The U.S. actors’ strike that begins Friday will grind film and TV production to a halt worldwide, augmenting the continuing American screenwriter walkout in a move that will clear out sound stages across Canada and possibly dim the star factor of the Toronto International Film Festival in September.

The dual strikes, a pairing not seen since 1960, are taking place at an inflection point for creative film and TV workers as they negotiate their relationships with Hollywood studios. The Writers Guild of America began its labour action in May, and the 160,000-member SAG-AFTRA actors’ union said it would also take to the picket lines Friday morning. It is hoping for wage boosts in an inflationary environment, a stronger cut of income from streaming views and protections against replacement by artificial intelligence technology.

“I think the business is in a real crisis point,” said Canada’s Dave Thomas, an SCTV alumni who is now based in Los Angeles and is a member of SAG-AFTRA as well as the Canadian and American writers’ guilds. The dispute, he said in an interview, “could go on a long time,” but he hoped the producers would come to see their perspective: “We’ve always made money for them.”

SAG-AFTRA president Fran Drescher used more pointed language at a press conference in Los Angeles announcing the strike Thursday, where she said the union hoped to set an example for the world’s labour movements. “We are being victimized by a very greedy entity,” she said. “If we don’t stand tall right now, we are all going to be in jeopardy of being replaced by machines.”

Canada is a renowned hub for American film and TV production, while members of the U.S. unions routinely work for Canadian productions as well. The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, “refused to acknowledge that enormous shifts in the industry and economy have had a detrimental impact on those who perform labor for the studios,” SAG-AFTRA said in a letter to members Thursday. AMPTP represents the gamut of major studios, including NBCUniversal, Paramount, Warner Bros. Discovery, Netflix and Amazon.

The studios have called the pay increases in their offer “historic,” including those for residual streaming payments, and said they put forth “a groundbreaking AI proposal that protects actors’ digital likenesses and more.”

The specific terms of the negotiations, which were augmented by a U.S. federal mediator at the 11th hour Wednesday, were not immediately clear. But in June, the 19,000-member Directors Guild of America reached a tentative agreement with the studios that would see a 5 per cent increase in wages in the first year of a new contract and a 76 per cent increase in foreign-country residual payments for one-hour programs.

It also included a “groundbreaking agreement confirming that AI is not a person and that generative AI cannot replace the duties performed by members,” the director’s guild said.

The Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists, whose 28,000 members sometimes work alongside SAG-AFTRA members here, said Thursday that it stood in solidarity with its American counterpart.

Samora Smallwood, an elected councillor with ACTRA Toronto whose income largely comes from U.S. productions shot in Canada, has a recurring role on Hallmark’s The Way Home, which was set to begin shooting its next season in August in Toronto. “It’s obviously on hold. … Hopefully, with this historic action we can come out on the right side of history,” she said.

The Writers Guild of America strike had already slowed down productions across Canada, with some regional sectors more affected than others, said John Lewis, director of Canadian affairs and international vice-president of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees.

While Toronto studios had many shoots under way with scripts that had been readied prior to the actors’ strike, Mr. Lewis said that B.C. – one of North America’s biggest film hubs, where a majority of work comes from foreign studios – had already been hit hard. There were only four productions in preparation and none shooting this week, versus the usual 35 to 40 in various stages of production.

But he added that the tough negotiations were important for film workers. “With the incredible rise of all the different platforms with the whole streaming phenomena, it’s impacted shooting schedules, it’s impacted compensation models. The whole industry is going to have to address it, so that it doesn’t result in significant job loss.”

Creative BC, a government-supported agency that spurs the development of that province’s entertainment industry, said in a news release that the majority of filming activity there would be affected, but that “we are concerned for the workforce, companies, industry and people.”

At Big Sky Studios, a 187,000-square-foot film and television production facility in Winnipeg, the actors’ strike took a toll before it even began. Though the company had booked some projects with completed scripts earlier this year – Andrew Kevin Walker’s Psycho Killer just wrapped there with a crew of 220 – a production scheduled for one of the studio’s four sound stages pulled out this week.

“They weren’t able to make it work without a resolution in sight,” said Jocelyn Mitchell, Big Sky’s business development and marketing manager.

Looking ahead, the strike could derail plans for the Toronto International Film Festival, which is set to hold its 48th edition this September, since SAG-AFTRA members are expected to refrain from promoting even films that have been completed.

This would mean starless red carpets for TIFF, a disastrous reality for an event that has long marketed itself as a home for international celebrities. What’s more, studios and distributors could decide to pull titles from the fall festival circuit – which also includes Venice, Telluride and New York – if there is no on-the-ground talent available to draw buzz.

“We will continue planning for this year’s festival with the hope of a swift resolution in the coming weeks,” TIFF said in a statement.

In L.A., Mr. Thomas and his son Harrison Thomas are developing the dark comedy The Orange, produced by Canada’s Project 10 Productions for BBC Studios and the CBC. He is not sure whether the project will be waiting for him when the strikes are over. “We’re hoping they have the same enthusiasm for the show then that they have now.”

The Globe and Mail, July 13, 2023