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Deragh Campbell has taken issue with the film and television performers union ACTRA and its regulations, which disallow union actors from acting in non-union films.Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

Canadian filmmaker Ingrid Veninger had a question. It was two months before she was set to shoot her sixth feature, Porcupine Lake, and the director wanted to know if she could cast professional, unionized performers as well as everyday residents from Port Severn and Barrie, Ont., where her micro-budget coming-of-age movie would be set. Placing seasoned actors alongside first-timers was not so radical a method, long being the favoured formula of scrappy American auteurs such as John Cassavetes (A Woman Under the Influence), Sean Baker (The Florida Project), Andrea Arnold (American Honey) and Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine).

“The challenge and excitement is in blurring the line between fiction and non-fiction, between imagination and actuality, between the thing planned and spontaneous,” says Veninger, whose filmography pulses with an experimental do-it-yourself sensibility. “Hybrid cinema is everywhere today. If we don’t let ourselves be inventive and adventurous with the process of our casting, and by extension our cinema in Canada, we’ll fall behind.”

So the director met with the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA) in the summer of 2016 to see how her hybrid production could work. The answer: it couldn’t. “It was made clear that I could not have the kind of casting freedom that I wanted,” the director says today.

This is because Canadian feature films are either ACTRA sets – with every performer being a member, or those not yet in the union paying ACTRA up to $260 a week for work permits – or they are not. There is no ACTRA provision for creating sets with a mix of professional and amateur actors. Nor can ACTRA members choose to forgo negotiated wages and conditions to work on non-union productions – a move that forces performers to bypass low-budget, but potentially high-value opportunities that could offer more exposure.

Or that is the argument being made by a vocal group of Canadian filmmakers who believe that the future of the country’s cinema is being tied up by ACTRA’s inflexible hands. The issue reached a tipping point in May, during an industry panel hosted by the Toronto International Film Festival called “Cast Away: Securing actors for your low-budget film.” What began as a discussion of the challenges facing low-budget Canadian filmmakers (read: every Canadian filmmaker) turned into a semi-public therapy session, in which directors Andrew Cividino, Matt Johnson and Deragh Campbell decried ACTRA’s “outdated” vision.

“There’s a new generation of filmmakers coming up in Canada who are creating work that resonates on an international stage, yet we’re being handcuffed in fundamental ways in terms of how we can make our films here,” says Cividino, whose film Sleeping Giant, a non-ACTRA production, premiered at the 2015 Cannes film festival. “Things have evolved so rapidly in the technical process of filmmaking that other parts of the process are lagging behind, and certain institutions are holding back to adapting with the times.”

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Andrew Cividino's feature film Sleeping Giant debuted at the Cannes Film Festival. Filmed in Thunder Bay, Ont. the film won the best Canadian First Feature Film award at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The filmmakers’ concern boils down to flexibility and autonomy. Should any of the 23,000 performers in ACTRA choose to work on a non-union set for whatever reason – say, it’s a low-budget passion project, or an opportunity to work with a trusted collaborator – they would forfeit their union membership and thus access to union productions, including high-paying commercials. Yet, things are different on the other side of the camera.

At the Directors Guild of Canada (DGC), for instance, there is an option for members to work for minimum wage on projects budgeted under $1.46-million. Should a filmmaker decide that it is with those productions that they can best make a name for themselves, or that such projects offer chances to collaborate with trusted but financially strapped artists, they are free to do so while remaining DGC members. There is also the ability for DGC members to request dispensation to work on projects for free, should they so desire. (Yet, Dave Forget, national executive director of the DGC, cautions that comparing the guild with ACTRA is “an oversimplification ... Members of different organizations face different realities, including how many days they typically work and how consistently.”)

“It’s a matter of choice,” says Campbell, who starred in and co-directed the non-ACTRA drama MS Slavic 7, which premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival this past February. “Actors have to be allowed to have alternatives, to jump back and do non-union productions when you want to work with exciting directors who may not have a lot of money, but whose films can get the kind of exposure on the international circuit that leads to a very healthy career.”

As to why low-budget filmmakers should be trying to secure professionals if they can’t hope to match ACTRA rates in the first place, Johnson, director of 2013 festival favourite The Dirties and co-creator of Vice’s Nirvanna the Band the Show, says that no director can coerce an actor to put in sweat equity. “In this country, we’ve given the tools to young directors to go out and experiment and take big risks for not a lot of money,” Johnson says, citing Telefilm’s new Talent to Watch initiative, which last year offered $125,000 each to upward of 50 first-time directors. “But ACTRA is telling their members, no, you can’t take these risks, and we won’t let you invest your time in these films and this future, even if you want to.”

ACTRA, though, says it is only looking out for the interests of its members.

"More and more people have the ability to make small-budget productions today, but that doesn't take away the responsibility to pay people a fair wage for the work that they do," says David Sparrow, ACTRA's national president. "Producers have always wanted to have access to workers for as little money as possible. And if we water down the compensation that people can be paid, it's going to have an effect on the entirety of the industry. That said, I'd encourage everyone to come talk to us, to see which agreement they might fit under that might work for all of us."

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Operation Avalanche by Matt Johnson is a non-ACTRA micro-budget production.

One such agreement is ACTRA’s Toronto Indie Production (TIP) initiative, in place since 2002, which permits “eligible Canadian producers to engage ACTRA performers on long or short-form low-budget productions with budgets less than $350,000 ... at lower rates than ACTRA’s Independent Production Agreement minimum rates.” Sparrow says that TIP has resulted in about 100 features since its inception, although critics point out that while a handful of these titles have seen relative success (including The Drawer Boy, which won a Canadian Screen Award this spring, and Cardinals, which premiered at TIFF in 2017) many pale in comparison to the exposure received by recent non-ACTRA micro-budget productions such as Johnson’s Operation Avalanche (which premiered at Sundance in 2016), Kazik Radwanski’s 2015 How Heavy This Hammer (which played TIFF and the Berlin International Film Festival), Ashley McKenzie’s Werewolf (another TIFF and Berlin selection, which went on to win the $100,000 Best Canadian Film Award from the Toronto Film Critics Association in 2017), and Cividino’s Sleeping Giant (which captured the highest film screen average box office in North America when it opened in 2016).

“TIP still maintains the status quo of not allowing non-actors to appear in movies with ACTRA members, so it would be impossible to make Sleeping Giant with TIP unless every on-screen person acquired a paid permit by the union and you paid them all full TIP rates, which would’ve increased their budget by $150,000 at the low end,” Johnson says.

“TIP also forces actors to be paid for any time committed to the film whatsoever. This means once the budget of a film is gone, they have zero ability to re-shoot or ‘fix’ their movies, which is an essential part of the process for films at this level. Take Radwanski’s new feature, which he’s been shooting for over a year, going to camera when everyone is available and doing lots of experimenting. The Dirties was shot the same way. The notion of applying TIP regulations to this process is absurd. It removes actors’ ability to invest in their own work and forbids filmmakers from making any mistakes, which is how we discover stories.”

Others report that negotiating with ACTRA on TIP can be a frustrating experience. “The conversation was incredibly lengthy, and it felt like a beat-around-the-bush situation where I went back and forth. I spent months of my time hoping to work toward some compromise,” says Lora Campbell, producer of the yet-to-shoot 40 Acres, set to be the feature debut of music-video director R.T. Thorne. “For [Talent to Watch films] of $125,000, the TIP rates are still too high, because that’s half your budget in order to have ACTRA actors. You still have to pay for crew, for postproduction, for so many things.”

ACTRA’s Sparrow, though, does not envision his organization’s membership changing the rules any time soon.

“We are a democracy like every other union, and members are welcome to reach out to branches to talk about this, but unequivocally: no. We have no intention of changing the basic precepts of the union, which is ACTRA members work under our fairly negotiated, democratically voted contracts and we choose to support one another in this tough industry,” he says.

As to Johnson’s view, expressed at TIFF’s May industry panel, that ACTRA is “betting against young filmmakers in this country,” Sparrow was equally unequivocal. “That is absolute nonsense,” he says. “There are times that we will say no because people don’t have their ducks in a row and they don’t have enough money to start making a film. Some people think that because, ‘Oh, a Mexican film [Robert Rodriguez’s 1992 thriller El Mariachi] was made for $7,000, therefore we can go off and do that,’ all I can say is that the producers of that film were lucky that they got away with it and everybody came home safely and they didn’t face liability. ... We are absolute champions of young people and this industry. There is simply no way anyone can look at the efforts being made by ACTRA across the country and not say that we’re completely supportive of everyone in this industry.”

Still, some filmmakers believe that change is inevitable, and remain optimistic that compromise is within reach.

“We can’t stop change, as evidenced in our industry at every stage and on every level. Actors are passionate, committed, determined, and if they want to be part of what we are cooking up on the independent feature film front in this country, they will find a way,” says Veninger, whose Porcupine Lake premiered at TIFF in 2017. “Big picture, I see the current state of things as a losing proposition – a loss for us as filmmakers, a loss for ACTRA members interested in cinema, and ultimately a loss for our films to be competitive in the global marketplace. It’s vital that our Canadian filmmakers are empowered and encouraged to cast who they feel are the very best people for the roles.”

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