Alberta’s burgeoning film industry suffers as U.S. strikes continue; but local support for strike demands is strong.

An explosion thunders to your left, while above you the roof begins to collapse. Shouts hammer against your ears as the FBI rush past. Chaos abounds: blood and debris flying through the air. 

And through it all, with eagle-sharp focus, you ensure the actors bringing a story to life right in front of you hit their marks, and are composed esthetically within the shot. 

As a dolly grip, one of only five in Alberta, Lee Proudlock’s average day enables him to step into the films and television series audiences watch from the comfort of home, or within the dark anonymity of a movie theatre. 

“The camera is like another person in the film,” says Proudlock, explaining how while on set he works with a team to execute the cinematographer and director’s vision. 

No easy feat, given that doing so involves manually controlling a massive metal cart carrying a camera, the camera operator, a focus puller, and often a hydraulic arm attachment, along a pre-laid track. 

“You control it with your hands, which is the tricky part of being a dolly grip; it’s doing these moves and getting the camera to height without jittering,” says Proudlock, adding: “I find being a dolly grip really fun because you are in the process, but it’s pretty stressful. If you mess up, the director might yell at you.” 

While he’s worked on sets ranging from Fargo and Heartland to Under the Banner of Heaven and The Last of Us, Proudlock is one of the more than 1,200 unionized film crew professionals out of work because of the recent Writers Guild of America (WGA) and Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) strikes. The WGA has been on strike since May 2, 2023, and SAG-AFTRA since July 14, 2023. 

“I was supposed to start a job on June 7, and then when the writers went on strike, they pushed until August 14. And then when SAG went on strike it’s been indefinitely pushed,” says Proudlock. 

“A huge job, like, probably the biggest job I have ever been offered, has slowly disappeared.” 

“The impact has been quite profound,” says Damian Petti, President of IATSE Local 212, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees’ local faction. “We’re running at about 15 per cent of the work we had last year at this time, so 85 per cent gone. That has created instability.” 

Tegan and Sara’s series High School

Petti adds that although independent and all-Canadian productions are still in operation, such as Heartland, there simply isn’t enough work to go around. 

“During this time, many people are faced with some pretty dire financial situations,” he says. “Some people are selling off possessions, some people are racking up credit card debt. It’s very hard for people.” 

It’s not just film crew technicians who are being impacted by the strikes, but also makeup artists, wardrobe professionals, caterers, drivers, local businesses that provide props and costumes, Calgary restaurants, hotels, and, of course, actors. 

One such actor is Blair Young, who is also the president and national councillor of ACTRA Alberta (Alliance of Canadian Cinema Television and Radio Artists). 

“People’s bank accounts are hurting,” says Young, who was working on Billy the Kid, until filming was forced to stop. 

He notes that the loss of large-scale productions such as The Abandons and the locally shot Tegan and Sara series High School have negatively impacted Alberta film professionals’ earnings. 

Indeed, Foreign Location and Service (FLS) production — films and TV series that are filmed in Canada by foreign producers — grew from $68 million in 2020/2021 to a record $441 million in 2022. Additionally, FLS production accounted for 141,140 jobs and contributed $6.4 billion in labour income across Canada in the same year, according to the Motion Picture Association — Canada 2022 Economic Report. However, despite the income loss, Young says that ACTRA Alberta stands alongside its sister union. 

“They are fighting for the same things that we are fighting for,” he says, noting that establishing boundaries around the role AI plays in film production and improving the residuals actors earn from streaming services are “huge, generational policies, which need to be worded correctly to ensure that we have a viable industry for the next 10 or 20 years.”

Young says the ramifications of AI are particularly concerning. “I think most people can accept that it doesn’t sound fair to ask someone, whether it is a background performer or even a lead actor, to come into the studio for one day, we’ll put a bunch of micro dots on you, we’ll scan you into the computer, we’ll get you to record a few lines, and that’s it. You’re done,” he says.

“You get paid for one day, you don’t get any residuals, and we get to use your face and your voice any way we choose, without letting you know about it and without paying you again.”

Brian Owens, artistic director of CIFF (Calgary International Film Festival), also notes that AI has the potential to irrevocably change the film industry without proper boundaries put in place. 

“Right now, obviously AI is in the conversation involving writers and actors, and we 100 per cent recognize their concerns,” he says, adding that a piece of the AI conversation is missing. 

“What’s interesting is that people are not thinking about colour correction and other postproduction jobs. Those are the ones that I think are at an even higher risk,” says Owens. 

“If we are worried about AI going all the way up to take the spot of actors and writers, think about the people whose work can be more algorithmic. I worry about that.”

Proudlock notes that he doesn’t understand the drive large production companies have to not pay people. “Over the last 30 years the economic disparity and distance from the top to the bottom has gotten so out of hand, and it’s crazy to me that anyone would think that’s a good thing or want to do that,” he says. 

Young shares Proudlock’s sentiments. “We’re talking about everyday people who are trying to do the job they love and be properly recompensed for it,” says Young. 

“And meanwhile we’ve got these nearly billionaires and billionaires that say our asks are too much, and that they are unreasonable. 

“This is yet another example of this billionaire structure that has been created in the capitalist world, that is basically sucking all the money out of middle- and lower-income, and even upper-income families, and putting it in one person’s bank account.” 

While film and television professionals across the country wait with bated breath to see the strikes’ resolution, not all is lost. 

“The one positive about this,” says Young, “Because the big studios aren’t using our spaces and soundstages now, a lot of the smaller, Canadian indie films are able to.” 

He adds that even though it’s essential to the province’s film industry’s growth to secure large-scale productions, it’s also important to invest in local projects and build on the Albertan identity. 

“This window of time may create a nice little hot pot of activity, and perhaps spur on the next generation of Alberta filmmakers,” he says. 

“It is certainly a time to bring Canadian productions forward,” says Owens. “I know that when something as large as The Last of Us was here, it was of course creating jobs left and right. But I also know that some independent folks were losing their crews to a production that large.” 

Proudlock adds that, while from what he’s heard there isn’t a lot of money in Canadian content, this lull in activity has encouraged some of his friends to pitch their scripts. 

“Producers are picking them up and trying to get them made,” he says. “So, for some people hopefully (the strikes) have a silver lining.” 

“The doors are open now for more Alberta created content to pick-up the slack and help fill jobs,” adds Owens. “As a community, that’s where we really want to rally now. Let’s find those scripts that are written by Albertans, let’s look for our Albertan directors, and rally those productions for both big screens and small screens.” 

Even with monumental change on the horizon, Petti remains hopeful, too. 

“We’ve always had to adapt,” he says. “There have been changes; obviously we moved from celluloid to digital over the years, and that changed the nature of how many jobs there were. Our strength is our ability to adapt to the changes through training and planning.” 

Yet, Petti warns, without steady work, Alberta’s film industry’s growth will be delayed. “Over the past five years it’s been a very extreme rollercoaster ride,” he says. “A steady, constant supply of work is the most effective way to grow the industry.” 

Petti adds that training opportunities completely dry-up in a down cycle, which also impacts growth. 

Proudlock is inclined to agree. “I think the strikes are going to hurt the momentum of the entire film industry, personally,” he says. 

“I could see a general slowdown, and I could see the end to the ‘streamer wars,’ where every streamer was trying to film as much stuff as they could to get ahead. Maybe they won’t make so much content, and concentrate on quality over quantity instead.” 

However, he adds that other industry folks are hoping for a boom in content production to fill consumer demand after a lack of output. “That is what people are hoping, and that is the optimistic view,” says Proudlock. 

Young shares that optimistic view, stating he feels the strikes will hardly impact Alberta’s growth as a hub for U.S. productions. “Nobody shoots outdoors like Alberta does, and we also have the talent to fill in all the nooks and crannies, from small to big roles. So, I don’t think it’s going to alter us long term,” he says. 

“Obviously that depends on how the entire industry alters going forward. But the word is already out on us. I think this is just a blip; an unfortunate blip.” 

While the future of Alberta’s film industry remains uncertain, one facet of the industry to experience minimal change due to the strikes is the Calgary International Film Festival. The festival’s lineup primarily includes short films, documentaries and local and/or international independent productions not impacted by SAG-AFTRA and WGA contracts. 

“I think the lineup is going to be really incredible,” says Owens, adding the festival will likely include more Canadian and international content than American content. 

While Calgarians and film industry professionals can look forward to some semblance of normalcy with the upcoming festival, which starts on Sept. 21 and runs until Oct. 1, the strikes’ upheaval continues as no firm resolution date is in sight. 

“They are going to run out of content at some point,” says Young, adding he’s heard through industry Facebook groups that production managers are inquiring about crew members’ availability after Labour Day. However, he has also heard the strikes could last until Christmas. 

Meanwhile, Proudlock intends to enjoy having a summer off — a rarity in his industry, since the summer months tend to be peak production periods. 

“I’m riding the wave. I always think you have to make the most of your time-off in this business anyway,” he says. “I will eventually run out of reserves, probably sooner than later to be honest. I’m hoping that this all gets resolved, or that I do work on some smaller projects. But I don’t know. 

“I’m trying to stay positive and make the most of my time off.”