Toronto actors’ union expanding program that allows hiring actors at reduced rates

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TORONTO — The Toronto chapter of Canada’s performers’ union is rebuilding a long-running program that previously only allowed its members to work for a reduced rate on low-budget theatrical projects.

The Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists says it put its Toronto Indie Production program on hiatus on Oct. 21 to consult with involved parties on how to make a new initiative that allows performers to work for a reduced rate on low-budget projects bound for various platforms, not just theatrical.

ACTRA also wants to simplify the program to alleviate the “administrative burden” it says previously existed for producers when it came to timelines and filling out paperwork.

“We want to go into the new year with a new program that meets the needs not only of producers but also of performers in a new marketplace,” Alistair Hepburn, ACTRA Toronto’s director of film, television and digital media, said in a phone interview.

“Low-budget productions are wildly important to ACTRA members, just as important as they are to the producers that are out there. This is a refresh, this is a rethink, this is a chance for us to listen instead of just talking.”

Launched in July 2002, the program allowed producers of low-budget shorts and feature-length projects that were shot in the Toronto area and bound for film festivals or theatrical release to apply for a chance to hire ACTRA members for below union wages.

For ACTRA, it was a way to introduce its members to a wider audience at a time when the city was becoming a hot spot for big-budget productions. For ACTRA members, it allowed them to perform in low-budget projects they were passionate about.

The program has also been seen as a way to get more Canadian content onscreen and invest in emerging talent.

But the program hasn’t kept pace with the way film is being created now, Hepburn said, noting their membership wants to reach “a new generation of content creators.”

“The market has changed in 18 years, the technology has changed in the 18 years, the desire of the producer has changed in the last 18 years — and we left ourselves with a program that didn’t change,” Hepburn said.

“Suddenly we were trying to fit new methodologies into an old template and really what we discovered was, we weren’t listening anymore to the needs of the performers, we weren’t listening to the needs of the producers and we needed to do that.”

Hepburn said “all the cards are on the table” in terms of what types of digital content the program might embrace.

“There is no corner that we won’t shine the light into on this one,” he said.

“I think ‘platform-agnostic’ is the way we really want to look at this. It’s: You are making content; where that content goes, that’s for you as a producer to decide. What is the best way to deliver that? That’s something that you as a producer need to decide. We just want to help you get the content made.”

There are similar programs at other ACTRA chapters. But ACTRA Toronto is the largest of all the union’s chapters, with about 15,000 of the entire 22,000-23,000 members across the country.

Hepburn said ACTRA is putting together focus groups for the new initiative starting in mid-November, with performers and members of the Canadian Media Producers Association.

There isn’t a specific date in place for a relaunch of the new initiative, which could even be split into multiple programs and will likely have a new name.

But Hepburn hopes to be able to at least reveal the direction the new program is heading in within the first two months of the new year.

In the meantime, ACTRA says all projects currently in development with TIP are proceeding.

And Hepburn encourages those wanting to produce a low-budget project while the program is on hiatus to get in touch with him.

“We’re here and we’re ready to respond to them,” he said.

While putting the program on hiatus might make some in the industry “upset and nervous,” it was the fastest route to change,” Hepburn added.

“We don’t need to just chip away at the old. We can actually create new, and the way we had to do that was to rip the Band-Aid off.”

Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press