Canada actor strike near

Could affect just two productions

Canada appears headed toward its first actors strike beginning today, though production will suffer surprisingly little disruption.

At press time Sunday, Canadian actors and North American producers had failed to reach a new labor deal ahead of a midnight deadline. An agreement would avert a threatened strike call today from ACTRA, which represents 21,000 performers.

Talks made little headway during the weekend 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. The thorny issue was digital media compensation for Canadian actors.

But rather than launch a walkout today, ACTRA's leadership insists that 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 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 during the 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.

ACTRA has called a news conference for this morning in Toronto, where they are expected to announce plans to picket the only two productions in Toronto that have not 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 Jan. 29.

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

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

Despite protests from the producer associations, independent producers did sign continuation letters affecting Lionsgate 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."

Should ACTRA launch a strike today, the CFTPA is expected to turn to the courts to argue that the individual deals producers are signing with the actors union are unlawful because they don't conform with the IPA.

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

Preferring to minimize the long-term negative impact of a possible actors strike on a 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 that 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 revenue.

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