Hollywood writers strike sparks uncertainty for Canadian television crews
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TORONTO – Upon learning that a threatened Hollywood writers strike had indeed become reality, Vancouver costume designer Patti Henderson gave her department bracing advice: “Please don’t go out and buy new cars. … No new clothes. Really, really be cautious about what you’re spending.”
Last week’s decision by the Writers Guild of America to drop their pens for picket signs sparked immediate uncertainty over the status of current and upcoming U.S.-based productions shot in Canada, with Henderson noting a precipitous drop in Vancouver shoots that employ local crews.
Henderson, who says she’s currently completing her final weeks on a Disney/Hulu series set to air in 2024, says jobs seemed to start drying up in the months leading up to the strike deadline. She knows of only four working shoots when typically there would be at least 40.
“There’s literally nothing on our up-and-coming production list, if you will. And that’s really hurting a lot of people out here,” she says, noting it’s especially hard on younger people just starting their careers.
Film commissioners in two of Canada’s biggest production hubs also report a slowdown, with one pointing to a drop in the amount of applications for film permits in Vancouver and the other seeing less scouting activity in Toronto.
Toronto film commissioner Marguerite Pigott described it as “a temporary cooling effect.”
“Productions have been slower and more cautious about green-lighting or triggering production, starting production, because they did not know whether or not they would be disrupted by the strike,” says Pigott.
At least “one substantial production” has shut down since the May 2 walkout, she says, revealing nothing about the project other than that it “has employed many, many people over time.”
Contract negotiations between the Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers broke down over myriad complex issues including compensation and staffing levels.
Observers say impacts are likely to ripple north of the border where more than half of film and TV shoots are actually foreign-based but employ thousands of Canadians, such as Prime Video’s “The Boys,” which shoots in Toronto, and Netflix’s “The Night Agent,” which shoots in Vancouver.
Vancouver film commissioner Geoff Teoli estimates permit applications over the last 90 days dropped 40 to 50 per cent compared to the same time last year.
He adds the dip is not unique to Vancouver or solely due to the strike, suggesting it’s part of a broader shift in the global marketplace as streamers and producers rethink the way they create global content.
He says there otherwise has been little impact in Vancouver because most U.S. productions already in progress are able to continue with locked scripts that don’t require the work of a WGA writer. Things would change if the strike continues, he says.
“We do a large volume of television series production in Vancouver, and the projects that are slated to start or are in progress right now, obviously, at some point in time, will need scripts,” says Teoli.
“The longer the strike goes on, the higher the risk is that they run out of material they need to continue.”
Victoria Shen of the Writers Guild of Canada says no productions under a WGC agreement have stopped and that Canadian guild members — many of whom have dual WGA and WGC memberships — are prohibited from accepting “struck work,” which includes anything that is normally a WGA show. Neither are WGA members who reside in the United States allowed to work on a Canadian show while the dispute continues.
Toronto screenwriter Anthony Q. Farrell, a dual member of the WGA and WGC, says he was developing U.S. screen projects up until the strike cancelled “a lot of meetings,” noting that the work stoppage includes an end to pitches.
“It’s for a very good cause and I’m hopeful that we get a resolution that feels like it’ll be helping writers get to a place where we can make a living wage,” says Farrell, whose credits include the U.S. comedy “The Office” and the Canadian series “Run the Burbs.”
“I actually feel kind of bad that I’m not in L.A. or New York right now and able to picket with my fellow writers.”
Farrell says he’s trying to join Canadian writing rooms in the next couple of months, and anecdotally says jobs in Toronto seem to have dried up.
“Over the last three or four years, it’s been hard for me to get people on set because they’re like, ‘My next four months are filled,’” he says.
“This year it’s like, ‘Hey, are you working on anything?'”
Adding to fears is further possible labour strife involving the Directors Guild of America and the U.S. performers union known as SAG-AFTRA, both of which have contracts that expire June 30.
“If SAG goes on strike, that would take everything down, probably,” says costumer Amy Sztulwark of Toronto, currently helping to prep Prime Video’s “Reacher.”
“I’ve got some money squirrelled away. I don’t mind a little bit of time off … But I think a lot of people probably are quite concerned.”
An economic report from the Canadian Media Producers Association released last week found so-called foreign service productions — nearly all of which are U.S.-based — spent $6.7 billion on Canadian shoots and involved 141,140 jobs between April 1, 2021 and March 31, 2022.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 7, 2023.