Strike nearly 'nail in coffin' for Canada's entertainment industry

By Allison Jones TORONTO (CP) - A bitter six-week labour dispute between Canadian actors and producers was nearly the "final nail in the coffin" for the country's already battered film and television industry, which experts say now faces a long, hard, uphill climb along the road to recovery.
The Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists went on strike Jan. 8 and later extended their protest to Quebec, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
The dispute, which focused on wages and how actors should be compensated for work across new media platforms, lasted for more than six weeks before a tentative agreement was announced last week, to the collective relief of an industry that observers say has suffered a substantial blow.
"This labour dispute drove a lot of business away from here and it's going to take time to bring it back," said John Barrack, the national executive vice-president for the Canadian Film and Television Production Association and chief negotiator during the strike.
"Productions are planned six months to a year in advance and the labour instability hurts, so it's going to take some time for that work to come back."
But Paul Bronfman, chairman and CEO for The Comweb Group, said the strike was just the latest problem for an industry that was already reeling from a number of other factors.
"The strike certainly was almost the final nail in the coffin," said Bronfman, speaking from the CFTPA's conference in Ottawa.
"That basically held everybody hostage . . . right now (the industry) is being taken off life support and it's going to take us months to recover from this fiasco."
It's unclear exactly how much money was lost due to the strike, though the experts agree a number of American productions took one look at the labour unrest and decided to film elsewhere. Toronto, the heart of Canada's film industry, lost an estimated $400 million in production revenue.
Yet CFTPA figures suggest the industry has been in financial decline for several years. Film and television production dipped nine per cent in 2004-05, "an indicator that a downward trend is beginning," the association's report says.
In that same time period, production generated 11 per cent fewer jobs than the previous year - the third straight annual decrease.
Charlie Keil, the director of the University of Toronto's cinema studies program, said the strike "added insult to injury" because a number of other factors are already working against the industry.
A number of "unforeseeable blights," including the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and Toronto's SARS outbreak in 2003, took a heavy toll that has yet to be recovered. A strong Canadian dollar relative to its U.S. counterpart has also made Canada less appealing to U.S. producers.
But what has really hurt the industry is the very thing that once gave it life, said Keil.
"Various incentives and tax breaks made Canada an appealing place to do business," he said. Then, "other municipalities (in the U.S.) figured out that they too could offer competitive tax incentives."
With jurisdictions outside Canada constantly upping the ante, Hollywood North has had a difficult time competing.
Still, there remains reason for optimism, said Stephen Waddell, the union's national executive director and strike negotiator.
"Given that the (American) studios will be presumably beginning to stockpile productions looking forward to the potential for a Writers Guild of America or Screen Actors Guild strike in the U.S., I think we'll see increased production in Ontario."
Another encouraging sign is a mega-studio in the works for Toronto, said Mark Dillon, the editor of Playback magazine, an industry business publication.
Toronto's talented workforce and production tax credits aren't enough at the moment to draw American producers north of the border, and the studio could change all that, he said.
"Finally Toronto will have a cutting-edge space that I would imagine would succeed in luring some pretty big Hollywood projects," he said. "It's about time that Toronto had something like that."

Copyright 2007 Canadian Press
Canada was a much more attractive place to film when the loonie was at 65 cents as opposed to 85 cents now.

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