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Monday, January 08, 2007

ACTRA, the Canadian actor's union, is going out on strike. The producers are offering a pay raise of 4% over three years. Since the inflation rate is about 3.5% per year, that works out to a 6.5% pay cut over three years in constant dollars.

The ACTRA strike will hurt actors and producers both, since productions that might have gone to Canada will now go elsewhere. (Some of them already have.) But it's a basic principle of negotiation that if you're not willing to walk away, you're in a lousy negotiating position. The ACTRA strike won't help my business and won't help me in the short run. But I'm glad the actors had the guts to reject a lousy deal.

Producers probably don't realize this, but the talent unions benefit them. Why? Because producers will individually pay as little as they possibly can. A dollar in your pocket is a dollar they don't get to keep. That's just the nature of the business.

But if actors, writers and directors got paid as little as possible, very few people would be able to make a living acting, writing or directing. The minimum payments specified in the contracts are what make it possible to make a living in the business. That means that an industry develops that has a pool of people who are not only talented but skilled. Those are the very same people that producers need to be able to draw on to work on their projects. Without unions there would be a few extremely successful creative people -- who would charge much more to make up for all the money they didn't get earlier in their career -- and a lot of amateurs working day jobs and writing or acting or directing on the side. That wouldn't actually be good for producers as a group.

When I was in Cape Town, I got to see the results of an un-organized, un-unionized writing pool. In South Africa a writer gets paid a couple thousand bucks to write a TV drama. You actually get paid more to write books. So, as you'd expect, there are very few skilled, experienced screenwriters; and they're typing as fast as they can to get by.

Show business is a scary business. Unions make it possible to have a life in it. Strikes are what give unions clout.

You go, ACTRA.


I support what you say in theory, Alex. But you have to realize that it isn't just the mean old producers being cheap. What's the old expression ... shit runs downstream?

If the increase being offered nets out to a 6.5% pay decrease, ACTRA is still making out better than most producers, who have seen a 20-50% erosion of domestic license fees. The median percentage of budget that a non-CTF project gets from their Canadian broadcaster in English Canada is about 30% (it's better in Quebec in French language, but that's a different kettle of fish altogether).

To add insult to injury, network groups here are now demanding things like worldwide premiere (even if they aren't the highest pre-sale and/or biggest territory) and running the snot of your show by checkerboarding it on every channel they have so it has no second window potential. And don't even get me started on license co-termination ... essentially, if your show gets picked up and your term is five years, and they greenlight subsequent series, the broadcaster gets their window on all episodes extended until the last episode of the last series expires, usually for no additional money to the producer, who has to pay to extra fees to all the guilds to clear the show. Thereby tying up your rights and again, eroding whatever second window equity you might have had.

If that isn't enough, the networks are now demanding things they never did before like recoupment of said paltry license fees in first position (even if you as producer deferred any or all of your fees), making distribution rights held by a broadcaster-affiliated company contigent to the commission, wanting the right to subdistribute in the home territory outside of their network group without cutting you in or getting your approval, demanding control of worldwide internet, mobile and dvd rights (like they'd know what to do with them anyway, they just assign inflated values to puff up the assets on the corporate balance sheets), and the right to assign prodco share of any retransmission royalties.

In general, as a producer right now, it's pretty damn tough to make a living unless you want to play the CTF lottery or get really good at either co-production or sponsorship.

So while I sympathize with ACTRA, I think you have to see it from both sides.

End of rant :-)

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:51 PM  

An an interesting aside, I've just heard the CFTPA is taking it to court in Ontario, challenging the validity of the strike because it doesn't follow the protocols agreed to by both parties in the IPA. They're also challenging ACTRA's authority as a union.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:18 PM  

Completely agree with everything you've said, Alex. I'm on ACTRA's side in this too, and not just on the money issue, but in their desire to start mapping out how profits from the next stages of content delivery are shared. Producers must understand that the enormous losses creative people have suffered in the DVD market won't be allowed to repeat in other formats.

Caroline makes some great points in her comments, many of which I'm all too painfully aware of. But you don't help an unfair situation by allowing it to continue and impact even more people. If the performers dig in, perhaps the producers will have the courage to follow suit and force the networks to pay for what they play.

I also find the CFTPA threats somewhat laughable. I woke up Monday morning to news of the strike, checked the ACTRA website and found virtually every production shooting in Toronto had signed ACTRA letters of continuance. It would appear solidarity is only found on one side of this equation.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:13 AM  

In South Africa a writer gets paid a couple thousand bucks to write a TV drama. You actually get paid more to write books.

That's also the case in Canada, at least for features and MOWs. Most TV movies and indie films that are being shot here (in BC anyway) are non-Guild and pay well under WGC minimum, in many cases only a few thousand dollars. A lot of Guild writers have to take these non-union jobs to pay the rent, simply because there are so few producers able to pay Guild wages. My experience bares that out, and it's the reason I haven't bothered to join the Writer's Guild. I simply can't afford to pay hundreds of dollars in annual membership dues for the privilege of not working.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:59 PM  

Dear Gilman:

All I can say is, it's writers like you that enable producers to continue paying less than Guild rates. And, as a writer who does NOT take non-Guild jobs out of respect for his guild and his fellow writers, and has passed up tens of thousands of dollars of non-Guild work: thanks a bunch for that.

On the other hand, if you'd join the Guild, you might find that the money you make on the jobs you get more than makes up for the money you lose on the jobs you have to pass up. And you might be able to write better for not having to write faster.

Just a possibility.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 10:39 PM  

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