Winter 2016

JAY D. ROTH

Forward Thinking

In his 20 years as national executive director, Jay D. Roth has helped navigate the challenges of a rapidly changing industry. As the DGA celebrates its 80th anniversary, he ruminates on the past and future of the Guild.

1. Since the Guild is celebrating its 80th anniversary this year, what lessons can we learn from its history?

The founders of the Guild got together in King Vidor’s living room. But if you look through the stories of that meeting and that planning, they said we will not move to announce the Guild until we have secured a very high percentage of directors to support our cause. And they all worked together, individually and collectively in groups, to sign up active working directors, one by one to the cause, to build their army to deal with producers who did not want to recognize them as a collective entity. They made it clear that they were all there for each other. Unified collective action was the source of their strength. Those lessons still apply today.

2. How does the spirit that brought the founders together continue to be felt today?

There is a great misunderstanding I’ve heard over the years which is that our founders were doing this only for fellow directors who weren’t as successful or just starting out. The basic livelihoods of many of the founders was under attack by the studios. Many were facing a 50 percent pay cut. They saw where the business was going and knew the battle could not be won if they didn’t unite the top of the craft along with the rank-and-file as one united front. One of the wonderful things about the Guild is that every time that we have confronted a challenge, big or small, the community has similarly united. That’s one of our great strengths—ultimately whether it’s the people at the very top or people who are just starting, the community unites.

3. How would you describe the primary mission of the Guild?

The Guild’s mission as a labor union is to protect and extend the creative and economic rights of its members—but more than that, it encompasses protecting and nurturing the craft itself, educating about the craft, developing the future of the craft. It means making sure that the economic rights of directors and their teams are protected so they can pursue these endeavors. But most importantly, the Guild is its members. The Guild is not a building. The Guild is not a staff. The Guild is the members. And because this common goal is dealt with in large part by bargaining and representing people with producers and companies that are involved in the financing, exhibition, and distribution of the work of our members, it involves creating something that is strong enough to be able to assert collective power.

4. What do you feel is the greatest challenge facing the Guild today?

I think the greatest challenge may be one that we have continually and successfully faced over our 80 years, which is how to adapt to change and the new technologies. The DGA’s leadership believes that audiences are always going to want to have visual stories. Stories are going to continue to be told in many ways, in many forms, and there are going to be new forms of exhibition, new forms of distribution, new types of technology continually developed. Thirty years ago I don’t think anybody could have seen what directors are doing today in terms of exhibition, distribution, and technology. No one saw SVOD (Netflix, Amazon) coming in 2007—and that was less than 10 years ago. So we have to create the soil for generation after generation of storytellers to be able to do that in a manner consistent with our mission. Another challenge, and it’s not something that is really in the control of the Guild but it is something that we play an important role in—the industry has to be made up of storytellers who reflect what the society looks like. I think that has got to be an important thing that we message and participate in, that our future has got to be as an increasingly diverse organization—diverse from the perspective of gender, diverse from the perspective of race, and diverse from the perspective of nationality.

5. Under your leadership, extensive research has become a staple for negotiations. What was your thinking behind that?

It seems to me very simple and logical. If you’re going to be negotiating about things that impact tens of thousands of people’s lives, billions of dollars, and that are highly complex and involve having some idea about what might occur in the future, how things are developing and changing, anyone who does not realize their limitations and does not pour money into research is a fool. When we go into negotiations, our goal is to know as much or more about the producer’s business than the people on the other side of the table. And the only way you’re going to do that is to develop research capabilities internally, to develop very strong databases and data systems and to go outside and spend money, to hire the best minds that are available to you to generate creative tension, to create an environment where you have many ideas that are willing to challenge each other so you can figure out how to proceed. Whether it’s leading a negotiation or leading an army, you would not go out and take people into the field without doing reconnaissance. You would not go out without being prepared.

6. What are some of the seminal negotiations you’ve been a part of for the Guild?

Every negotiation has a particular character to it. For instance in 2002, we blended the agreements. It took us two negotiations to do it. What is blending the agreements? It was dealing with the fact that, if you made a dramatic show and you shot it on tape, you had one set of conditions and, if you shot it on film, you had another set of conditions. There was absolutely no rationale in the world of the 21st century for that to exist anymore. But dealing with that was not simple. And in the last 15 years, we had two major economic negotiations about health care [2004 and 2010] where we’ve had to do a tremendous amount of research with outside experts, do a lot of forecasting, and we had to engage in a restructuring of the health plan to try to better buttress it for the future. Most members don’t think about it but, if they did, they would probably go, ’yeah, that was really important.’ And, importantly, there were the negotiations about new media from 2007 to the last negotiations in 2014 where we negotiated the first agreement for SVOD for the industry. Basically, almost every aspect of production for new media that exists in this industry today is a product of research, study, and negotiation by the DGA. They were very specific things that were negotiated in the context of a broader move to bring the Guild agreements in alignment with the conditions of the time.

7. How does the Guild run on a day-to-day basis?

If you look at the Guild’s history, the elected leaders have overwhelmingly been active participants in the craft of directing or members of the directing team. So how do you run an institution of this complexity and size when your leadership is so defined? You must have leaders who are respected in the craft and who have a connection to the membership, yet they must be able to do their craft and lead, so how do they do that? They do that by hiring a highly skilled professional staff that understands and accepts that the policy of the Guild is made by those elected, and the role of the staff is to help advise about policy, and to implement policy, and implementing policy involves operating the Guild. And while I speak to the president quite frequently, anybody who thinks that the president of the Guild is here every day making decisions operating the Guild is wrong. But anybody who thinks that the Guild is not guided by the decisions of the president of the board, is kidding themselves, too.

8. What do you think members overlook about the Guild?

Many people think the Guild is something separate from them, the Guild is this institution. They may think it does good things for them but they don’t see that it is them, that the people who serve on the councils and boards, the people who give their time, the people who hire the staff, that the reason they pay their dues are not for some entity that is separate from them. It is them. So that is the first thing. I’ll have this conversation every once in a while. ’Well, you know, I’m doing well in my career. The Guild doesn’t really do much for me.’ ’What about residuals?’ ’Well, everybody gets residuals.’ ’Where do you think residuals come from?’ There’s this concept that the producers happily grant residuals. Like, if we weren’t here, they would get them anyway. Or the pension and health plan. ’Oh, well, that’s just part of my job.’ But where do you think that comes from?

9. What reasons would you give directors just starting their careers to become members of the Guild?

If you want an institution and a community that is going to protect your economic and creative rights against what are very powerful entities, you are not going to be able to do this alone. You’re not going to be able to do this with just you and your agent. You will find at the beginning, and the middle, and at the end, that you are going to need this community and this Guild, whether it be collecting your residuals or protecting your basic economic rights and creative rights or providing pension and health for your family. You may not be thinking about that when you are 28. You may not have a family. You’re not thinking you’ll ever need health care. All you want to do is get your film made but then you wake up and you’ve made something that’s successful and you’re not getting any back-end at all because you have no one there to make sure that there was a minimum and to collect it. You don’t have residuals to carry you through the low periods. The Guild is the only institution dedicated to protecting directors, their teams, and the craft of directing, therefore, I would say to anyone who was thinking about really making this their life and their career, they need the Guild.

10. You’ve been the executive director for 20 years. What do you think the future holds for the Guild in the next 20 years?

If we believe that people are still going to be telling audiovisual stories, which I do, and if we believe that there is going to be more desire and more consumption of these stories in ways we can’t conceive of in 20 years, which I do, I believe that if the Guild continues to do what it has been doing—adapting and changing—that it will be stronger than it is in 20 years. There were some who said 20 years ago when I came here, ’Oh, you know, the world is changing. The Guild can’t be as strong in 10 years, in 20 years, as it is now.’ Well, we’ve proven those people wrong.
10 Questions

Question and answer sessions with prominent figures outside the Guild about current creative and business issues.