Directors: Friend or Foe?

by Paul William Tenny

There's a good story I missed in Variety from yesterday that I think represents the most intriguing and important storyline of the writers strike. We know mostly where both sides stand in that dispute, and I keep reading that the only question about how it will end depends on when the DGA decides to step in and start negotiations for a new deal of their own.

I have strong feelings about that because I understand that the DGA is just as weak, if not more so, than IATESE is (if you believe what SAG says about them.) Primarily, that they are the least likely of the big three to strike under practically any circumstances and wish to avoid conflict at nearly all costs. I don't know if that's true and I'm so far removed from knowing if it's true or not that you might as well consider it not much more than idle speculation, but read the Variety story and tell me you aren't getting vibes along a similar line here.
Here's a statement from that story that concerns for a number of reasons:

The WGA, which is negotiating again today, is unofficially pressuring the directors to hold off on setting its own talks with the majors. On Tuesday, DGA negotiating committee chairman Gil Cates told Daily Variety it's unlikely the panel will make a definitive scheduling decision at the confab.

"There's so much to assimilate right now," Cates added. "We hope that the WGA and the AMPTP do make a deal but we'll make our decision based on what's best for our 13,000 members."

I've seen nothing that would make me believe the DGA leadership will make a decision based on what's best for directors. I understand that the WGA is considered a militant union that would strike for any reason (although there the issues run deeper than that if you accept the WGA's conclusion that nothing they've ever gained in their history was gotten without a strike) and so the DGA's appearance as the weakest Hollywood talent union that wouldn't strike for any reason may simply be a distortion of perspective.

And it may not be.

The fact that the DGA seems ready to bargain with the AMPTP over six full months before their own contract expires while SAG is not reflects poorly on their image as moderates. Strategy would dictate, at best, that the extremes of when to go to the table (early or late) would certainly not cut so far into the previous contract that more than 16% of it remains on the books.

Coming to the table three months early is one thing, but seven months or more in the planning stages? That sounds like a union ready to do its masters bidding, frankly.

What the directors have to ask themselves is whether they want the gains the writers are demanding or not, because with their perceived historical negotiating weakness, they are in no position to play hardball with the AMPTP. I'm not saying it can't be done, because it can, it just doesn't play a union in their state of mind could ever fight hard enough to get what even the writers might not get if they strike until the end of next year, destroying their own guild in the process.

If someone is going to get this deal, it's going to be the writers or the actors, which means the only question Gil Cates should be asking his membership is how badly they want this deal for themselves. If they want it as bad or worse than writers do - which isn't likely given the pay and prestige disparity between the two - their best play is to sit on the sidelines until their own contract comes up next summer.

If they don't really care and are happy with what they've got, then Cates should ask them if they want to deal with the animosity from both writers and actors. With the kind of support SAG has been showing during the strike, it's not hard to see that if the situation presents itself, they'll strike as well to force the AMPTP's hand. Taking that away from both camps by having the DGA make a deal for less than most seem to want would make them virtual pariahs.

And yet, if they hold fast on this, the directors could end up being heroes to all the creative unions by letting everyone else fight for what would benefit them just as much as it would the other unions. It feels dangerous to criticize them, given how delicate it all is, and yet the fear of the DGA swooping in and undercutting everybody else is just maddening - and I don't even have a dog in this.

Privately, some directors have been angered by what they perceive as a lack of willingness by WGA to knuckle down at the bargaining table -- particularly the tendency to break from negotiating in the middle of a strike rather than going around-the-clock. They're also perturbed over what they see as unrealistic expectations as to what the majors are willing to give to close a deal.

This is what I think is an important theme that is kind of reverberating through the D.C. media recently about "traditional wisdom" and what role it should play on how decisions are made. "Beltway/traditional wisdom" is what bounces around in the media that isn't necessarily true, but is used as a tool of fear to stave off change and to keep people from challenging the norms.

Example: writers would their DVD residuals doubled from four cents per disk to eight. Beltway wisdom would say that the studios would never, ever accept this under any circumstances and that it should either be used as a bait-and-switch, or left off the table altogether.

That's the mentality I see from "some directors", as you see above. First of all, to talk about "unrealistic expectations as to what the majors are willing to give" would mean this strike is purely about money and nothing else, when it is anything but. This strike is about powerful CEOs who under no circumstances will be pushed into doing anything they don't want to, and the instant it comes to shoving, it stops being about what people want and becomes all about the principle of not giving in.

Financially, it would have made more sense to give the writers nearly everything they wanted right off the bat than it did to let them strike for a month. I base this on what the WGA thinks their new proposal would cost the AMPTP companies: about $50 million per year to start off. This strike by some reasonable estimates has cost over $300 million in losses in November alone.

That tells me that this has never been about unrealistic expectations because the AMPTP was dead set from the very beginning to give away nothing at all. There isn't a fair deal to be made right now, so there's no way to horse trade your way to a deal.

Maybe this isn't true, but I just don't see the directors getting it. I think they are very dangerous and very uninterested in making gains for their members, so much as they are very interested in getting a deal done no matter what it takes, who it benefits, or who it screws.

in Labor


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