Canucks’ labor woes spur reverse runaway

Agreement with thesps union expires at end of year

MONTREAL — Hollywood may have dodged a labor bullet by forging new contracts for actors and writers, but its problems are just beginning in the Great White North.

The current agreement between ACTRA, Canada’s main actors union, and the producers (both Canadian and American) expires at the end of the year, with negotiations set to begin this fall.

Top execs from the U.S. majors have told reps of the Canadian film business that the studios will not bring any productions to Canada in the coming months unless they can definitely wrap filming by Jan. 16. That’s the date when Canadian actors can legally go on strike.

The agreement between ACTRA and film producers expires Dec. 31. The two sides will not even start negotiating until mid-October and no one thinks an actors strike is the most likely outcome of the talks. But it can’t be ruled out as a possibility, which is why the studios are so nervous.

The American film companies are taking the same approach to the Canadian labor dispute that they did with the strike threat in the U.S. With no agreement in place with the Screen Actors Guild earlier this year, the studios had to act as if there was going to be a strike and made sure that all film and TV shoots were wrapped by June 30, the SAG strike deadline. The studios aren’t willing to risk that a strike will shut down a pricey production in mid-shoot.

Waiting game

A Warner Bros. rep confirmed that the studio is not scheduling any features or long-form TV projects in Canada that cannot wrap before Jan. 16, just as the studios did with the Writers Guild and SAG negotiations in anticipation of a June 30 work stoppage. Several Canadian shoots already have been canceled, the rep added.

Montreal film commissioner Andre Lafond said studio executives keep telling him they are worried about the labor situation in Canada. Several major Hollywood pics will take a pass on shooting in Montreal if the problem isn’t resolved, Lafond said.

The uncertain labor situation might cost Montreal “Dreamcatcher,” an adaptation of the Stephen King bestseller to be produced by Castle Rock, distributed by Warner Bros. and directed by Lawrence Kasdan.

The film originally was set to shoot here in January, as Quebec is an ideal location for the story set in the snowy woods of Maine and New Hampshire. But Warner Bros. is considering shooting “Dreamcatcher” elsewhere because of the threat of an ACTRA strike. It might move the shoot to British Columbia because the B.C. actors union has a separate collective agreement, which doesn’t expire until March 31.

Worsening situation

The timing couldn’t be worse for Canada. There are no studio shoots here this summer because of the delays caused by the SAG negotiations. The majors all rushed to make extra films earlier in the year prior to the strike deadline and are only now scrambling to ready projects for the fall.

But now they might not be coming to Montreal and Toronto because of the potential labor disruption.

“It’s a critical situation for everyone,” Lafond said. “Toronto will lose. Montreal will lose. It’s very important for Montreal because Montreal is the hot place for Hollywood right now. They’re finally open to Montreal and now we have this ACTRA problem on our hands. All I can say to ACTRA is: ‘Do something.’ Someone is going to suffer. None of ACTRA’s members know about this and they’re going to lose money.”

But Stephen Waddell, national executive director of ACTRA, said it is unreasonable for the studios to demand a promise of labor peace.

“It’s a very odd situation that the U.S. producers would take such an alarming position,” Waddell said. “We are disturbed to hear this and we don’t understand why they’re taking this position.”

Actors off-guard

Industry sources say ACTRA was surprised by the studios’ hard-line position and wasn’t prepared to respond to it. ACTRA is only now canvassing its 18,000 members to come up with proposals and the union will have its final proposals ready only at the end of September.

ACTRA and the Canadian Film & Television Production Assn. have agreed to start negotiations Oct. 15. The current agreement between the actors and the producers has been in place since September 1999. Key issues this time around for ACTRA include Internet royalties, increasing the number of Canadian actors hired on U.S. shoots and upping the basic daily wage for actors.

Waddell said the union is not keen to hit the picket lines, but he said ACTRA’s members will take a strike vote sometime in the fall.

“It strengthens our hand at the negotiating table if the producers understand we’re solid behind our positions,” he said. “But it’s way too early for anyone to be talking about strikes and putting up red flags on that issue.”

(Dave McNary in Hollywood contributed to this report.)

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