ACTRA talks back on, but digital divide gaping

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TORONTO -- Striking Canadian actors and North American producers are headed back to the bargaining table again.

But even as the talks to end the 3-week-old actors strike are set to resume Wednesday and Thursday in Toronto, this time with a government-appointed mediator in the room, neither side appears poised to compromise over the thorny issue of digital media compensation for performers.

"We can't afford to do it wrong," Brian Topp, executive director of ACTRA Toronto, the Canadian actors union's biggest branch, said Friday as he and about 200 actors held a pep rally outside the headquarters of the Canadian Film and Television Production Assn.

John Barrack, the CFTPA's chief negotiator, said both sides need to "back up" on the issue of digital media compensation to hammer out a labor deal.

"But if each of us holds to our positions, they're right, there'll be no deal," he warned.

ACTRA is seeking to push discussion of residuals for new media performances into sidebar talks and conclude a new Independent Production Agreement on the remaining issues.

"We shouldn't be the canary in the coal mine," Michael Murphy ("The Year of Living Dangerously") argued. The veteran U.S. actor, who now lives in Toronto with his family, insisted that the major studios should be left to grapple with the same digital media issues when they hold contract talks with their U.S. guilds this year and next.

But the CFTPA is driving hard for a deal on digital media as part of a new IPA, arguing that all producers who shoot here, Canadians and Americans alike, require the new media rights for performances by domestic actors before they can use or shop their product in the world market.

A full contingent of U.S. studio reps are due in Toronto next week for the first bargaining dates with ACTRA since talks deadlocked Jan. 22 over how actors should be paid when product containing their performances is converted to digital media usage.

Studio reps, led by the AMPTP's Nick Counter, made no headway in Vancouver this week when bargaining on a separate labor deal with the Union of British Columbia Performers. Those talks stumbled, as in the ACTRA talks, over valuing compensation for performances repurposed for the Internet and other digital media.

Next week's talks come at the insistence of the federal minister of labor, Jean-Pierre Blackburn. He contacted ACTRA and the CFTPA on Thursday with concerns for the Canadian film and TV production industry over the loss of U.S. productions owing to the Canadian actors strike, now in its fourth week.

"In my view, the continued production of Canadian films and television programs is too important to Canada and to the Canadian economy to be jeopardized by your current dispute," Blackburn told both sides in a statement.

With agreement from both sides, Blackburn appointed Elizabeth MacPherson, director general of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Services, to mediate next week's talks.

Should those talks fail, the ACTRA strike will next be headed to court-sanctioned arbitration beginning Feb. 19, with veteran conciliator Marilyn Nairn responsible for ruling on whether the current labor dispute by ACTRA is legal.
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