Carol Lombardini

Making the Hollywood Deals That Keep the Cameras Rolling

Carol Lombardini, JD ’79, has never sought the spotlight, and The Los Angeles Times once claimed hers is the “least glamorous job in Hollywood.” During last year’s double-barreled strikes by both writers and actors, Lombardini, as president of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), negotiated on behalf of entertainment titans including Disney, Amazon, Warner Bros., Universal, Paramount Pictures, Sony Pictures, and Netflix. With movie stars and writers on strike and on the picket lines, there was no lack of spicy commentary. But, true to form, Lombardini declined interviews. As the strike dragged on, The New York Times noted her pivotal role while maintaining a low profile, saying the veteran union negotiator was “as obscure as an extra.”

Lombardini may prefer to operate behind the curtain, but in Hollywood, she is anything but obscure. For more than 40 years, since AMPTP was created in 1982, she has negotiated the deals that keep the complex, often fractious and ego-rich, 100-billion-dollar global movie and entertainment industry working. In that time, Lombardini has been a crucial voice in finalizing hundreds of collective bargaining agreements governing employment conditions and compensation for workers who belong to the dozens of unions and guilds that make movie magic—from writers, computer animation artists, and directors to electricians, truck drivers, and animal handlers. Those who have worked—and sparred—with her say she can be intimidating inside the negotiation room but friendly outside it, as well as focused, funny, and matter-of-fact. “My job,” she says, “is to reach agreements so the industry can keep operating.”

Carol Lombardini
Carol Lombardini, JD ’79, President of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers

Easier said than done. “Carol has been on the cutting-edge of labor negotiating for a long period of time,” says her former SLS professor William B. Gould IV, Charles A. Beardsley Professor of Law, emeritus, who has helped train a number of prominent entertainment labor attorneys. “She has one of the most challenging labor negotiation law jobs that I’m aware of, and she has done a remarkably distinguished job.”

Labor negotiations involve unique challenges. For one thing, labor’s negotiating power rises and falls, in part because the National Labor Relations Board, which enforces federal law involving collective bargaining, is appointed by the president. “In other areas of law, you have case law. There is precedent,” Lombardini explains. “We are subject to the interpretations of the NLRB, which can shift dramatically from one administration to the next.”

In entertainment, the variety of jobs and unions represented on a movie or television set is broad. Allies on one issue may be at odds on others. For example, actors may be concerned about future residual payments and for what period a project can have exclusive access to their time, but so-called “below the line” workers who build sets or edit soundtracks may be more focused on base pay and benefits. Lombardini also negotiates agreements with foreign unions covered by entirely different labor laws. All of which goes to support the LA Times’ claim: Lombardini agrees there’s little glamour involved in her work but a lot of nonstop preparation and negotiating. “I have 64 agreements that I negotiated over the last three years. I have 22 collective bargaining agreements that expire July 31.”

Navigating Multiple Agreements—and Aims

Another unique wrinkle is that in Hollywood, many supervisory roles, such as directors and showrunners, are represented in collective bargaining. “The National Labor Relations Act says an employer has the right to the undivided loyalties of its supervisors,” Lombardini notes. In practice, this might mean that while it is a director’s job to manage a set and resolve issues before they escalate, sometimes directors may turn to their guild in a conflict. “It’s a difficult way to run a business,” she says. Gould agrees: “In multi-union situations, everybody is looking over everybody’s shoulder to try to gain an advantage.”

Diverse Priorities

It’s also the case that AMPTP members, themselves, have diverse priorities. The alliance represents more than 300 producers, including companies like Paramount Pictures and Warner Bros. that reflect more traditional Hollywood studios, but also streaming players such as Amazon, Apple, and Netflix. J. Keith Gorham, JD ’78, worked closely with Lombardini for many years when he was chief labor negotiator for NBC Universal, now a Comcast subsidiary. Gorham says the last two decades have seen business model upheaval in entertainment. “AMPTP’s member companies have competing interests outside the room and their own agendas.” What’s more, “Relationships in the entertainment industry are very important,” Gorham explains. “You don’t want to alienate talent.” Situations get sticky. “You may have a studio executive married to a leading actress,” Gorham says. At the end of the day, however, “The deals have to be made in the room. Someone in Carol’s position has to shape it all with a meaningful, manageable deal without a strike.”

Last year’s strikes were the first of Lombardini’s 15-year tenure as president of AMPTP. David P. White, JD ’00, chief negotiator for the Screen Actors Guild–American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) from 2009 to 2021, says she deserves considerable credit for a prolonged period of labor peace. He praises Lombardini’s intellect, memory for historical context and detail, and toughness. “When you go up against Carol, you put together your best thinking, your best team, your best preparation, because she’s the best.” But the experience may not be pleasant. “You’ve spent the last hour saying, ‘It’s critical to get this, it is absolutely essential for the well-being of our members,’” White says. “Carol has zero problem, unblinking, looking you in the eye in a negotiation and saying, ‘That is not going to happen. That is never going to happen.’” Outside the bargaining room, however, White, who is board chair of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco and runs the 3CG Ventures consulting firm, says Lombardini shifts from stoic to charming and loves talking about her favorite sports teams, the Boston Red Sox, the New England Patriots, and the LA Dodgers.

Lombardini grew up in a working-class Italian-American family near Boston. She says television shows like Perry Mason and books such as To Kill a Mockingbird attracted her to the law. As an undergraduate at the University of Chicago earning a degree in Renaissance history, she was delighted to finally learn Italian, which her parents and grandparents refused to teach her at home (although she picked up “a few swear words”).

After four years of icy midwestern winds, the lure of California was irresistible. She didn’t arrive at Stanford intending to become a labor lawyer. Then came Gould’s labor courses and, in her first job, an overworked associate at Meserve Mumper & Hughes in LA who learned she didn’t have enough to do in the real estate department asked her to help him with some pending labor matters. She says she was drawn to the field “accidentally.”

Finding Her Way to AMPTP

Lombardini had moved to Proskauer Rose by 1982, when J. Nicholas Counter, JD ’66, reached out to her. He had just left Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp to launch AMPTP—a new bargaining entity for movie and television producers. A previous association had come apart over internal differences in 1975, which left industry players to negotiate independently or in small alliances, prompting unions to secure a concession from one studio group and use it to pressure the others. “We call it whipsawing,” Lombardini says.

The two lawyers met at a bar. “We each had a glass of wine and we talked for 45 minutes,” Lombardini recalls. “He finally said, ‘Can you start in July?’ I said, ‘I think so.’” They worked side by side for the next 17 years. Counter retired in 2009, and Lombardini became president. Sadly, Counter passed away a few months after his retirement. “Nick was extraordinarily successful in uniting the industry,” she says.

Lombardini has negotiated hundreds of deals since 1982, and her familiarity with past agreements gives her a powerful advantage, Gorham believes. “It’s more than looking at the language; it’s important to know context, intent, bargaining history.” Finalized agreements can run to hundreds, even thousands, of pages.

When it came to the 2023 strikes, the salient issues reflect how the basic business of entertainment has changed in recent years. In both cases, the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and SAG-AFTRA advocated for higher base compensation and benefits, but there was also debate around how writers’ rooms should be staffed, residuals for streaming shows, and the use of artificial intelligence. For example, writers wanted to make sure the technology could not be trained on or manipulate their work without permission, while actors sought protection against re-creations of their performances. Among other provisions, the parties agreed only human writers will receive credit—which impacts compensation—for creating content. Agreements for performers, including background actors, included the requirement that they must give explicit consent for their voice or likeness to be used as a “digital replica,” and there should be compensation and residuals from that work.

Experts say this is only the beginning of many workplace, compensation, and other bargaining issues related to the rapid encroachment of AI. Intellectual property expert Paul Goldstein, Stella W. and Ira S. Lillick Professor of Law, says, “Generative artificial intelligence is likely to affect the workplace lives of authors and artists in profound ways. Collective bargaining and labor law may become even more important than copyright in shaping the conditions of creativity.” Goldstein remembers his former student Lombardini as “incredibly smart, but practical, grounded in reality.”

To Lombardini, dealing with new technology is a familiar challenge: “The motion picture industry has always welcomed new technology and always given creators the latitude to experiment. Jim Cameron these days has a ‘volume,’ a large, empty space with no set dressing or walls, and within it he produces an imaginative landscape.”

Still, she understands that workers are afraid AI will replace their jobs. But that kind of fear is not new. “We used to have more union projectionists. Then we moved to video and you didn’t need as many projectionists in the editing room eight hours a day. The industry responded with retraining those people as engineers,” she says. “I think that’s what AI will do. There are tasks such as summarizing a script that can be done faster by AI—there’s a question about how much better—and it’s a legitimate fear for actors that you could take their likeness and do something with it. But like any technology, you’re not going to stop it. You have to give people new skills.”

Protecting the Creative Ecosystem

More than most, Lombardini is keenly aware that the creative ecosystems that produce movies and television can be fragile. Strikes test audience loyalty. And the economic impact of a strike for not only workers but also the communities where the industry generates jobs is significant. In 2024, the Motion Picture Association stated that film and TV production pays $242 billion in annual wages and supports 2.74 million jobs. She adds: “We go into every negotiation with the intention of reaching a fair agreement. Last year’s negotiations required us to grapple with fundamental shifts in companies’ business models, technological advances that have reshaped consumer behavior, and the potential of artificial intelligence to upend the workplace as we know it. In the end, the industry and the unions were able to agree on a package that meaningfully addressed both parties’ concerns in these areas.”

Reflecting on her career, Lombardini says a highlight came during the COVID pandemic when rules designed to allow workplaces to continue operating, such as physical distancing, were impossible on a TV or movie set. “We all had to get together with the unions and figure out how to return to work, how to get the industry back up and running. Over three months, we hammered out agreements with every union. It’s a source of pride to me that we were able to do that. The industry resumed work with a large volume of production. We shared the mutual goal of putting people back to work.”

Despite the long hours her job entails, friends say Lombardini is good-humored and loyal and maintains strong personal relationships. She’s been married for 41 years to William Cole, JD ’77, a highly respected labor law attorney who spent his career at Mitchell Silberberg in Los Angeles. They have two grown children. They also remain close to friends from their law school days, such as Jake Jacobson, JD ’77, who lives in Seattle. Several years ago, another friend was helping Jacobson recuperate from major surgery, but had to leave. “As the rideshare came to pick him up, another dropped off Carol,” he recalls. “She’s a remarkable person.” Jacobson had not been told about the handoff, but “she looked at me and said, ‘Nurse Ratched has arrived.’” Clearly a non-negotiable. SL