Actors unions get a lift from Great White North

TORONTO — Every time U.S. producers see executives from the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists sitting with SAG and AFTRA members across the bargaining table, ACTRA prexy Thor Bishopric hopes his message to the American studios sinks in a little deeper: “You can’t play us off against each other. We are together.”

Bishopric and executive director Steve Waddell recently returned from Los Angeles and the first round of SAG/AFTRA negotiations. Bishopric reported that ACTRA is a trusted part of the inner circle, privy to the proposals submitted by both sides and party to all discussions, and that there is a great deal of solidarity between the unions representing performers north and south of the border.

Take the so-called scope expanding clause that SAG has put forward. ACTRA is fully supportive of the clause — which would bolster contract language to ensure that SAG members working on productions outside the U.S. are subject to the SAG contract.

ACTRA likes it, said Bishopric, because whatever enriches the working conditions for U.S. actors has got to be good for their Canadian brethren as well. And if a scope expanding clause should discourage producers from cherry-picking U.S. talent, that can only be beneficial for Canadian actors, who Bishopric feels have a tougher time getting into the star system. “It may get Canadian producers to take a more serious look at Canadian talent, and that’s a good thing.”

Not that anyone need hold their breath. “It will be a significant battle to push a proposal that is basically jurisdictional,” Bishopric suggested. “It’s more difficult to get people riled about a jurisdictional proposal than it is to get excited over wages.”

Bishopric is not supportive of the way the scope expanding clause has been framed in some media as a “Canada clause” or a “runaway clause,” however, saying that in reality it is neither.

Divided on runaway prod’n

This touches on an issue on which the unions do not agree: runaway production.

SAG/AFTRA, which face a June 30 contract expiration, have held four negotiating sessions and will resume contract talks Wednesday. The unions, which have not disclosed specifics of their proposals, have also sought language to curb runaway production although the companies are certain to argue that such provisions cannot be contractually mandated. ACTRA leaders admit the unions to do not agree on the issue.

“We have over the years discussed this issue,” said Bishopric. SAG is “concerned that Canada is interested in undercutting them, in providing government subsidies to grab runaway production. Obviously we have a different impression of that. We are totally inundated by U.S. culture, we have a difficult time grabbing any airtime on our own TVs, of getting our own product up on Canadian screens. Are we, as a union, interested in luring work to Canada by undercutting? Absolutely not.”

He says that the two unions are working to establish a shared definition of runaway production — and Bishopric does not feel that any project that chooses to produce outside of the U.S. fits the bill.

“Not to speak specifically, but there is a perception that the Hollywood industry was built up in a partnership with stakeholders,” he said, “and there is a sense of loss that many producers, motivated by profit, are eschewing that long-term relationship and going where they can do it cheapest. These are ongoing issues, and we are working to address this.”

Funding to blame

To blame here, he says, are the current funding model in Canada and its reliance on U.S. producers who exploit Canadian talent and the Canadian dollar to make a fast buck without concern for quality, as well as the Canadian producers churning out TV Spam headlined by a U.S. star or two brought onboard to give it some TVQ.

“It’s historical,” he said, “based on the fact that most of the industry has been grown with the assistance of public funds, and in some instances this has resulted in abusive situations. We don’t see anywhere near what we would like to see in the establishment of a truly Canadian TV and film system.”

The Toronto-as-New York stand-in has been good for the industry in Canada in “raw dollars,” he said, but for ACTRA, “our horizon is a longer one.”

Bishopric and Waddell expect to return to L.A. a few times as the talks progress. “We have an open invitation to participate in the entire proceedings. We will visit from time to time and are party to all that goes on.”

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