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The Runaway President

On June 29, as the new president of the DGA, director Michael Apted inherited a laundry list of issues from predecessor Martha Coolidge. From the uphill fight against runaway production to the DGA's ongoing litigation against third-party editing companies, Apted's agenda is full. Before setting out to his native England, the director of "Enigma" and the "7 Up" documentary series sat down with The Hollywood Reporter labor/legal reporter Peter Kiefer to discuss a wide array of issues.

The Hollywood Reporter: It was a bit surprising that your predecessor Martha Coolidge did not seek re-election. Can you tell me how you came to be elected

Michael Apted: You'd have to ask (Martha Coolidge), but what it seemed to me was that she was away a lot and she was doing this film which was taking her all over the place, and I just think she just felt that she couldn't give it the time that she wanted to give it. And I had indicated that I wanted to run, but I was undecided about what to do. But when I sensed that she probably wouldn't run, I sort of went for it.

THR: What do you think will be the major contractual issue dealt with during your tenure?

Apted: I would think, obviously, creative rights are very interesting to us -- a constant issue to us in both movies and television. I suppose on the financial front, the DVD issue is going to be important, and we all know how difficult that is. I suppose most important is the health and pension (fund). All the corporations in America are having problems with their health and pension plans, and we are no exception. So I would think that would be an issue that across the board would affect all the members in whatever branch of the guild they are. We don't go to bat for a year, so I am not fretting too much about it -- just keeping an eye on the landscape, seeing who is going to bat first and what the feeling is, what the tone of negotiations is.

THR: Is there any one creative rights issue that stands out?

Apted: An interesting one is the late-script issue -- interesting because there is no difference of opinion. It's just, how do you figure it out? The studios and networks know it costs them a lot of money, it annoys the writers, it annoys us, none of us can do our jobs properly. And so it is an interesting little conundrum because everyone wants to make it better.

THR: What is your position on the possessory "film by" credit?

Apted: It is a credit that we own, and I want the directors guild to decide what they want to do with it. I don't want to make it a subject of negotiation. ... It is fair to say that we feel we should pay some attention to it -- irrespective of what other guilds might think about it, which doesn't really interest me -- but for our own membership and our own staff, I think it is something that we want to perhaps more carefully define than it is defined at the moment.

THR: Despite consistent harping, it does not appear as if diversity in the industry is improving. Any plans to implement more draconian measures to get the networks to make some serious changes?

Apted: It's a very thorny issue because it is an issue that faces the country. And as the country goes, we're not bad. The entertainment industry is not bad, (but) it's not great by any means, so there is a lot to be done. And also it is something that you may not have success with, but you've got to keep doing it. It is of great interest to me because it seems so retro for this organization and the entertainment business not to be on the cutting edge of diversity. We are supposed to be creating tastes, setting standards, whatever, so what is going on in the industry is really not good enough. But certainly it is at the top of my agenda to try and orchestrate it, to try and organize it within the guild. ... The word "draconian" is not one I want to use at all, but it is in all our interests because it doesn't put a very good face on the industry when you read the statistics.

THR: The digital revolution seems to be gaining steam, especially in television. Are you optimistic about where technology is taking the craft of filmmaking?

Apted: I don't think it is a simple "Am I optimistic or not?" It is a fact of life. There is a lot of downside to it. From a documentary world, going digital is a fantastic bonus in some ways. It gives you access, it gives you the ability to shoot a lot of stuff, it makes it more intimate, and you need less equipment. But it also means that you shoot hundreds of hours of material, which I wonder whether you can ever see, whether you will have time to watch it and whether it encourages you not to think. So I don't know where the digital stuff is going. I have no idea. I don't know if anybody knows, so that is scary to me. But I think you have to be alert and smart about not just embracing it as though this is nirvana, (as if) this is the panacea for everything.

THR: How do you think the issue of copyright protection can be best addressed?

Apted: We are on the cutting edge of that. We have this whole business of CleanFlicks. We decided as a guild that frankly we had no chance of winning the lawsuit. But we went for the lawsuit because we wanted to take a moral stand. And mercifully, because of the skill of the staff, and (DGA national executive director) Jay (Roth), we got the studios on board. So then it became a very serious and proper lawsuit. Our feeling is that piracy and the CleanFlicks issue, the possibilities are both bewildering and frightening -- and encouraging what you can do. ... So, as a guild, we put our heads on the chopping block immediately, you know. We are fighting in the courts in Denver over CleanFlicks, and we think that it is something that we have to see through to the bitter end.

THR: Wait, so are you saying the DGA originally filed a meritless lawsuit, which only became "serious and proper" once the studios became involved?

Apted: No. It was a perfectly meritorious lawsuit, absolutely. We had already been sued by a Colorado company that was selling films that they had edited without our permission. And the studios who own the copyright, they didn't (get) their permission either. So we responded by filing an answer to that. And even though we weren't the copyright holders, we knew that it would be a tough one while we were on our own. And our claims were sort of based in law on this Lanham Act, which has a case law not from the Supreme Court but from a court of appeals. So we knew the strongest argument would rest on the copyright violation claim, but that didn't stop us from going on, which is why we filed the motion to join the studios, and they did step up to the plate. ... It gave us a much stronger foundation. ... We had, as a guild, a legal obligation to protect the work of our members. But what I was also saying is that we have a moral obligation to do so as well. ... It was a very well-planned and orchestrated campaign from the beginning, but it was made much stronger once the studios joined us. There was not just good legal basis, in my mind; there was a very strong moral claim, and that is what I thought was so important and exciting that we took that stand.

THR: With California facing a $38 billion deficit, what can be done to combat runaway production?

Apted: We are doing all we can. Again, with a lot of these issues you just have to hang in with them. We have had a lot of bad luck in Sacramento trying to attach our demands for tax breaks onto various legislation. ... We are a manufacturing industry, and people are going to go where they can get cheap labor. It is a disaster on every front, it is a disaster for my membership, it is a disaster for me, it is a disaster for California, for the U.S., a disaster for the film culture. I can't argue with a studio as a director if they say, "We save 30% of the budget if we go to Toronto." What am I going to say to them? I can say that I am not going to go, and they'll say, "OK, thank you very much. Next!" So we want to keep working, we want to keep making films. And it is a very difficult thing, but we are going to need help. It's so stupefyingly shortsighted -- and I know that the state of California is in a horrible mess -- but to drive one of the biggest industries out of it ... . And no one's a bad guy.

THR: But you are heading out of town this week?

Apted: I am heading out of town for this very reason, (otherwise) the film ("Scheherazade") won't ever get made. It will be partially shot here and partially shot in London for these very reasons. There is no point in denying it.

THR: What are your thoughts on the media consolidation debate?

Apted: We like the fact that they overturned the 35%-to-45% thing. We like that Congress didn't roll over when the FCC speaks, but we are very concerned about the loss in percentage of independent production. That's what we think is crucial for the health of the nation and the health of the industry. You have to keep the relative levels of independent work on television and in movies high. You can't have these multinational corporations, and whatever sleight-of-hand smoke and mirror they use, just dominating production and determining what people are seeing. You have got to make sure you protect the independent voice. And that to us is the real issue.

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