SAG Divided Over Canada Approach

Nine years of hard work and careful politicking came to fruition for the Film and Television Action Committee on Sept. 4, when the grass-roots nonprofit organization filed its 301(a) petition with the Office of the United States Trade Representative. In a 114-page petition, accompanied by 3,447 pages of supporting documents, FTAC made its case that Canada's tax breaks and other subsidies unfairly lure American film and TV productions north, costing U.S. workers thousands of jobs annually.

Gretchen Koerner, chairwoman of the Screen Actors Guild's National Legislative Committee, along with reps from a handful of local L.A. trade unions, stood with FTAC leaders during a Sept. 5 press conference at SAG's Hollywood headquarters announcing the start of what Teamsters Local 399 business agent Steve Dayan said needs to be "an intense lobbying effort."

Koerner told reporters SAG has signed the FTAC petition because actors are among the thousands whose jobs are "senselessly outsourced in an industry that is thriving and currently setting box office records for summer releases... . That not only greatly diminishes my ability to make a living as an actor, but it affects the health and well-being of my family and my community."

She continued, "A very few of our members who are recognizable names and celebrities travel with productions to Canada to work -- one, two, three, perhaps four actors on a production -- but the vast majority of our members do not go. Supporting players, co-stars, guest stars, day players, stand-ins, background actors, stunt performers, singers, dancers -- we stay at home and watch American producers take American films across the border and employ Canadian performers."

However, some SAG members are not fully on board with their union leaders' decision to back FTAC's effort. Critics raise questions about who is genuinely affected by runaway production to Canada and whether FTAC's petition is the best way to keep production stateside.

A Lack of Unanimity

Some SAG members support the petition but doubt it will make much difference. "FTAC [is] a long shot in my estimation, but there's little else we can do," Brad Blaisdell, a member of several SAG committees, wrote to Back Stage via email. "I think threatening Canada will only keep them more resolute, and we have a pretty good idea how our government will react."

One actors' union in Canada made its views known right away. Stephen Waddell, executive director of the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists, said in a Sept. 4 statement, "This complaint is without merit or substance and won't succeed under any trade agreement."

Rather than blame Canada, Blaisdell and others believe, FTAC should back additional domestic production tax-incentive programs, already enacted in more than 30 states. "The only thing that seems to work are the tax incentives," Blaisdell said. "I believe that is where our focus should be for Hollywood right now. If California leaders are not willing to help the movie industry survive, then we will continue to see the work spread all over the world and away from Hollywood."

The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, which did not sign FTAC's petition, seems to agree. "I don't think there's a uniform approach to addressing the problem of runaway production," said Thomas Carpenter, AFTRA's general counsel and national director of legislative affairs. "The members on our Legislative Committee really have chosen to focus on the issue of creating opportunities in the U.S. rather than creating penalties and barriers."

Tom Ligon, a member of SAG's New York board and the guild's National Legislative Committee, said domestic incentives are the best solution. What's more, FTAC's petition doesn't have much of a chance without the support of AFTRA and other above-the-line organizations such as the Writers Guild of America, the Directors Guild of America, and the Motion Picture Association of America, Hollywood's main lobbying arm in Washington. None of those groups signed the petition. Carpenter called the petition impractical, noting that not only is the industry ambivalent about the 301(a) but the guild is not unanimous in its support either.

Ligon said he was the only New York delegate in the room when the national board voted to support FTAC at the October 2005 plenary meeting. The other New Yorkers, who left the meeting in protest over the firing of then-CEO Greg Hessinger, missed the vote, which was preceded by a presentation by FTAC leaders and Pamm Fair, SAG's deputy national executive director for policy and strategic planning. "The so-called unanimous vote there didn't involve half of the guild," said Ligon, who added that he was too inexperienced at the time to know he had the option to object.

Fair responded, "The vote was unanimous because that's who was in the room.... I can't decide that something has not enough support because not enough people were in the room. We go forward accordingly.... It was on the agenda, and we got to the part of the agenda where it came up, and that's just the way it was."

However, Fair noted that the SAG vote to give $50,000 to FTAC's Washington, D.C.-based representation, trade law firm Stewart and Stewart, in October 2006 wasn't unanimous. The vote passed with 80 percent support.

Extras Support

Ligon said Membership First, the party whose membership includes SAG president Alan Rosenberg and Koerner, has exaggerated runaway production's impact and has strong-armed the board to support FTAC as a means of appeasing background actors, who, according to Ligon, are the hardest hit by productions moving to Canada. New York delegates have often clashed with L.A.-based Membership First members over issues, but this case is not a matter of East versus West. "There is no New York versus Hollywood or Membership First in this instance. It's Membership First versus the rest of the country. Most emphatically so," Ligon said.

"I don't know that that's true," Fair responded. "There's support for this from a lot of corners in the union, and there are people who will tell you they support it, but they're not sure it will work. I don't think any of us can be sure that it will work.... It's just another tool in our toolbox." She added that SAG will continue its efforts to support domestic tax incentives.

Fair said the union knows for a fact that fewer members across the board are traveling to Canada with U.S. productions: "We know that the companies will take fewer folks at the top of the call sheet over the border with them, and there are infrastructures, especially in Canada, where they can hire actors to fill those roles. It's not about background actors only, although clearly they feel this pinch. It's about the middle-class actors like Gretchen.... She gets left behind."

More Movies, Fewer Incentives

Tim McHugh, executive director of FTAC, said the effects of runaway production are indeed damaging and real. He cited a study released in 2006 by the Center for Entertainment Industry Data and Research that found Americans lost 47,000 jobs per year and approximately $23 billion in economic benefits from 1998 to 2005 due to feature films moving out of the states.

A visual effects supervisor who worked most recently on Into the West and DOA: Dead or Alive, McHugh has seen industry jobs fizzle firsthand. "In the '90s we were all working so much, we couldn't read the scripts fast enough. It was a great time. Then the work trickled to Canada, and somewhere around '98 the floodgates opened up. The phone just stopped ringing," he said, adding that FTAC's position on creating more domestic tax incentives, especially in California, is, "We'll try to encourage anything that keeps jobs here."

Trying to keep jobs in California has been particularly harrowing; several attempts to pass a tax-incentive bill have been unsuccessful. Most recently, a provision that would have provided $70 million in nonrefundable film-production tax credits and $5 million for commercials shooting in the state was dropped from the state's latest budget.

However, McHugh's personal outlook differs. "I feel, ultimately, subsidies are a terrible idea. They've only driven down wages and working conditions, and they've pitted countries, states, provinces, and cities against each other," he said. "Everyone likes to think they're creating jobs. But the only way you create a job is to make more movies.... What subsidies do is take [the] same group of films and just disburse them around the globe to different locations.... It's not like suddenly there's 20 percent more movies getting made. That would be great."

McHugh acknowledged the petition is unique in that it does not have the support of the entire industry. "Generally when an industry goes to the federal government for this kind of help, it's the owners of the industry and the workers together.... This is unique because the owners of the corporations that finance the film industry, they're saying there's no problem here...but the workers, who have lost their houses and their pensions and their health care and their marriages and in some cases their lives, have a different opinion."

He added that MPAA and DGA members are more aligned with the producers and studios that benefit from filming in Canada: "The power in [Hollywood] likes things to run the way they're being run right now, because they're getting a cut of it. It's the rest of us, the workers, who are all being chopped off."

Representatives of the MPAA, DGA, and WGA declined to comment.

McHugh could not predict whether the absence of those groups or infighting among SAG members will hurt the petition's chances of convincing the USTR to investigate Canada's incentives. "We'll find out what our odds are in the next 45 days."

USTR will rule on whether to investigate Canadian subsidies by Oct. 18.

Lauren Horwitch can be reached at lhorwitch (at) backstage.com.