Canadian actors confront U.S. producers

Breakdown in talks could disrupt TV, film production

TORONTO — Film and TV production in most of Canada is “a few days away from a major disruption,” said brass at the union representing the country’s actors after a clash between thesps and U.S. producers led to a breakdown in talks with Canadian producers early Thursday.

There are no plans to resume negotiations before Jan. 1, when the Alliance of Cinema, Television and Radio Artists says it is in a legal position to strike in much of Canada.

“I very much regret that Canadian producers have decided to provoke a dispute in which they will be the principal victims,” said ACTRA chief negotiator Steve Waddell.

Canadian actors and producers, who have been working to negotiate a new Independent Production Agreement since October, are deadlocked over wages and the contentious issue of new platform fees. Their current agreement expires at the end of the year.

The situation heated up Wednesday night and early Thursday morning after ACTRA brought more than two dozen high-profile Canadian thesps into the talks, including Wendy Crewson, Gordon Pinsent, Charmion King and Sarah Polley, and they clashed with U.S. studio reps there to support their Canadian counterparts. Execs from ABC/Touchstone, CBS TV, Fox Broadcasting, NBC Universal, Paramount Pictures, Sony, Disney and Warner Bros. TV were present.

John Barrack, chief negotiator for Canadian producers, said the thesps’ presence was disruptive. “It was noisy, and they really insulted the American producers, one of whom left the room,” he said, declining to name the person. “They said things like, You people are the problem, ” Barrack added.

“I fail to understand ACTRA’s logic and feel that this is a lost opportunity by driving us out of negotiations,” said Dean Ferris, Fox Broadcasting exec VP, labor relations. “We’re up here in an effort to create employment, and we refuse to fight ACTRA on these proposals. If they don’t want us to bring work to Canada, we’ll go home. No fight, no problem,” he declared.

“We’ve been on strike already,” said Waddell. “Effectively, the U.S. producers have struck this town for the past year,” he added, noting that 2006 has been one of the worst years on record for Toronto-area production.

Waddell pointed out that Canadian actors have voted 97% in favor of striking if an agreement is not reached. “Our members have a resiliency and a determination. They can live through very dry periods; they know how to adapt,” he said.

Producers say they’re offering wage increases of 1% the first year, 2% the second and 1% the third, adding that other guilds have recently accepted less generous terms. “We’re puzzled with the fact that ACTRA thinks they operate outside of this world by demanding a wage package that is over three times that of what was agreed to by other unions and guilds,” said Barrack.

“We don’t compare ourselves to writers or directors,” said Waddell. “We compare ourselves to comparable unions like the Screen Actors Guild, which received a 10% increase last year.”

ACTRA is asking for 5%, 5% and 5%.

On the Internet end, producers are asking that there be no fees for promotional material. ACTRA is balking at its definition of the term. “They define promotional as covering anything in which producers don’t receive any money,” said Waddell. “Somebody’s making money off of this. We’re not going to give away the future for free.”

ACTRA is offering continuation letters to any producer who agrees to pay an extra 5% in wages and 2% in benefits. Waddell says that “dozens” have already signed, though he declines to name them, he says, for fear of retribution from producers.

Barrack contends that the continuation letters are illegal, ACTRA will be acting unlawfully if it moves to strike, and the CFTPA will challenge the union.

“Barrack is talking through his hat, as usual,” retorted Waddell.

Fireworks aside, the two sides have made progress on a number of issues, including improved conditions for child actors and increased flexibility for reality TV production. “They made low-budget programming more flexible, and I have to thank them for that,” said Barrack.

Both sides have said they’re ready to go back to the table at any time, though no new talks are scheduled.