As SAG-AFTRA nears its June 30 bargaining deadline amid the Writers Guild of America strike, the Canadian film and TV industry is closely watching for ripple effects of Hollywood’s production shutdown north of the border. Film studios across the country remain dark or filled with homegrown shoots and anxious local talent and crews, dependent on big budget U.S. film and TV series for work, question when they’ll get back on set.
Montreal-based screenwriter Christine Rodriguez of Productions La Tigresse, who is continuing to work on her upcoming film projects outside of WGA restrictions, said she’s watching closely labor negotiations in Los Angeles. “What the WGA is doing is extremely important. What they do will have an impact for us in Canada. There needs to be an readjustment with the streamers and remuneration for writers where they’re fairly compensated,” Rodriguez told The Hollywood Reporter as she develops a feature adaptation of her short film Fuego, and get sets to shoot her film A Dios, about a former jazz diva, later this year.
Veteran indie film producer Elizabeth Yakes of True West Films echoes that there’s no brushing under the carpet key labor issues as was done during earlier contract bargaining rounds, especially for the WGA which last went on strike in 2007-08. “The studios really need to listen. The transparency is there and you can’t really hide it. Everybody knows the numbers and everybody can look at the stock prices” of major media conglomerates, added Yakes, who is developing the comedy Trauma Bonding from director and showrunner Daniela Pagliarello.
Studio operators are more circumspect over an escalating Hollywood strike’s impact. “Our industry is being held hostage,” said Paul Bronfman, chairman and CEO of studio operator Comweb Corp. and a senior advisor to William F. White International, a rental production equipment supply giant.
“While the writers and the actors can do their thing, it’s companies like White’s and others that are really suffering. We’re the ones that carry the big overheads in staff and capital and studios. We’re collateral damage because, when they strike, it affects thousands of people who aren’t writers and actors,” Bronfman said.
His warning comes as Hollywood unions and guilds tackle thorny issues like artificial intelligence and streaming residuals in crunch talks with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. Those negotiations directly impact a Canadian industry that increasingly serves as a backlot for major studios and streamers, leaving American producers and unions and guilds in the driver’s seat as to the futures of many local talent and crews countrywide.
Amid the prospect of the U.S. actor union SAG-AFTRA also going out on strike after an expected contract talks extension into early July, Garin Josey, executive vp and COO of William F. White, said the risk profile for Wall Street investors backing a Canadian production industry that saw record local Hollywood film and TV expenditures during the pandemic is suddenly flashing a red warning light.
“We need to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to keep this business growing, to innovate, we need continued investment in this space on a global scale. I have to imagine for many companies, it creates hesitancy about how much investment they’re willing to put in,” Josey said.
A seeming insatiable demand for original content by major studios and streamers shooting on location in Canada impressed private equity funds and other real estate investors like Hudson Pacific Properties, backed by Blackstone, and Hackman Capital Partners and Square Mile Capital Management, to chase stable and steady cash flows by building news studios across North America.
Now the pandemic and the current labor climate in Los Angeles has those investors whipsawing back and forth.
Jocelyn Mitchell, business development and marketing manager at Big Sky Studios in Winnipeg, Manitoba, said that her studio has local Canadian and American projects whose scripts were completed before the WGA strike on its stages, but is looking to a settlement of U.S. labor talks to get back to full capacity.
“We are managing to fill some parts of the space, but we are certainly not at capacity as we wait for a resolution to everything going on,” Mitchell said of the studio as it looks to fill its four soundstages of around 60,000 square feet of space in all with U.S. producers enticed by generous tax credits and currency savings.
Further down the food chain, the fear is young people the Canadian production sector needs to fill out much-needed technical crews for local U.S. shoots could be discouraged from coming forward after the impact first of the pandemic and now the Hollywood labor action unfolds. “We’re playing with peoples’ lives here. People need to pay mortgages, buy food, kids have to go to school and this affects working people. Most folks are not getting high and mighty and rich,” Bronfman insisted.
Before the ongoing labor action, major Hollywood studios and streamers needing original content filled soundstages in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal. That work now has virtually ground to a halt. The summer shutdown in Toronto has seen American series like The Handmaid’s Tale, Reacher, The Umbrella Academy, Accused and Ginny & Georgia hit the pause button.
A prolonged walkout by U.S. writers and now possibly Hollywood actors has other Canadian content creators working both sides of the border suddenly having to zig as the Americans zag with crunch labor talks.
Shawn Williamson, whose company Brightlight Pictures produces the ABC medical drama The Good Doctor in Vancouver for Sony Pictures Television, also has a big slate of his own original productions. He points to bigger budget U.S. production having shuttered north of the border, as smaller budget local Canadian projects continue to shoot. “From a larger budget television and feature perspective, everything’s effectively shut down. So Brightlight proper is not very busy right now,” Williamson said.
But his Lighthouse Pictures division, which produces genre and mid-to small-budget film and TV projects, has been busy shooting, for example, Hallmark and Lifetime TV movies whose scripts were completed before the WGA strike. Williamson warns a SAG-AFTRA strike would potentially shut down many lower-budget telefilm shoots as they typically have one or two unionized American actors as leads.
Smaller Canadian content creators are similarly looking to local film and TV series projects to stay busy and get paid through the current Hollywood labor talks. Mary Darling, CEO and co-owner of WestWind Pictures, recently sold six seasons of the Canadian comedy Little Mosque on the Prairies to Disney+ for Canada and is polishing her pitch decks on projects she has in development to bring to Los Angeles when studio and streamer execs eventually turn off the pause button.
“I’m been spending this time really actively developing stuff here, that we’re originating and not having to work with American partners at all while the strike is in place, so that we’ve got our pitch presentations all set to go out when this is done,” Darling said. Canadian content is also providing a safety net for other creators looking to make ends meet during the Hollywood strike, and expecting a larger appetite by global buyers down the road for films and TV series out of Canada.
Adam Rodness, co-founder and president of Toronto-based 5’7” Films, has just renewed a film slate deal with local broadcaster Hollywood Suite as producing indie films has become much more than moonlighting during the strike. “For us, we’re in a good spot where Canadians are still in need of programming, Americans are in need of programming and will be looking to the Canadian sector to provide that,” Rodness added ahead of his latest movie, the Christmas comedy caper Vandits, getting an upcoming release stateside via Quiver Distribution.