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Lights, camera and almost no action — Hamilton film workers struggle as Hollywood strikes

Film studios in Hamilton say business has slowed dramatically in the wake of the writer and actor strike in Hollywood, with American projects shutting down. While Canadian productions are still filming, the major shows that film in Hamilton are paused indefinitely.

Film production contributed $3.15 billion to Ontario's economy in 2022

People looking at a camera during a film shoot.

They have the lights and the cameras, but there's not much action for Hamilton's film productions right now, as unionized writers and actors in the U.S. continue striking.

Last year the province hit record highs for film and TV production, with around $3.15 billion contributed to Ontario's economy in 2022 — but Zach Zohr, owner of Hamilton Film Studios, told CBC Hamilton business has slowed to a trickle.

"I would say last year at this time, I would average 10 orders per day — and I'm seeing not even 5 per week right now."

Zohr's company offers studio space and film supplies to productions. Everything from gaffer tape to camera bags, make up to lighting rigs, for some of Hamilton's biggest TV series like The Handmaid's Tale, Umbrella Academy and The Boys.

"This is peak summer time. This is supposed to be film's busiest time," he said.

Canadian and American film productions are tied together

The Writer's Guild of America (WGA) has been on strike since May 2, while the Screen Actors Guild — American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) has been on strike since July 14. At issue in the dispute is base and residual pay, which actors say has been undercut by inflation and the streaming ecosystem, benefits, and the threat of unregulated use of artificial intelligence.

"Employers make Wall Street and greed their priority and they forget about the essential contributors that make the machine run," SAG-AFTRA president Fran Drescher said. "Shame on them. They are on the wrong side of history."

While both organizations are based in the United States, Ontario's film industry is heavily tied to American productions.

Jennifer Pountney, communications manager with OntarioCreates, told CBC Hamilton in an email, that Ontario's film and television industry created "45,891 high-value full-time equivalent direct and spin-off jobs" in 2022.

She said Canadian-based productions account for 38 per cent of production spending in Ontario.

Leah Kline has worked as a set designer on films and TV shows in Hamilton and Toronto for the past eight years. She said in her experience, American-based shows that film in Ontario are required to hire Canadian crew members.

In the past four years, Kline said she has seen a boom in film and television jobs in Hamilton, but said this summer the work has dried up.

"This time last summer the work was just off the chain, like there would be jobs opportunities every two weeks to work on different things," she said.

"This year (I) have only gotten that like once, maybe twice."

She said productions are only allowed to have a certain percentage of American employees.

"I'm not sure what the percentage is, but the majority needs to be local, like Ontario residents who are working on projects that are filmed in Ontario," she said.

A lot of the time, Kline said, higher up positions like directors, producers, writers and actors will be American and crew members are Canadian.

"There's a lot of people in this industry right now talking about switching careers again and that's a downer for sure," Zohr said.

More reality TV, Canadian content might get made

Canadian writers and actors are not on strike and filming is going ahead with Canadian projects, but Zohr said there isn't enough work to go around.

"The way Toronto and Hamilton has been booming for the last few years, now it's set up where we need all the American shows going just to keep everyone working. There's just not enough Canadian work to keep all the Canadian workers going," he said.

But Kline said she hopes the strikes will present an opportunity for more Canadian content to get made.

"Canadian writers are not on strike, right?" she said. "There's a possibility that more creative things are going to come out of this."

Kline said she believes people will notice reality shows like Blown Away— which is filmed at The Cotton Factory in Hamilton — and the CBC's Race Against the Tide now that there will be fewer programs hitting TV screens.

"This is an opportunity for some Canadian writers to get noticed, which wouldn't be bad," she said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Cara Nickerson is a journalist with the CBC's Ontario local news stations, primarily CBC Hamilton. She previously worked with Hamilton Community News. Cara has a special interest in stories that focus on social issues and community. Cara can be reached at cara.nickerson@cbc.ca.

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