Actors strike could be a roadblock to the Oscars

The same Friday in mid-July that the Screen Actors Guild declared its strike, the heads of some of the biggest film festivals of fall 2023 jumped on an emergency Zoom call.

It was a coming together of symbiotic rivals, a temporary truce among the four houses – Venice, Telluride, Toronto, New York – dialing in from three different time zones. Normally these festivals, which all take place in September and October and are seen as the first stop on the road to the Oscars, are fierce competitors, jockeying over world premieres and who will get the bragging rights of being the first place to show the next best-picture winner.

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But in the first days of the strike, says Venice International Film Festival director Alberto Barbera, those Zoom calls turned into a support group. They were each facing down the same existential crisis: How, exactly, does a splashy, global celebration of movies survive without movie stars?

“Immediately we were in a panic because nobody knew what could happen, really,” said Barbera, who was suddenly getting ghosted by studios and production companies whose movies had already RSVP’d to premiere at Venice. Other festivals were experiencing the same, at a time when they were just getting back on their feet from the pandemic, which shut many festivals down for a year. It was like a set of girlfriends gathering at a bar and finding out they had all recently been dumped. Solidarity. Unconditional support. Metaphorical vodka shots.

When most people think of the strike – prompted by union contract negotiations breaking down between the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (the AMPTP, which represents movie studios, TV networks and streaming services such as Amazon, Apple, Disney, NBCUniversal, Netflix, Paramount, Sony and Warner Bros. Discovery) – they picture actors refusing to show up to set, shutting down productions. But under union rules, actors also are prohibited from promoting films they’ve already made, unless that film production has negotiated an interim agreement with SAG. That means no red carpets, no interviews, no post-screening Q&As, no social media that could be perceived as promoting an AMPTP project. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post. The Post’s interim CEO, Patty Stonesifer, sits on Amazon’s board.)

Part of an actor’s job is selling their work to viewers. Warner Bros. spent $150 million on marketing for “Barbie,” and were lucky enough to get weeks of Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling bantering with each other on movie sites and talk shows around the world (at least the ones not shut down by the simultaneous, historic Writers Guild of America strike) before the actors strike began. Without Robbie showing up at events dressed like vintage Barbies, creating photographs that continue circulating on TikTok, would that movie still be on its way to making $1 billion worldwide?

Immediately, the strike threw the entire fall schedule into disarray, as studio and streaming execs hunkered down in war rooms, deciding whether it was worth it to release movies when stars can’t talk about them or campaign for Academy Awards. (And who even knows when the Oscars are happening; the Emmys already got pushed back.) Meanwhile, fall film festivals, whose main mission is to showcase new films and talent, often with the fanfare of many red-carpet premieres, were left in chaotic limbo.

As uncertainty loomed, the festival heads discussed how they could band together to impress upon purse string holders how much their events do to support the industry. It was a moment of rare collaboration that Barbera says has happened only once before, in 2020 and 2021, when a larger group of festival directors held weekly check-ins about how to handle covid lockdowns. Then, that Tuesday, productions started calling back, most of them with good news. They would be coming anyway, with or without their actors. Crisis averted. Solidarity dissolved. Competition resumed. “So at that point, we stopped talking to each other,” Barbera said.

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From the outside, film festivals can seem like the province of the privileged, the playground for the 1 percent, which they are, to some extent. But they’re also like big, fun, inclusive industry conferences, filled with press trying to get interviews, executives looking for talent and filmmakers trying to network, with plenty of regular ol’ cinephiles mixed in. At Telluride, which uses a tiered, purchased pass system, students can apply for a fellowship to attend free and even get a stipend for housing. At Venice, Toronto and New York, which also have youth programs or discounts, anyone can buy a ticket, usually for less than what it costs to go to a movie in your hometown.

The worrying matter, though, is what happens to those crowds if the strike is still going on in September. Every best-picture winner since 2008’s “No Country For Old Men” has debuted at a film festival, and most of them at fall festivals. For independent movies no one saw coming – “Moonlight,” “La La Land,” “Slumdog Millionaire,” “12 Years a Slave,” “Everything Everywhere All at Once” – film festivals are their equivalent of a “Barbie” marketing campaign, where all the buzz begins.

With fewer celebrities, there may be fewer members of the press who can justify the exorbitant housing costs, fewer sponsors willing to pitch in, fewer executives buying films, fewer first-timers showing up to soak in the excitement and therefore fewer of all of those coming back the next year – when lineups could face a content drought from the strikes. If you remove the X Factor of Lady Gaga in a black corset riding sidesaddle atop a water taxi on her way into Venice (as she did in 2018 for “A Star Is Born”) or Robert Downey Jr. shuffling onstage in MC Hammer pants to introduce a documentary he made about his father (Telluride, 2022) or Benedict Cumberbatch turning beet red as a woman stands up in a Q&A to tell him how “yummy” he is (Toronto, 2014), then what’s left?

In many ways, the strike is like a stress test in which the true differentiations among the fall festivals become clear.

Venice, as the glitziest of them all (a longtime attendee called it, “Cannes, but more”), is most likely to feel the impact of actors staying away; the seismic effect of Timothée Chalamet in a backless red silk jumpsuit cannot be ignored. Its advantage is going first, starting Aug. 30, and the festival announced a strong lineup last week that’s sure to draw attention for its movies alone: David Fincher’s “The Killer,” starring Michael Fassbender; Sofia Coppola’s biopic of Priscilla Presley; Michael Mann’s “Ferrari,” with Adam Driver; Yorgos Lanthimos’s “Frankenstein”-ish tale, “Poor Things,” with Emma Stone.

But Venice was also the first to experience a strike-related casualty, when Luca Guadagnino’s “Challengers,” a tennis-world love triangle starring Zendaya that was slated to be the opening film, pushed its release date to April 2024 and withdrew from the festival – against the wishes of Guadagnino, who “fought like a lion” against the change, says Barbera. “Amazon, MGM and Warner Bros. were very concerned to bring the film without the possibility to count on the promotion that Zendaya brings,” Barbera said. (Zendaya has 184 million followers on Instagram, and the “Challengers” trailer was the most-watched ever in the first 24 hours of its release.)

Then there’s the canary in the coal mine for actor-directors: Bradley Cooper’s Leonard Bernstein biopic “Maestro,” which he also stars in. It’s a Netflix film, so Cooper must, essentially, strike against himself. “It was not easy for him, not at all, to decide to withdraw or not,” says Barbera. “Finally he called me to say he wanted to have the film in competition at Venice, but he will not come.”

Other AMPTP films such as “Poor Things” (Searchlight Pictures), “The Killers” (Netflix) and Wes Anderson’s short film “The Wonderful World of Henry Sugar,” based on the Roald Dahl short story (also Netflix), won’t have casts there, either. But Barbera is confident this won’t be a totally star-free Venice. Most of the films in the festival, he says, are independent productions that are applying to SAG for permission to bring talent there, including European projects with SAG members such as Léa Seydoux. “This is an unprecedented situation,” Barbera said. “For sure Venice this year will be more director-driven than usual.”

Which of those films will get interim agreements is up in the air and on a case-by-case basis; the union currently is prioritizing films and TV shows in the middle of production. “It’s important for people to understand it’s not that someone’s getting a special exemption or a special waiver,” said SAG-AFTRA’s chief negotiator, Duncan Crabtree-Ireland. “They’re actually signing a full collective bargaining agreement with us on the terms that we offered the AMPTP on July 12.” Such films – let’s call them “cooperators” – agree to SAG’s terms, such as offering residuals and not using actors’ likenesses for AI. And as long as they don’t secretly have ties to the AMPTP, their talent is then greenlit to promote without being seen as scabs.

The equally star-oriented Toronto International Film Festival is in the same boat as Venice, but at a far larger scale. When the strike hit, they lost only three or four feature films out of their massive lineup of 220, says TIFF’s artistic director, Cameron Bailey, and last week they announced they’ll open with the highly anticipated “The Boy and the Heron,” from Japanese animation master Hayao Miyazaki. Also premiering: “Dumb Money,” a nerd-thriller about the GameStop short squeeze starring Paul Dano and Shailene Woodley; a documentary about the sexual harassment allegations against Louis C.K.; and a slew of directorial debuts from actors such as Anna Kendrick, Michael Keaton, Chris Pine and Kristin Scott Thomas.

It’s still unclear which actor-directors will get to promote their films. Even those who reach interim agreements with SAG may choose not to come. “We’ve had commitments from some prominent people who said that they certainly respect the aims of the strike, and they believe that they can do that while still attending the festival,” Bailey said. “And so when Viggo Mortensen tells us that he will be here, or Ethan Hawke tells us that he’ll be here, we know that we can count on that.”

Both directed films that will premiere at TIFF, but only Mortensen stars in his (produced and distributed by independent companies; Hawke’s film already has an agreement). This week, TIFF announced it’s honoring Pedro Almodóvar and Spike Lee, signaling directors will be more prominent this year. The festival is also working on ways to showcase major international actors from the 74 countries that will have films at the festival, too, such as Hong Kong’s Andy Lau, Bollywood star Arjun Rampal and South Korea’s Lee Byung-hun. “These are films that are made outside of the companies that are subject to the strike, so we fully plan to celebrate – maybe even more so this year – the international talent that’s coming in,” Bailey said.

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TIFF, more than the other fall fests, prides itself on being the biggest and most populist. Anyone can buy tickets, and 600,000 people attended over 10 days last year. It doesn’t have juried competitions; instead, a coveted audience award is known for crowning crowd-pleasing Oscar winners such as “The King’s Speech” and “Green Book.”

Red carpets are a major draw (the festival has a section for “galas”), and the worry for TIFF, Bailey says, is how their audience will respond if those are significantly scaled down, not to mention how TIFF will possibly please festival sponsors such as Bell and L’Oréal, whose names are emblazoned on the “Fan Zone” that stars are frequently photographed in, or others who plan brand activations on Festival Street. “[Disappointing sponsors] is a significant risk this year and one thing that we’re trying to do everything we can to make sure that we shore up,” Bailey said.

In the end, it may be the smaller, more intimate festivals that emerge relatively unscathed. The New York Film Festival, which is the last to take place, kicking off in late September, has so far announced just three films: Todd Haynes’s thriller “May December,” which already debuted at Cannes in May and stars Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore, Coppola’s “Priscilla” and Mann’s “Ferrari” (both debuting in Venice). Given that NYFF caters to a city where people barely look up if Robert DeNiro passes them on the street, it should be fine with fewer stars. (NYFF’s Dennis Lim declined to comment.)

The surprise winner in the sweepstakes of which festival does best in the strike, then, might actually be Telluride, which starts Aug. 31 and is known to its fans as “film summer camp.” It takes place in a remote ski town in Colorado and famously doesn’t announce its lineup because it’s so hard to get to that in early days, directors sometimes had to drop out at the last minute because their film prints didn’t arrive on time. The festival doesn’t do red carpets and prides itself on being filmmaker-centric.

Telluride is also celebrating its 50th anniversary and is rumored to be inviting directors from throughout its history, which will provide its own kind of star power. “Moonlight” director Barry Jenkins has been coming for 20 years and is confirmed to attend. Alexander Payne, a longtime regular, is expected to debut his new movie “The Holdovers,” starring Paul Giamatti, there, and Laura Linney, who has a house in Telluride, may very well pop by. “People see it as a vacation,” said a Telluride staffer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because that person was not authorized to comment on the record. “I’ve seen Willem Dafoe just walking around when he doesn’t have a film there.” (Telluride director Julie Huntsinger declined to comment.)

The anniversary also gives a kind of cover to actors who want to show up to support the festival. There’s a little stickiness because both Netflix and Amazon Studios/MGM are signature sponsors. But the festival itself would be off limits only if it were fully sponsored by one of them, like the Netflix Is a Joke comedy festival. Actors can sit in screenings, as long as they don’t get photographed in front of any logos or get onstage for any Q&As, according to Crabtree-Ireland. “It’s a pretty strict line.”

The economic impact of the strike on festivals will probably be acute. But it also could be a much-needed reset, away from being such a dependent arm of the Oscars-industrial complex, which Barbara said “is getting bigger and bigger and – I would say – more and more hysterical.” He points out that the Italian name for the Venice International Film Festival is Mostra d’Arte Cinematografica, or Exhibition of the Art of Cinema. Maybe this is a chance to return to that original meaning. “The history of cinema is the balance between commercial interest and artistic expression,” he said, “and I think it is possible still to find a balance between the two sides.”

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