When the Directors Guild of America agreed to a new three-year contract with the major Hollywood studios last month, the union hailed the agreement as “unprecedented” and “historic.”
With screenwriters on strike and the actors’ union still in negotiations, the directors saw their deal as a first step on the way to labor peace in the entertainment industry. It included improvements in both wages and the amount of royalties that directors would receive from projects on streaming services, and it placed guardrails around the use of artificial intelligence.
“The parameters of the deal are certainly going to help the other guilds in negotiations,” Christopher Nolan, the director of “Oppenheimer,” told The Hollywood Reporter.
That did not happen.
When the actors’ union, SAG-AFTRA, went on strike last week, the directors found themselves as outliers in Hollywood. Their union is the only one that agreed to a deal with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which bargains on behalf of the studios, and now they are unable to work anyway since the writers’ and actors’ strikes have shut down the industry.
“They agreed too early,” Peter Newman, a producer and a professor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, said in an interview. “If they had guessed correctly, they could have seen that, almost invariably, there was going to be a complete shutdown of the industry, regardless.”
Rather than viewing the directors’ contract as a blueprint, the actors’ union deemed it insufficient. The minimum raises that the Directors Guild agreed to were too low, the actors declared. While the directors accrued significant increases in the residuals they would receive, primarily via a formula that accounts for international streaming subscribers, there was little progress in getting recalcitrant tech companies to share more data about how well films and television shows performed on their services.
The studios did declare that generative artificial intelligence is not “a person” and cannot take over the duties of a Directors Guild member. But their reassurance that A.I. would not be used “in connection with creative elements without consultation with the director or other D.G.A.-covered employees” was seen by many as weak and vague.
The “Matrix” filmmaker Lilly Wachowski, who is also a member of the Writers Guild of America, took to Twitter to explain that she would vote no on the deal, specifically because of the A.I. provisions in the proposed contract.
“I’m no Boomer-luddite-fuddy-duddy against the idea of AI as a tool per se,” she wrote. “But what I do vehemently object to,” she added, “is the use of AI as a tool to generate wealth. That’s what’s at stake here. Cutting jobs for corporate profit.”
Despite the protests, the membership of the union ratified the deal, with 87 percent voting in favor.
“We have concluded a truly historic deal,” Jon Avnet, the chair of the Directors Guild’s negotiating committee, said in a statement on June 3.
Even now that the actors have joined the writers on strike, some directors remain pleased with their contract.
“I think we got one of the best deals we’ve had in decades,” Bethany Rooney, a veteran director of network television shows like “Law and Order: Organized Crime,” “Chicago P.D.” and “Station 19,” said in an interview.
“I feel like they addressed all of our concerns and met them with a positive response,” she added, “whether it was about basic pay rates or residuals, or reporting on streaming numbers or A.I. for that matter. It was all met with a response that we could live with.”
But as the actors’ negotiations went on and a strike became more of a possibility, the directors’ position as the lone guild to reach an agreement was more pronounced.
The Directors Guild has long been seen as a stable union. Formed in 1936 and currently representing 19,000 directors and members of the directing team, including assistant directors, unit production managers, stage managers and others, the union has rarely struck. It has walked out once, in 1987 for three hours, the shortest strike in Hollywood history.
A common assumption in Hollywood is that Directors Guild members are employed more consistently than members of the other unions. And there can be tension between the various unions.
“There is a generational spirit of lack of cooperation between them and the Writers Guild,” Mr. Newman said. “Writers and directors have always had their differences. To a certain extent directors might think that they’re the true driving force behind any film.”
Yet Ms. Rooney, who serves as an alternate on the national board of the Directors Guild, said she was not surprised that the actors had gone on strike.
“They have some major issues, and the writers have major issues that are specific to them that are not directors’ issues,” she said. “They did not get the response they needed from the A.M.P.T.P., so they had no choice but to go out on strike. We are in there with them in spirit.”
Still, it remains clear that the directors wanted their deal to lead to agreements with the actors and the writers. And the frustration over that not happening seeped into a statement from Lesli Linka Glatter, the Directors Guild president, after the actors said they would strike.
“The Directors Guild of America is extremely disappointed that the A.M.P.T.P. did not fairly and reasonably address the important issues raised by SAG-AFTRA in negotiations,” she said. “During this critical and difficult time for our industry, the Directors Guild strongly supports the actors.”