ACTRA strike on, but few need to walk


TORONTO -- Canadian actors on Monday began a strike that could not only see many continue working, but with a wage increase to boot, thanks to individual pacts producers have signed to avoid picket lines.

ACTRA, which represents about 21,000 performers, called the strike early Monday as talks between ACTRA and North American producers on a new collective agreement collapsed. At issue is how actors will be compensate for performances utilized on the Internet, cell phones and across other digital media.

But the Canadian industry has thus far suffered little disruption, thanks to continuation letters that many producers signed with ACTRA, exempting them from picketing or other job action.

At 3:20 a.m. Monday morning, American producers, the Canadian Film and Television Production Assn. and Quebec producers with the Association de producteurs de films et de television du Quebec, put a comprehensive package on the table that included a 9% wage increase over three years along with three pages of intricate language on how digital media residuals might work.

At 5:30 a.m., ACTRA representatives returned with a counter-offer that proposed bargaining on new media compensation be placed into the hands of a joint committee "with a mandate to report in one year."

If no agreement was reached after that period, ACTRA recommended non-binding mediation.

By dawn, the producers had rejected ACTRA's counter offer, and the actors union told their members to walk. The strike does not affect British Columbia, where actors have a separate labor deal with producers.

The last two Toronto productions to sign continuation letters -- Los Angeles-based Blueprint Entertainment's "The Best Years" and "Till Death Do Us Part" -- inked deals with ACTRA just before 8 a.m. Monday to ensure they too could continue shooting.

Other independent producers that have inked deals with ACTRA include Lions Gate Television's "Dresden Files," five Canadian episodes by Insight Prods. of NBC's "Deal or No Deal" and three series for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.: docu-drama "72 Hours True Crime" and comedies "The Rick Mercer Report" and "Royal Canadian Air Farce."

In all, 36 film or TV projects in Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan continued production Monday, with ACTRA members on set receiving an immediate 5% wage increase along with an additional 2% increase in retirement and insurance benefits.

"They get the best of both worlds," Karl Pruner, president of ACTRA's Toronto performers branch, said of his members walking, but still working, Monday.

All that was left for Toronto actors was to congregate at ACTRA headquarters on Church Street for a pep rally and a press conference.

"Professional performers don't work for free. Not on TV. Not on film. And not on the Internet," Canadian actor Wendy Crewson ("24") told reporters in Toronto.

ACTRA chief negotiator Stephen Waddell insists that the current wrangling between North American producers and Canadian actors over digital media was a prelude to negotiations U.S. studios will hold with their own unions and guilds this year and next.

He likened ACTRA to the "canary in the coal mine" as the studios establish what might fly in digital media compensation before they hold separate talks elsewhere.

"These are same multi-national conglomerates that are beating up on performers in Australia, in the U.K.. These are the U.S. mega-corporations that are out to attempt to get the digital media for free," Waddel said.

For the producers, it was off to the courts Monday to argue that ACTRA's continuation letters are unlawful as well as to challenge the actors' right to call a strike on the basis that they are not represented by a legitimate union, only an association representing independent contractors.

CFTPA chief negotiator John Barrack was hard-pressed Monday to explain why his members overwhelmingly went against the producers association's own advice and signed individual deals with ACTRA in Toronto and elsewhere.

"They've been given no choice. There's a gun to their heads," he told reporters during a Toronto press conference.

Steve Comeau, president of Halifax-based independent producer Collideascope Digital Prods., said he would never sign any continuation letter to complete voice-work with ACTRA members on the cartoon series "Delilah and Julius."

But, when pressed, Comeau, who took part in the new media bargaining with ACTRA on behalf of the CFTPA, admitted he would consider going non-union to get "Delilah and Julius" into the can.

ACTRA's strike will next move to Quebec on Wednesday before spreading elsewhere in Canada.

Michael Prupas, president of Montreal-based producer Muse Entertainment Enterprises, said his company was currently in pre-production on a number of projects, so he hasn't had to consider signing continuation letters yet.

"The issue will be how long this strike will go on," he said.

But Prupas added that he was "shocked" at the number of Toronto producers that had signed deals with ACTRA.

It sounds to me like if the guts of the industry in Toronto is caving in and signing these letters, then that might happen here (Montreal) as well," he said.

There was disappointment elsewhere across a Canadian film and TV industry very much in limbo.

"It's one more blow for Ontario and Toronto," Ken Ferguson, president of Toronto Film Studios, a major studio operator, said Monday. "We've come through a poor year as a result of bargaining for IATSE 873, which was resolved. But unfortunately the disruption will continue until ACTRA gets an agreement."

Ferguson said that unspecified American producers already had chosen to shift their projects to Vancouver or elsewhere, rather than risk picket lines or legal wrangling amid a Canadian actors strike.

At the same time, Ferguson echoed others in the Canadian industry who are forecasting that talks later this year between the major studios and U.S. guilds and unions will similarly break up on the rocks of digital media rights and compensation.

And that could mean American production will head north later this year -- provided ACTRA concludes an agreement with producers -- to avoid possible guild and union strikes south of the border.

Vancouver, meanwhile, is expected to receive a spike in film and TV shooting as projects shift away from Toronto and Montreal.

"We welcome more business when we can get it, but certainly not due to a strike. That (labor disruption) eventually affects many jurisdictions," said Peter Leitch, manager of Lionsgate Studios in North Vancouver.