Advertisement
City

“Even in Canada, we’re taking a huge economic hit”: The president of ACTRA Toronto on the US actors strike

David Gale breaks down how the ongoing strike is affecting Canadian productions, why AI regulation is non-negotiable and which issues ACTRA will bring to the bargaining table next year

“Even in Canada, we’re taking a huge economic hit”: The president of ACTRA Toronto on the US actors strike
Photo courtesy of David Gale

When the cast of a summer blockbuster like Oppenheimer walk off the red carpet in the middle of their own premiere, it’s clear that show business is not running as usual. On July 14, SAG-AFTRA, the union that represents American actors, went on strike following the breakdown of negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP). At the core of the conflict are calls for higher residual payments and regulations around the use of AI, which is already threatening to put background actors out of work. The historic labour action, which coincides with the ongoing writers strike, has brought some of the world’s most recognizable celebs out to the picket lines. But what does it all mean for the entertainment industry on this side of the border? “Over half of the productions that film here have shut down,” says David Gale, the president of ACTRA Toronto (whom reality TV fans may recognize as the former host of Loving Spoonfuls). Here, Gale breaks down the potential economic fallout of the actors strike and explains why Canadian actors are paying close attention in the lead up to their contract renewal next year.


How does one become the head of ACTRA Toronto? I’ve been a performer for years—I’ve danced, I’ve sung, I’ve worked in Stratford productions. A number of years ago, I landed my dream job on a series called Loving Spoonfuls, where I cooked with grandmothers. I won a Gemini award for that. Eventually, I was invited to host a workshop on auditioning, which was run by ACTRA Toronto. They liked it so much that they invited me back to do another one. I got to know the executive team, and I ran for a spot on their council in 2010. Then I got elected to the role of president right in the middle of Covid. So I did my first two years of “presidenting” from my computer.

And now you get to be president during the largest industry upheaval in recent memory. ACTRA and SAG-AFTRA aren’t affiliated, but does what’s happening in the US affect the industry here in Toronto? Definitely. For starters, over half of the movies and TV shows currently filming in Toronto are US productions. When SAG-AFTRA went on strike on July 14, all of those shut down, including large-scale sets like Star Trek. Other series that shoot in Toronto, like The Handmaid’s Tale, had already shut down production after the American writers strike started in May. Canadian productions, which make up about 45 per cent of what’s shot in Toronto, are allowed to continue, but even then it’s complicated. Many of them have SAG-AFTRA performers in their casts. My understanding is that these projects have to sign an agreement with SAG-AFTRA confirming that they’ll abide by the conditions of any new agreement that’s reached. If they do that, American actors can continue to work. These are Canadian productions, after all, so they’re not crossing a picket line.

Right. But some high-profile SAG-AFTRA members working outside of the US—Brad Pitt, Viola Davis—have paused work on independent, international projects in solidarity with their union. Actors at that level have a different relationship to work than rank-and-file performers.

Meaning they can afford to stand up for their principles while many working actors cannot? Exactly. I know of at least one Hallmark movie that is continuing to shoot, and I’m sure there are others. Regardless, though, even in Canada we’re taking about a huge economic hit. 

How huge? The local film and television industry contributed over $3 billion to Ontario’s economy in 2022, so even half of that being on hold is massive. Our industry created more than 45,000 jobs in the province last year.

ACTRA Toronto has expressed solidarity with SAG-AFTRA members, but you are not on strike yourselves. How come? Our union will be negotiating our contract in the second half of 2024, so hypothetically, if we were going to strike, it would not be until then. I should add, though, that Canadian commercial actors have been unable to work for 15 months after negotiations with advertising agencies broke down. Thousands of performers, including myself, have been affected by that. I doubt most people think much about the performers in commercials, but they are actors too.

Advertisement

Right, but come for prestige dramas like The Handmaid’s Tale and it’s war. That must be frustrating. Not as frustrating as sitting on calls where multiple people break down in tears. These are people who have lost their livelihoods. It’s heartbreaking. In terms of the SAG-AFTRA strike, we are certainly paying close attention to what is going on. Whatever agreement they reach will have a significant impact on how we approach our negotiations next year. We are all dealing with the same issues.

Which are what, exactly? Compensation is a major one. In the US, the proposed minimum wage for 2023/24 is the same as it was in 2019, which is a significant pay cut once you account for inflation. Plus there are shared issues around residuals. Our system is slightly different than theirs, but the bottom line is the same: the rules for how actors get paid were created before the streaming era and are based on things like number of episodes and how many times a show or movie was sold via DVD sales or syndication. With streaming, you have shorter seasons and a totally different model with zero transparency. We don’t know exactly how much companies like Netflix, Amazon and Disney are making from individual projects. What we do know is that actors are being left out of the profits.

Actors in the US are posting their miniscule residual cheques on social media. The same is true in Canada. When you compare that with the earnings of the CEOs the AMPTP is representing, it’s an abomination. These are executives complaining about people who are working gig to gig.

Yet a lot of people read headlines about the cast of Oppenheimer walking out of the premiere or Jessica Chastain on the picket line and think this is a bunch of whiny overpaid movie stars. It’s an easy mistake to make. Those people are superstars, but there are hundreds of people in Oppenheimer that didn’t make much money at all. ACTRA Canada has 28,000 members, and the average performer earns about $6,000 a year from this kind of contract. Most of us have side hustles. I had to work as a fitness instructor for a long time to make ends meet.

Advertisement

AI is a major sticking point in the SAG-AFTRA negotiations. Are Canadian actors also worried about robots coming for their jobs? What studios in the US are proposing is that they should be able to scan the likenesses of background actors and then own those likenesses in perpetuity. So someone who appears many times in a given series might only get paid to come in for half a day. It drives home how important it is that we all figure out how to regulate AI and ensure that people get compensated fairly.

If AI is capable of replicating a background actor, what’s to stop it from eventually replicating Tom Cruise? We’re already there. Look at the new Indiana Jones movie: there are scenes where you see a 40-year-old version of Harrison Ford that’s created by AI. He’s a big star, so he can sue them if they start doing things he doesn’t agree with, but we need to make sure that the non–Harrison Fords of our industry don’t get taken advantage of because they are desperate. What happens when entire lifelike movies are created by AI? Your favourite stars never even laughed or cried to make it happen.

It sounds like you’re talking about the end of your industry. What I’m saying is that we need to be very, very cautious about how we proceed. But, luckily, there is power in unions. United we bargain; divided we beg.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

NEVER MISS A TORONTO LIFE STORY

Sign up for This City, our free newsletter about everything that matters right now in Toronto politics, sports, business, culture, society and more.

By signing up, you agree to our terms of use and privacy policy.
You may unsubscribe at any time.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Big Stories

These are Toronto’s best new restaurants of 2024
Food & Drink

These are Toronto’s best new restaurants of 2024