Oh! Canada

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Several times a day, Canadian producer Jane Charles-Shaw fields frantic calls from the U.S. begging her to take on new commercial shoots.

"Many U.S. production companies are so desperate," said Ms. Charles-Shaw, executive producer at Vancouver-based Apple Box Productions, the No. 2 production house in British Columbia. "I've had people call me at home. They just want to get it done."

Since the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists went on strike in the U.S. on May 1, U.S. advertisers, along with their agencies and production companies, are filling flights to Toronto and Vancouver, 90 minutes away from strike-ravaged New York and Los Angeles. In fact, the rush to sidestep the longest-running actors strike in history has inadvertently caused a mini-boom in the Canadian economy.

In Vancouver, where the U.S. strike has pushed the volume of TV production work up 20% this summer, there's now a three-week delay for hiring crews and talent. Hotels are jammed, and production companies are booking big blocks of studio time in advance, in anticipation of landing some new U.S. jobs. Locations for shoots also are becoming scarcer as crews jockey for better spots.

Mel Gragido has become a regular on the Canadian circuit. The president-executive producer of Copper Media, a Los Angeles TV production house, has just returned from a job for American Honda Motor Co. -- his fourth Canadian shoot since the strike started.

"People [in Canada] pick and choose the jobs they want," he said. "We offer them a three- or four-day shoot, and they say they can't do it because someone has offered them a six-day shoot."


Even with the crew hired, things don't always go smoothly.

"Our director, Andre, wanted to shoot a scene down the Pacific Coast," he said. "But we couldn't get the roadblock we needed. So, we had to shoot some 30 miles north."

Ironically, the strike evaders are still forced to deal with a Canadian labor action -- seven major hotels are on strike, he said. And like Mr. Gragido, everyone staying at the Westin Grand in Vancouver seems to work for a U.S. ad agency or production company.

Take Dean Shoukas, a senior producer at Saatchi & Saatchi, New York, and another Westin guest. In town to shoot two spots for Procter & Gamble Co.'s Iams petfood, Mr. Shoukas was shocked by the number of U.S. shoots going on.

"Every morning when we'd travel to location, we would stumble by three or four U.S. commercial productions," he said. "It was reminiscent of L.A. Usually Vancouver is the odd place out, but it looks like the big time up there now."

Executives from two other agencies were staying at his hotel and he kept bumping into other U.S. production people. "I definitely felt a presence," he said. "It was concerning because as talent and supplies get smaller, you know why. Everyone else is there, too."


The U.S. agency influx has even hit the city office that doles out permits to shoot. Vancouver officials told Mr. Shoukas that they can't handle the amount of work flooding in. Overcrowding is even affecting location choices. "We had weather problems so we wanted a last-minute permit change," he said. "But when we tried to secure a permit for a certain neighborhood or street, it was already taken."

Mr. Shoukas said he picked Vancouver because he wanted to shoot in a beautiful spot and not have to worry about strike action. "We could have found nice scenery in L.A., but what really put us over the edge was concern about SAG interference," he said.

Indeed, picketers have rooted out and disrupted a number of U.S. shoots, including those for AT&T Corp., Procter & Gamble Co., Coca-Cola Co., Nike and M&M/Mars.

Even in Canada, productions can't always evade strikers. A Kitchner, Ontario, shoot for General Motors Corp.'s Buick division featuring golfer Tiger Woods via Mc

Cann-Erickson Worldwide, New York, was picketed July 26 by the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television & Radio Artists. Mr. Woods, a SAG member, was also reprimanded by the U.S. union and summoned to appear before a trial board.


Alex Taylor, director of collective bargaining for the Union of B.C. Performers, the British Columbia chapter of ACTRA, claimed union efforts over recent weeks have halted production for several spots in British Columbia. "We're doing everything in our power to make things miserable for them," he said.

When the strike first began, ACTRA instructed its 14,000 members not to work on shoots for U.S. advertisers that hadn't signed the SAG/AFTRA interim agreement. But the Association of Canadian Advertisers and Institute of Canadian Advertising won a ruling June 14 from an arbitrator that bars ACTRA from avoiding U.S. productions based on whether the advertiser has signed the interim agreement. Stephen Waddell, ACTRA's national executive director, said the union will approve a production "if it's done in conjunction with an agency or production house that is a signatory."


That appeared to be the case with Burger King, which in July filmed spots featuring Toronto pop group Back Street Boys that will break soon in Canada and the U.S. ACTRA granted approval to the shoot because Lowe Lintas & Partners Worldwide, New York, worked through Kabuki Productions, a California production company that was a signatory to both an ACTRA collective agreement and the SAG/AFTRA interim agreement. But the arrangements were finessed: The production ultimately was executed not by Kabuki but by production house Radke Films, Toronto, which is signatory to neither agreement.

A Burger King spokeswoman confirmed the company did not sign an interim agreement, and said, "The spots were shot in Toronto governed by ACTRA rules."

Nonetheless, Burger King had tried to keep a low profile during the shoot, futile since "a radio station was broadcasting every hour where the shoot was," a Canadian producer said.

Burger King isn't alone in its caution. Although most U.S. and Canadian industry executives are happy to talk generally about the rush to Canada, several refused to be interviewed and almost all are coy about revealing details of specific shoots. U.S. advertisers and agencies, they said, insist on confidentiality to avoid reprisals from the striking U.S. unions.

Toy companies, Brown-Forman Wine Co.'s Korbel California champagne and Anheuser-Busch all have shot commercials in Vancouver this summer. McDonald's Corp. also created a stir in Vancouver with a shoot via Leo Burnett Co. featuring pop sensations Britney Spears and 'N Sync. And DDB Worldwide, Chicago, is scheduled to start shooting a Bud Light campaign in Toronto on Aug. 28.

Crossing the border to shoot in Canada isn't new, of course. U.S. agencies have long taken advantage of Canada's perennially weak currency and sophisticated ad industry. But now Canada is attracting blue-chip, top-spending advertisers -- not just those out to squeeze costs -- edging out Canadian productions at the busiest time of the year.

Jaquie Armes, head of broadcast production at Grey Canada, Toronto, said that U.S. productions tend to pay in American dollars. "So the first question everyone asks is `Is it a U.S. shoot?' "

Camielle Clark, director of broadcast services at J. Walter Thompson, Toronto, said U.S. advertisers "can afford to pay people more, so they put everybody else on hold."


An official at the Institute of Canadian Advertising in Toronto described the American invasion more strongly. "It's a bloody irritant," he said. "You can't get a crew, you can't get a studio. It's a nightmare."

Canadian production houses deny they are taking advantage of demand to raise prices, although executives in both Toronto and Vancouver hint that the other city isn't above a little price gouging.

The commercial actors strike's ripples are spreading beyond Canada as well, as U.S. agencies realize it's the ideal time to schedule shoots in other favorite lower-cost spots, such as Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and parts of Europe.

"It's price-point shopping," said Scott Mackenzie, a partner and executive producer at Radke Films. "If the U.S. is a dollar, Canada is 70 cents, Cape Town is 50 cents and Prague is 40 cents."

At McCann-Erickson Worldwide, New York, Peter Friedman, senior VP-director of broadcast productions, has shot in Australia, Canada, Italy and Spain since the U.S. strike started. "We did a shoot for Gateway in Canada a few weeks ago, and the director wasn't familiar with anyone on the crew because he couldn't get his first, second or third choices," he said.

Mr. Friedman has just returned from filming a spot for Lucent Technologies in Italy. McCann also shot commercials for Unilever's Vaseline Intensive Care in Spain and for Agilent Technologies in Australia. The strike wasn't the only reason for filming in Europe, but being able to cast freely there was a big advantage.

Mr. Friedman's next task: scout a European location to shoot up to eight spots in September for a new worldwide campaign for Microsoft Corp.

"Clients don't want disruptions in marketing plans," said David Perry, Saatchi & Saatchi's New York-based director of broadcast production. "They are understanding if it takes a little more time than normal to find people, but we have to find ways to shoot."


In fact, many commercials continue to be shot in the U.S. Between July 3 and July 28, 1,725 commercials were produced in the U.S., according to the joint committee of the American Association of Advertising Agencies and the Association of National Advertisers, about 85% of the 2,035 spots done in July 1999.

The big shift has been toward hiring non-union talent. In July, session fees paid to non-union talent jumped to $3,590,114, compared to $200,712 in July 1999, according to the joint committee, which said session fees paid to SAG members last month totaled just $143,168 -- down from $3,599,663 in July 1999.

Wherever commercials are shot, the strike is prompting an unprecedented urge to share production tips. Mr. Perry said he gets e-mails from counterparts who have found a great director in a new market or ways to avoid disruption during shoots. "It's almost a subtle competition to come up with ideas," he said. "We'd never have shared such information before. But now, we all feel like we're in this boat together."

Contributing: Wayne Friedman in Los Angeles, Patrick Allossery in Toronto and Tony Koenderman in Johannesburg

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