ACTRA, producers trade contract proposals

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TORONTO -- Canadian actors are set to launch a possible strike Monday that they insist they will mostly work through, thanks to individual deals with North American producers guaranteeing continued shooting.

Canadian actors and North American producers on Sunday evening were still bargaining on a new labor deal at the Royal York Hotel in Toronto ahead of a midnight deadline for ACTRA, which represents 21,000 performers, to call a strike.

But late Sunday night, the crunch talks between ACTRA and American producers, the Canadian Film and Television Production Assn. and Quebec producers with the Association de producteurs de films et de television du Quebec appeared on the verge of breaking down as both sides traded proposals on the thorny issue of digital media compensation for Canadian actors.

As the midnight deadline drew near, the actors and producers had still to begin negotiating a possible wage increase for ACTRA members, another potential deal breaker.

ACTRA and CFTPA have both scheduled news conferences for Monday in Toronto.

But rather than launch a walkout Monday, ACTRA's leadership insists its members will remain on the job at 34 film or TV projects in Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan -- with an immediate 7% wage increase.

Producers on the 34 projects have signed continuation letters that spare them labor disruption in return for a guarantee that ACTRA members will receive an immediate 5% increase in performer fees, an additional 1% increase in insurance benefits and another 1% increase for retirement benefits.

"They get the best of both worlds," Karl Pruner, president of ACTRA's Toronto performers branch, said of his members possibly striking on Monday, but remaining on the job with a wage increase, thanks to the continuation letters.

Canadian producers, frustrated by ACTRA rebuffing its latest new media compensation proposals this weekend, blamed the performers for the lack of a new Independent Production Agreement.

"The actors are out of step with the budget realities in the new business environment," CFTPA chief negotiator John Barrack said Sunday night.

Barrack added that the producers will approach the courts to declare the continuation letters unlawful, and to challenge the right of actors as independent contractors to stage a strike.

"If they walk away from the bargaining process, all bets are off," he said ahead of possible legal action this week.

ACTRA said it will picket Monday two productions in Toronto not to have signed continuation letters.

Both are projects of Los Angeles-based Blueprint Entertainment: The N's "The Best Years," which is shooting until March 30, and Court TV's John Waters-starring half-hour series " 'Til Death Do Us Part," set to wrap shooting on Jan. 29.

"There's not many pickets to set up," ACTRA's Pruner said Sunday, reflecting satisfaction throughout his union's leadership that so many North American producers signed continuation letters ahead of the Sunday midnight strike deadline.

ACTRA said both Charity Shea, the lead on "Best Years," and John Waters are AFTRA members and have been urged to respect possible ACTRA pickets lines beginning Monday.

Despite protests from the producer associations, independent producers did sign continuation letters affecting Lions Gate Entertainment's "The Dresden Files"; five Canadian episodes of NBC's "Deal or No Deal," to be hosted by Canadian comic actor Howie Mandel; and three series for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.: the docu-drama "72 Hours True Crime" and the comedies "The Rick Mercer Report" and "Royal Canadian Air Farce."

ACTRA has promised to release a list of continuation letter signatories in Quebec on Tuesday before any labor action spreads to that province on Wednesday. ACTRA representatives insist most Quebec producers have made similar individual deals with the performers union so their projects can meet broadcast delivery dates.

The actors union has threatened strike action later in January in the rest of Canada, including Alberta, Nova Scotia, and the rest of Maritime Canada, moves the producers will attempt to thwart through the courts.

Preferring to minimize the long-term negative impact from a possible actors strike on Canadian film and TV industry largely financed by U.S. runaway production and financing, ACTRA underlined that Los Angeles producers who wish to shoot in Canada this year had only to sign continuation letters to be spared labor disruption.

Those assurances came against the backdrop of the actors and producers struggling all weekend to reach a possible new IPA deal during marathon talks at the Royal York Hotel in Toronto.

By Sunday evening, both sides had yet to get around to negotiating a possible wage increase for Canadian actors. The talks instead remained hung up on how to compensate Canadian performers for video product sold over the Internet or other new digital platforms.

The producers have been demanding virtually unfettered use of new-media content, after paying ACTRA members fees for their performances.

ACTRA on Sunday proposed its members receive a day fee for the first three digital media programs made in a single day, with only 50% payment for additional content made during the same shooting day.

It is understood the producers would be able to use what content they made during the single day in all digital media for all time, with the actors collecting 3.6% of distribution revenues.

But ACTRA demanded that the producers pay additional compensation if they shorten, lengthen or otherwise change original versions of performances by its members.

The negotiations on new media residuals were compounded by divergent needs from the U.S. and Canadian producers.

The Americans at the table represented vertically integrated studios that retain the rights to product they produce and release, while the Canadian producers typically make product for a fee before surrendering new media rights to domestic broadcasters.

Stephen Waddell, ACTRA's chief negotiator, insisted U.S. producers were offering a "low-ball deal" on new media residuals to put forth as an example during negotiations with U.S. guilds and unions, including the Screen Actors Guild, over the coming year.

"We're not prepared to roll over. Canadian performers are second to none. We're not going to accept second rate," he said.

Also complicating the Canadian talks are the producers looking to grant wage increases in line with those contained in recent labor deals negotiated with the Writers Guild of Canada, the Directors Guild of Canada and domestic technicians unions.

But ACTRA representatives insist they want any wage increases as part of a new IPA deal to help Canadian actors keep pace with their SAG colleagues.

As matters stand, both sides remain far apart on wages. ACTRA is demanding a 15% increase over three years, while the producers last offered a 4% increase over three years, with certain deferrals.

British Columbia will not be subject to a possible ACTRA strike -- the first in that union's history -- as actors in that province operate under a separate labor deal with North American producers.

ACTRA put out a call over the weekend for members to man flying picket lines. Some members will receive CAN$75 a day for their participation, while others will be welcomed as volunteers.

Should ACTRA strike, unionized performers, including apprentices and extras, are being urged not to report to work or auditions on productions that have not signed a continuation letter.

Despite possible labor action, ACTRA members will still be able to work on productions subject to other ACTRA contracts, including commercials, student films and broadcaster agreements.
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