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Breaking up the boys' club in Hollywood labor negotiations

November 6, 2009 |  5:34 pm
Carol Lombardini may have the toughest, if least glamorous, job in Hollywood. As the chief negotiator for the major studios, she must find consensus among a group of executives who often have conflicting interests and priorities.

Lombardini But Lomabardini, the newly appointed president of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, has had plenty of time to learn what she’s getting into. In selecting Lombardini for the job, the alliance’s board chose an ultimate insider. The onetime labor attorney has spent most of her career — 27 years — at the alliance, where she worked under her longtime mentor, Nick Counter, who retired earlier this year.

In a recent interview, Lombardini, 54, shared her thoughts on the new job, how she might do things differently and the challenges she faces to find common ground with Hollywood’s increasingly restless talent unions while pushing the agenda of her demanding bosses.

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.

It’s very hard to focus when you have 20 people in a room. 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. Even locals within the same union have different points of view on the same issues.

In some ways you have a thankless job: the nemesis of Hollywood labor.

There is a certain truth about it being thankless. 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?

I think 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.

Your predecessor, Nick Counter, was known as a pugnacious negotiator.  Will you adopt a similar approach?

It’s hard to compare. 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. I think the one area where we may really differ a lot is that I think getting out in front of negotiations, having regular communications with the guilds and unions with whom we bargain, so that we can share perceptions or disagree really 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. A lot of the contentiousness that we ran into was based upon our different views of the world.

In fact, during the (2007-2008) 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 them 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. There was a sense that a strike could not be avoided. 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. County 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. We’ve already seen a dip in consumer spending on the products that the industry produces. 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. Do advertisers want to continue to be part of this business? Virtually every television show produced by our member companies has been instructed to cut their budgets from 3% to 20%. 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.

Critics have said the AMPTP is too large and unwieldy to effectively bargain on behalf of the studios. What do you say to that?

You have a certain number of companies who are signatories to those contacts and each of those companies needs to have a voice. I don’t think that this organization is incapable of negotiating contracts. I think the labor executives are a very strong group. They are in touch with their CEOs and aware of what their CEOs want them to achieve at the bargaining table. Unfortunately for me, they don’t all have identical agendas. 
--Richard Verrier

Photo of Lobardini by Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles Times