On Sept. 8, more than four months into a historic Hollywood labor battle, the Writers Guild of America turned a klieg light on its adversary, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. Citing behind-the-scenes conversations the union’s leaders were allegedly having with unidentified legacy studio executives, its negotiating committee said in a bulletin to its members that the standstill is the result of the trade association’s own “paralysis,” pointing to the AMPTP’s “disparate business models and interests, as well as different histories and relationships with unions.”
The WGA, calling for direct negotiations with individual companies, added that the legacy studios are more amenable to its proposals than other companies — but are hamstrung by the “hard-liners” in their caucus. The labor group’s subtext: It’s looking to dismantle its nemesis. In response, the AMPTP insisted its constituent companies are “aligned” and “any suggestion to the contrary is false.” Still, multiple studio insiders say that in recent weeks Ted Sarandos — frustrated by a lack of progress in negotiations — has grumbled about Netflix leaving the AMPTP to pursue its own deal, though they add that this inclination has seemingly passed. Netflix declined to comment.
Typically a humdrum (and ignored) epicenter of contract lawyering situated in a suburban shopping mall, the AMPTP has lately taken on a SPECTRE-like aura among union members, its president, Carol Lombardini, emerging as the starring Bond villain of Hollywood’s dual strike saga. (SAG-AFTRA walked in July, when its own demands weren’t met.) That little is known or understood of the AMPTP and its byzantine operations, not just by those outside the business but even by those long employed within it, adds to the frustration and intrigue that swirl around the alliance.
Eight companies constitute the organization’s “Class A” members that, along with top AMPTP staffers, call the shots during negotiations: Disney, NBCUniversal, Paramount, Sony, Netflix, Amazon, Apple and Warner Bros. Discovery.“ It’s one of the most, if not the most, powerful multi-employer associations in the world,” says a union negotiating committee member.
As the dual strikes drag on, questions are emerging about the association, its composition and its efficacy. “The AMPTP definitely has a very valuable place in our industry and in collective bargaining negotiations because of the decades of knowledge, of experience,” says Loeb & Loeb entertainment labor chair Ivy Kagan Bierman, who turns to the organization’s extensive records of past negotiations and arbitration decisions for her work. “There’s strength in solidarity. At the same time, I think that many people are taking a fresh look at this in light of the fact that we’re now at a place in our industry where these deals are not getting done and we have dual strikes going on longer than I think all of us would have hoped.” The AMPTP declined to comment for this story.
In early 2008, during the middle of the previous WGA strike, the AMPTP and its sister organization, the Motion Picture Association, sublet more than 100,000 square feet of office space from Warner Bros. at the Sherman Oaks Galleria, a mall also inhabited by The Cheesecake Factory and P.F. Chang’s. But this discreet presence — not even a logo is displayed — belies the AMPTP’s key role in the industry as it negotiates 58 ongoing contracts on behalf of hundreds of production companies.
The association has existed in different forms and under a variety of unwieldy names for nearly a century. But its prime mandate has remained labor contract negotiation. In 1982, two separate industry bargaining representatives merged, and the current iteration of the AMPTP was born. “Management felt that unification would strengthen its hand, thereby making strikes less likely in the future,” explained Lombardini’s predecessor, former AMPTP president Nick Counter, in a conference paper. Previously, unions had been able to play the two industry groups off each other, he argued, which proved to be a “successful bargaining strategy.”
The past few years have once again reshaped the alliance, as the entertainment production subsidiaries of tech companies — Amazon and Apple — have joined as well as streamer Netflix, which entered the fold in 2021. The AMPTP board, populated by representatives from its top companies, have voted in these companies as “Class A” members, explains a management-side source with knowledge of the group, a sign of respect and potentially also fear. “When the AMPTP board decides whether to admit another studio as a member, the calculus is, is this studio a significant enough player that they could potentially prejudice our interests by negotiating separately, as opposed to being in the tent with us?” says this insider.
These new members, and their inherent tensions with the traditional studio participants who are their fierce competitors, have led some prominent industry voices, including IAC chairman and former Paramount and Fox leader Barry Diller, to suggest that certain legacy studio AMPTP member companies strike their own deals with the unions. (When Diller ran Paramount decades ago, he and then-Universal chief Lew Wasserman both pulled out of the AMPTP.)
Judging by the WGA negotiating committee’s September missive to members, the writers would again welcome such a fracture. The WGA’s current position is that the AMPTP engages in what U.S. labor law considers “coordinated” bargaining, where members can leave the coalition at any point and also that the union is within its rights to negotiate with individual entertainment companies.
The AMPTP enjoys perennial home-court advantage during contract talks with unions by offering substantial, dedicated space for marathon negotiating sessions. Dozens of representatives — lawyers, executives, note-takers and others — can be present for each side in the primary room where bargaining occurs, even as the number varies according to the contract under negotiation; the recent SAG-AFTRA negotiations saw upward of 50 people representing the union, with less in attendance on behalf of the AMPTP and others signing in on Zoom.
The sides face each other across a table with their leaders at the center. Major companies’ representatives are in front alongside Lombardini and her No. 2, AMPTP senior vp business affairs Tracy Cahill, with secondary and tertiary participants seated behind. The unions’ lead negotiators and their top lieutenants, meanwhile, sit across from their studio counterparts in the center, with a similar tiered arrangement behind them, except that the labor side’s third row consists of single-occupancy, school-style desks rather than a long table, per several sources. (This discrepancy irks some on the labor side of these negotiations; “it feels very infantilizing,” says SAG-AFTRA negotiating committee member Shaan Sharma.) The WGA and SAG-AFTRA instructs their negotiating teams not to show emotion in this room, which could give away or miscommunicate what the unions’ reception may be to various statements or proposals.
“It’s like the Roman Forum — it’s built for intimidation, and it’s effective,” says another union insider of this room who notes that management meets among themselves in the space while labor assembles in another part of the building. “So, every time you negotiate, you come into their room.”
Recording is not allowed inside, so each side takes its own notes — both for present purposes and because they can be helpful in any potential future arbitrations, where records of what each side meant and understood about various agreements at the time are key. (Lombardini herself is said to be a prolific note-taker during negotiations.)
Typically, the negotiations begin with both management and labor exchanging proposal packages, followed by negotiators explaining each point to the other side in the main, auditorium-like chamber. The parties then confer among themselves in what is referred to as a caucus to determine potential edits, rejections and counteroffers to the various proposals. (One entertainment union sweeps the caucus spaces provided for their internal deliberations for bugs, while another group brought white noise machines to make their negotiating team feel more comfortable.)
Explains one union negotiator, “We take what they want, we discuss it in the room — ‘Can we work around this, or is this impossible?’ ‘Can we bundle this because there’s other stuff we want?’ ‘Maybe we can bundle a little bit of their stuff and a little bit of our stuff to move us forward.’ ” Sometimes issues get referred to a committee, where a smaller group of AMPTP and union officials attempt to work out a compromise on specialized points.
When the two parties want to discuss a topic in a smaller setting, sometimes when they’re getting closer to a tentative agreement on particular proposals, they engage in a so-called sidebar, where only the chief negotiators on each side and perhaps a few others meet to hash out the issues. Sometimes sidebars are “on the record,” meaning they can be enshrined in the bargaining history of the negotiations, whereas most are “off the record” conversations that go into both sides’ notes but will not be officially memorialized.
The overall tone of the negotiations tends to be lawyerly, dry and cordial, though sometimes discussions can get heated, according to participants. “There definitely are times when tempers flare,” says the union negotiator. The management side, meanwhile, sometimes feels that top labor negotiators are simply performing for their negotiating committees and members.
As chief negotiator for the AMPTP, Lombardini’s job is in part to listen to the objectives on both sides and propose solutions that will persuade union leaders to recommend an agreement to their members and get it ratified, as well as satisfy corporate on the management side. After all, the AMPTP negotiates not only with union leaders but itself. The companies’ respective heads of labor relations must find consensus among themselves on often evolving proposals and counteroffers and sell them to their own C-suites, each of which evaluates the potential deals based on different corporate goals.
CEOs typically sign off on the AMPTP’s bargaining goals before negotiations, says a management-side source with knowledge of the AMPTP, giving company labor relations executives direction and a certain degree of latitude in talks. “Primarily, it’s shuttle diplomacy, with individual company labor representatives speaking to their own individual CEOs and then coming back into the AMPTP room armed with the level of authority that they have,” the source adds. But when it comes to major decisions on how to break an impasse — like those in the current WGA and SAG-AFTRA negotiations — companies’ top leaders tend to get involved. (Hence the much-chattered-about recent CEO-only conclaves.)
Lombardini — an AMPTP lifer who joined the organization when it began in 1982 and spent years as its second-in-command before ascending to the presidency in 2009 — is known to be politic in her approach. Though she speaks to companies’ CEOs as needed, she spends most of her time with this group of labor relations executives, navigating their various mandates and attempting to keep the group united. Meanwhile, in her dealings with the unions, Lombardini is known for her schoolteacher’s mien — a stickler for correct grammar and punctuation who’s drawn eye rolls for prompting her labor counterparts to recite “Good morning, Carol.”
“Carol has this horrible job, whipping everyone into shape and finding common ground,” explains ABC’s longtime labor chief Jeff Ruthizer, who retired in 2009 and last year published Labor Pains, a memoir of decades of union-wrangling. He adds of his former colleagues: “These people [in the room] represent the views of their leaders; they aren’t operating on their own but with the sanction of CEOs. It’s very stressful.”
Adds another management-side insider: “You’ve got a whole bunch of companies that have different interests that are trying to put a unified case forward. But that’s the miracle of Carol Lombardini, that she’s able to do that, because they don’t all have the same interests.”
Miracle or not, for this task, she is compensated with an annual salary of more than $3.1 million, according to the nonprofit’s most recent available IRS filing. (By comparison, the highest-paid across-the-table Hollywood labor leader, SAG-AFTRA national executive director Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, made $772,000 in the same year.) Her current husband is a seasoned employment attorney, a partner emeritus at Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp. He has himself represented studios in industrywide arbitrations with labor groups as well as in class action wage and age discrimination cases. MSK, where Lombardini’s deputy Cahill and her predecessor Counter also previously worked, has represented the AMPTP for decades.
During its talks with the AMPTP this year, the Writers Guild has referred to the organization’s so-called “playbook” of tactics during negotiations. When pressed on what that strategy generally looks like, union sources say it involves trying to maintain the status quo or finding cost-cutting efficiencies in their deal as well as trying to divide the various entertainment unions, and even pitting factions within their memberships against one another.
Adds a labor-side source close to the WGA negotiations, “In typical pattern bargaining, a union chooses the employer that it thinks it can get the best deal with, [which] it patterns to the rest of the employers. That is turned on its head in this industry.” In June, the AMPTP struck a deal with the DGA, historically Hollywood’s most management-amenable. Its contract terms have drawn public as well as private criticism among fellow entertainment unionists who believe it undercuts their own efforts.
One management-side source disagrees that there even is a playbook, contending that “there’s no such thing because there’s just too many different voices in the room,” a difficulty compounded by the fact that the AMPTP is said to operate on a basis of unanimity, making sure all top member companies agree on significant decisions. (Sources on both sides do agree, however, that the member companies have in the past emphasized economic headwinds during negotiations to achieve their goals.)
If the AMPTP does have a classic playbook for negotiations, 2023 is pushing that strategy to its limit, presenting the organization with an ongoing double work stoppage not seen in more than six decades, talks sputtering and restarting (possibly next week), and the consequences snowballing, from industry members taking on second jobs and queuing up at food drives to the fall television season in shambles. Even after the current strikes are resolved, multiple sources suggest the AMPTP may undergo significant changes. Vents one high-level management-side source with knowledge of the current state of play: “Companies have to push Carol out of her comfort zone. Carol works from an old-fashioned playbook, and she thinks taking three weeks to respond is OK. She’s never dealt with tech companies.”
Kagan Bierman, who is not in the room during AMPTP negotiations but represents a host of major companies in labor matters, says she’s “very concerned” for the industry, given the state of labor-management relations and a breakdown in trust between the two sides. Her hope, she says, is that the parties rebuild confidence in one another and get to deals. But “if we stay in this moment in our industry where there is a breakdown of trust and a breakdown of collaboration, I don’t know how the AMPTP can negotiate these deals. That’s where we are right now.”
Kim Masters contributed to this report.
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