Labor chill felt in Toronto, Montreal

As negotiations between actors and producers entered their final leg amid the looming prospect of a strike, the uncertainty has already taken its toll on production, with Toronto and Montreal suffering the most damage.

As negotiations between actors and producers entered their final leg amid the looming prospect of a strike, the uncertainty has already taken its toll on production, with Toronto and Montreal suffering the most damage.

ACTRA chief negotiator Steve Waddell predicted that talks toward a new Independent Production Agreement would likely ‘go down to the wire,’ as the two sides continue their tug-of-war over wages, benefits and – most significantly for the future – new media. The current IPA expires Dec. 31.

Whether or not a strike is in the offing, the production industries in Toronto – and, to a lesser extent Montreal – are already victims. ‘It’s worse than SARS,’ contends Toronto Film Studios president Ken Ferguson.

‘It doesn’t matter who’s right – everybody’s the loser right now,’ says Ferguson. ‘They need to find a way to come together.’

Toronto has for some months had to make do with just two major Hollywood shoots: New Line’s Hairspray and Fox’s Jumper. The numbers aren’t in yet but, anecdotally, Ferguson says labor instability has made 2006 one of the worst years on record for Toronto.

Nick Counter, president of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which reps Hollywood studios and producers, calls the labor chill ‘a de facto strike.’

‘For our companies planning productions – and this applies to Canadian producers as well – you have to have certainty as to whether or not there’ll be a work stoppage by any group,’ he says. ‘Where there’s uncertainty, in effect that location is erased from the possible location map.’

CFTPA chief negotiator John Barrack says that he has been told by executives at Sony that the sequel to The Pink Panther is eschewing Montreal, and by brass at Disney that National Treasure II: The Book of Secrets has skipped Toronto due to strike talk.

Producer Don Carmody, currently shooting Outlander in Nova Scotia, acknowledges that he is staying clear of central Canada until everything’s settled.

‘It’s too bad. With the dollar staying reasonably low, this is really throwing a monkey wrench in things. I know for a fact quite a few of the American majors were poised to bring a number of pictures this way,’ he says, ‘but now they’re stymied.’

Amid this uncertainty, there are also those who take the spoils. In Canada, the main beneficiary would seem to be B.C., which is enjoying a booming business, thanks in part to a separate actors’ agreement, in force until the end of March. The province is currently hosting titles Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer and Trick or Treat.

‘The year so far has been pretty good,’ acknowledges British Columbia Film executive director Richard Brownsey, though he would not attribute any extra business to labor problems elsewhere in Canada.

Counter, meanwhile, believes there is a direct cause and effect.

‘Our production people who have contacted my office have expressed concern about the uncertainty in Toronto and Montreal,’ he says. ‘We have a safe harbor agreement with B.C., so they’re more likely to go to B.C.’

The Union of B.C. Performers, ACTRA’s B.C. branch, has said it would support its ACTRA colleagues in the event of a strike by not participating on such productions, but Barrack doubts it. ‘I don’t think the B.C. actors are going to back ACTRA on this one,’ he says.

Others are staying home – call it ‘runaway home production.’ Counter says that U.S. states with aggressive production incentives, including New York, Louisiana and Arizona, would profit from labor instability in rival territories, adding, ‘I think the SAG may have benefited from the uncertainty.’

Barring a settlement, the biggest work stoppage question mark will be cleared away in mid-December, when the results of ACTRA’s strike ballot are expected to be made public.

Producers in Canada, meanwhile, are miffed that ACTRA has been offering continuation letters to individual producers.

‘The continuation letters they’ve been offering are not lawful,’ says Barrack. ‘You can’t just strike against some and not others.’

The CFTPA and the APFTQ, its Quebec counterpart, in November refused to sign a continuation letter that asks in return for a 5% increase in wages and a 2% increase in benefits – the same conditions that ACTRA is fighting for at the table.

www.actra.ca

www.cftpa.ca

www.apftq.qc.ca