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Why the DGA deal makes sense

January 18, 2008|Michael Apted | Michael Apted is president of the Directors Guild of America.

When negotiators for the Directors Guild of America sat down with their counterparts from the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers last weekend to try to hammer out a new contract, there was more at stake than simply wresting the best possible deal from an employer.

For one thing, as part of an industry that is careening into a digital future of enormous promise but unknown shape, we needed an agreement that would point us in the right direction but not lock us into any particular route. For another, whatever agreement we reached would not only have to satisfy our own members but also encourage our writer and actor colleagues.

We went into the talks keenly aware of the painful drama that is playing out in the streets around us -- the 3-month-old writers strike that continues to cripple television and movie production and idle tens of thousands of workers, both within the industry and in related fields. Out of respect for the writers, we delayed our negotiations long past their traditional starting point. We were stirred by their concerns and their passion, but with so much at stake -- and the WGA and the AMPTP at an impasse -- we felt we had to act.

We were not interested in making a deal simply for the sake of making a deal. To the contrary, we made it clear to the companies before we even sat down at the table that there could be no contract unless it enshrined two fundamental principles that, in our view, are absolutely crucial to any employment and compensation agreement in this digital age. The first is that jurisdiction -- that all jobs be union jobs -- is essential. Without that proviso for new-media production, compensation formulas are meaningless. The second is that the Internet is not free. Content creators must receive fair compensation for the use and reuse of their work online.

I am proud to say that in addition to achieving solid gains in crucial bread-and-butter areas such as wage rates, which include annual increases of 3% to 3 1/2 %, with absolutely no roll-backs of any kind, we came away with a contract for the members' vote that gives us precisely the groundbreaking new-media guarantees we sought.

Perhaps most important, the deal sets a critical precedent for the industry by giving us jurisdiction over programs produced for the Internet. It also doubles residuals payments for TV and movie downloads from what is currently being paid, and, for the first time, it offers residuals for shows used in ad-supported streaming.

We did not achieve all this (and more) in just five days of formal talks. This week's agreement is the result of a process that began nearly two years ago, when the DGA national board held its first new-media retreat and then engaged a group of top consultants to analyze the challenges we face and educate us about where our industry might be headed. The process involved endless hours of study and debate -- and not only among ourselves. We also engaged with the other side, spending months in informal discussions with the companies -- exchanging information and ideas, comparing our respective visions of our industry's future, exploring how we might work together in this rapidly shifting and murky landscape.

We learned a lot from this exercise -- among other things, that while the conventional wisdom is that new media is a gold mine, it's still too early to determine exactly how, when and to what extent those riches will be tapped. Right now, at least, it looks very much as if the growth in new media may come at the expense of traditional media platforms -- that each pair of eyeballs watching content over the Internet means one fewer pair of eyeballs watching content on television or home video. However, that scenario could be wrong, and new media might well expand the market. With these possibilities in mind, we recognized the need for a deal that would allow us to adjust to our changing world, rather than being locked into a fixed position that could eventually strangle us.

I would like to think that the deal we made speaks for itself. At an extremely uncertain moment in our industry's evolution, as we plunge into the digital depths, the DGA deal sets some very powerful precedents that provide the protection and compensation we deserve while preserving the flexibility we need. Will this be enough to get everyone back to work? I can only hope so.

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