Apparently after a long illness, the head of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, Nick Counter, died this week at age 69. Hollywood is not likely to see his kind again. Nick Counter, chief labor negotiator for the film and TV industry, may be one of the last great figures of the 20th century industrial relations era.
His accomplishments were not known widely outside of the entertainment industry but that should not prevent those on the other side of the table from him taking stock.
First and foremost, of course, he built and held together an alliance of the major studios – bitter competitors in all other realms – in a period of dramatic change in the industry.
Second, he put a firewall around the cash cow of the industry, DVDs, which generate amazing piles of free cash flow. Since those revenues took off in the late 90s, the industry unions, including SAG, the DGA, AFTRA and the IA, have been unable to crack open the safe in which those revenues are kept. Instead, they continue to accept a measly percentage of the revenue in what even Wall Street acknowledges is a lopsided formula.
Third, in what may be the crowning achievement of his career, his handling of the last round of negotiations was well, let’s admit it, a thing of beauty. The two most important guilds – the Writers and Actors – approached this round with similar new militant leadership in place. Both guilds hired top execs with “tough” labor union backgrounds. Both guilds appeared to be working closely together with a threat that they would join hands to attack both DVD revenues as well as the new media environment.
But Counter used provocative and aggressive tactics that pushed the WGA into an early strike. The Guilds quickly gave up on any change in DVDs and turned their attention to the still miniscule revenues in so-called new media, online entertainment.
SAG’s leaders turned out to be ham handed and inept and the WGA seemed to lose faith in their partner. The ensuing 100 day strike by the WGA used up all the energy the members of both guilds had for a strike. Meanwhile, SAG began an internecine war with its sister guild AFTRA.
By the time SAG was up for its contract talks it had little political power left and even less ability to think through the situation carefully. Counter stonewalled and the Guild collapsed, agreeing under new moderate leaders to everything the Producers demanded and then some.
Those same moderates are now out with what look like understandably sympathetic comments on Counter’s death. Fair enough, as they had worked across the table with the man for a quarter century. But they no doubt now fear the unknown. Counter may have bested them time and again but his replacement, Carole Lombardini, likely does not have the same ability to hold the Producers together as a collective bargaining group and at the same time she may prove a more aggressive opponent as she will be likely under pressure to prove herself.