Nick Counter dies at 69; former chief negotiator for major studios

Nick Counter, seen in 2000, was a fixture in Hollywood labor circles as the chief negotiator for 311 major labor pacts. In 2008, he squared off against Hollywood's writers during a 100-day strike.
(Brian Vander Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Nick Counter, the long-standing former negotiator for the major studios who squared off against Hollywood’s writers during a 100-day strike in 2008, died Friday night. He was 69.

The former president of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers was taken to West Hills Hospital earlier this week after collapsing in his Los Angeles home. His family declined to specify the cause of death.

Counter was a fixture in Hollywood labor circles, having overseen some 400 labor contracts with writers, actors, film crews, musicians and scores of other professionals. He served as AMPTP’s president for 27 years and was the chief negotiator for 311 major labor pacts, including six in 2008. He retired in February, marking the end of an era.

For most of his tenure, Counter presided over a period of relative labor calm, except for two major strikes that rocked Hollywood, in 1988 and 2008, both by the Writers Guild of America.

“Nick’s passing is a profound loss for the entire entertainment community,” said AMPTP President Carol Lombardini. “We will all remember Nick for his passionate leadership, which was always guided by a resolute sense of fair play and an earnest desire that everyone come out a winner.”

“Although we sat on opposite sides during labor negotiations, Nick was a friend, man of honor and worthy adversary, doing his best to represent his constituents,” Directors Guild of America Secretary-Treasurer Gil Cates and National Executive Director Jay D. Roth said in a statement.

“We shared the same goal -- protecting our industry -- yet often held different ideas at times about how to accomplish this. But ultimately Nick would always listen, evaluate and try to understand where we were coming from and look for a way to find a deal that worked for both parties.”

Over the years, Counter was praised by his colleagues for giving the often-fractious alliance a unified voice, a task that became increasingly trying as studios became facets of media conglomerates with diverse businesses.

The group often has had difficulty reaching consensus because it represents more than 350 film and television producers, including major media giants that are fierce competitors.

At the same time, Counter’s pugnacious style and tactics -- which included staring down opponents and publicly rebuking union officials who angered him -- also made him the nemesis of many rank-and-file workers, especially during the most recent writers strike, when he was depicted as tone-deaf to their concerns.

Despite his bare-knuckles style, Counter rarely lost his cool and displayed a soft side that disarmed his opponents. In the heat of negotiations with the Writers Guild in 2004, for example, Counter gave an emotional speech paying tribute to Dan Petrie, the director and father of the former guild president.

Born in Phoenix on March 21, 1940, Counter was reared in the Denver area. During summers, he worked in a Colorado steel mill where his father rose from salesman to vice president.

The experience piqued his interest in labor issues. “What I learned was that unions come about because of bad management,” he said in an interview with The Times in 2007.

Counter 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.

He 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 stipulated 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.

His biggest challenge came six years later during the 1988 strike by writers that lasted 22 weeks. Counter and his labor counterparts became convinced that future disruptions could be avoided if negotiations began well before contract expirations.

The approach worked well, at least until fall 2007, when the writers -- fearful that studios were shortchanging their future in the Internet era -- again went on a strike. The walkout followed weeks of acrimonious talks between Counter and guild officials.

Some senior studio executives were unhappy with how Counter handled the negotiations, believing he had underestimated the union’s resolve. They made it clear that they wanted him to retire once contract talks with the Screen Actors Guild concluded, people close to the executives said.

Counter served as a trustee on 14 of the guild and union health and pension funds and also as a trustee for the Motion Picture & Television Fund.

He is survived by his wife, Jackie; a son, Nicholas; a daughter, Samantha, and her husband, screenwriter Alex Kurtzman; and a grandson, Jack.

Instead of flowers, Counter’s family said it would prefer that donations be made to the Motion Picture & Television Fund or the Entertainment Industry Foundation.