.
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