Hollywood Strikes Aren’t Putting a Damper on Fall Film Festivals

A walkout by superstars Matt Damon and Emily Blunt from the glittering London premiere of Oppenheimer marked the opening shot of Hollywood’s actors strike — crystallizing the image of red carpets drained of glamour.

(Bloomberg) — A walkout by superstars Matt Damon and Emily Blunt from the glittering London premiere of Oppenheimer marked the opening shot of Hollywood’s actors strike — crystallizing the image of red carpets drained of glamour.

Yet less than two months after that mid-July show of defiance, and with no resolution to the strike on the horizon, Hollywood luminaries could still light up the premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival next week.

It’s not a revolt against the Screen Actors Guild — which bars actors from doing publicity for their films, even if unreleased, while the strike is underway. Some stars may show up in their capacity as a director or producer, rather than as an actor. Ethan Hawke, Sean Penn, Dakota Johnson and Viggo Mortensen are expected to attend in Toronto, following the rules of the so-called interim agreements, which allow guild members making independent films to continue to work on them under certain conditions.

The twin strikes by Hollywood writers and actors are making it harder for studios to promote their pictures, but major film festivals are soldiering on. The Venice International Film Festival kicks off Wednesday without its planned opener, Challengers, an Amazon.com Inc. tennis drama starring Zendaya. But 23 other pictures will be competing for the festival’s grand prize. The Telluride Film Festival, normally a more low-key affair, starts Thursday in the Colorado mountain town of the same name.

Cameron Bailey, chief executive officer of the Toronto festival, expects a good turnout for his event, which begins Sept. 7. It will feature foreign films, including an opening night gala for Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki’s latest animated picture The Boy and the Heron. It will also host the world premiere of Dumb Money, about the 2021 battle between hedge funds and small investors in GameStop Corp. shares.

“The direct impact on the festival is certainly smaller than people might have been fearing,” Bailey said in an interview.

Film festivals are a crucial promotional tool for Hollywood studios. The screenings build buzz in advance of theatrical debuts and awards ceremonies. Films screened in Toronto that went on to win best picture at the Academy Awards include The King’s Speech and Green Book.

The festivals seemed like they might have ended up on the cutting room floor after the Screen Actors Guild walked out last month. The actors joined the Writers Guild of America, which has been on strike since May over issues including pay and compensation from streaming services. 

A number of big studios, including Walt Disney Co. and Warner Bros. Discovery Inc., have delayed films because of the strikes. TV’s Emmy Awards, originally scheduled for September, was postponed until January in hope that stars will be able to attend. Other big film festivals, including Sundance, Berlin and Cannes, are scheduled for next year and may see the strikes settled by then.

The Toronto festival’s management “never for a moment” considered canceling or postponing but instead chose to tweak their plans to minimize impact from the strikes, Bailey said.

Only 15% of the 261 films in the Toronto lineup are covered by contracts with the two striking US unions, according to Bailey. The majority are international films — roughly 70% coming from outside of North America.

The actors guild has been allowing members who worked on independent films to promote their pictures if the producers agree to accept the terms the union is seeking in its contract talks with the big studios. These interim agreements, which now involve more than 300 films, are controversial. Some stars, like actress Sarah Silverman, said they make it seem like all members of the union aren’t participating in the strike. The guild has said the agreements prove to the big studios that working under their proposed contract terms is possible.

One result of the pandemic has been that several actors had time to pursue passion projects — creating or directing independent films — which they are now bringing to the festival and will be allowed to promote.

Bailey has been on the phone with some of the performers who are also directing this year and they have committed to show up. They will, he said, work within the guidelines of the guild while attending festivals.  

“I think audiences can certainly expect these directors to be there,” Bailey said.

Movie lovers hoping to see a surfeit of celebrities signing autographs on the red carpet may be disappointed, however.

“Those fans who only come to see the stars will not be seeing the same number,” he said. 

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