At festivals like Venice and Toronto, striking actors face 'court of public opinion'

Adam Driver, Michael Mann and Patrick Dempsey attend a red carpet for the movie "Ferrari"
Adam Driver, left, Michael Mann and Patrick Dempsey on the red carpet for the movie "Ferrari" Thursday at the Venice International Film Festival. (Andreas Rentz / Getty Images)

With the start of film festivals in Venice and Telluride this week, with Toronto, New York and London soon to follow, many of the year’s most anticipated titles will be unveiled in the next few months. Under normal circumstances, there would also be plenty of glamour to go along with them, with red-carpet appearances by starry casts leaving lucky audiences wowed.

Due to the ongoing strikes by the Writers Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, there has been an air of uncertainty around the red carpets, galas and press calls that mark the fall festival season, and which A-listers could or would be there. With SAG-AFTRA’s use of interim agreements — by which independent projects agree to abide by the guild’s current proposals in order for actors to continue with production and promotion — the picture has gotten even cloudier. Although it has become clear that the festivals won’t be as deprived of stars as some feared, the agreements mean there will be a patchwork of talent: Who is and isn't attending depends on the project, the person's role in it and even their own calculation about the optics of appearing (or not).

Cameron Bailey, chief executive of the Toronto International Film Festival, said that the festival’s program, with films from more than 70 countries, was not strongly affected by the strikes. However, the work stoppage has still had an impact on preparations for the event, which starts Sept. 7.

“It's really been a process of just determining who is coming and under what circumstances,” said Bailey. “But then also, for some of our stakeholders here in Toronto, just assuring them that we're still going to have that festival excitement, there are still going to be red carpets, that there are still going to be stars in town.

Read more: How strikes could shake up the Oscar race: 'People are terrified about the optics'

“It's an international festival in an international city, and that's always been a big part of what we do,” he added. “It's been a process of just figuring out partly the detailed specifics of how we operate under strike conditions, but then also the story we need to tell and how vocally we need to tell it that the festival is on and it's going to be great.”

SAG-AFTRA issued a press release last week specifically encouraging members to promote productions with interim agreements at Venice, Telluride and Toronto, saying that they would be “strengthening the union’s bargaining position and demonstrating solidarity.”

The situation is made still more complicated by the fact that WGA-covered projects produced in the U.S. are not eligible for interim agreements, a stipulation made by SAG-AFTRA to better align with the WGA’s own strike strategy.

Directors, however, are allowed to promote their movies, as the Directors Guild of America reached a deal with the studios in June. That means directors will be more prominent than ever on the festival circuit — with caveats, of course. If, for example, a director acts in their movie, the amount of screen time can become a factor in determining how to abide by strike rules. Talent representatives have been at the center of the labyrinth, determining what their clients can and should do with a level of detail remarkable even in an industry of micromanaged images — down to the question of attending screenings.

“I've been in conversation with SAG from the beginning and they were very helpful in outlining what is and isn't OK,” said Telluride festival director Julie Huntsinger. “They've been super clear, when there are actors who are concerned about optics when they are with a film that either has an interim agreement or is made for a non-struck entity, they have every ability and they should be here, being proud of what they've done, the work they've done.”

While it may be the position of SAG-AFTRA that it is a sign of solidarity with the union and the strike to attend festivals to promote projects with interim agreements, whether that is how it is perceived by the public and fellow guild members is another matter. And even when technically allowed to promote their projects, some actors may not want to be in the position of having to answer questions about the strikes, interim agreements and other topical subjects during Hollywood's "hot labor summer."

“There’s a big difference between the court of public opinion and what you are or are not allowed to do by the guilds,” said one publicist working on films at Venice, Telluride and Toronto, who was granted anonymity in order to speak freely about strategy.

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On Thursday, actors Adam Driver and Patrick Dempsey walked the red carpet in Venice to promote Michael Mann’s “Ferrari.” At a press conference earlier in the day, Driver used the occasion to speak out against the studios, saying, “I’m very proud to be here, to be a visual representation of a movie that’s not part of the AMPTP and to promote the SAG leadership directive, which is an effective tactic, which is the interim agreement.”

Driver noted that companies behind the film, Neon and STX International, have signed interim agreements, while larger companies such as Amazon and Netflix have not. “Every time people from SAG go and support a movie that has met the terms of the interim agreement, it just makes it more obvious that these people are willing to support the people that they collaborate with, and the others are not,” he said.

In recent years, Telluride has given its Silver Medallion tributes to a mix of actors and filmmakers, with many of the actors, including Cate Blanchett, Riz Ahmed, Anthony Hopkins, Renée Zellweger and Emma Stone, going on to be nominated for or win an Academy Award. This year's tributes are going exclusively to European-born directors, with Yorgos Lanthimos, Alice Rohrwacher and Wim Wenders being recognized.

A man in a Writers Guild on Strike T-shirt and black blazer.
Jury President Damien Chazelle shows where his sympathies lie at the Venice International Film Festival on Wednesday. (Stephane Cardinale / Corbis via Getty Images)

Lanthimos’ “Poor Things” is playing Venice and Telluride but saw its release date pushed back from Sept. 8 to Dec. 9, presumably in hopes that its cast, which includes Stone, Mark Ruffalo and Willem Dafoe, can be an active part of its promotion. Luca Guadagnino’s “Challengers,” starring Zendaya, was initially set to open the Venice Film Festival and be released in theaters Sept. 18, but it pulled out of the Venice slot when the release date was pushed back to April of next year.

Toronto’s own tribute event has quickly gained momentum as an awards season influencer. Last year both Brendan Fraser and Michelle Yeoh were recognized on their way to winning Academy Awards. This year actor Colman Domingo is receiving the TIFF Tribute Performer Award, but the announcement only notes his role in the independent production “Sing Sing,” which has an interim agreement, while his role in Netflix’s “Rustin,” already tipped as an awards contender and also playing in the festival, comes from a struck company and is unmentioned.

Toronto in particular has programmed what seems to be a high number of films directed by actors, including Ethan Hawke’s “Wildcat,” Michael Keaton’s ”Knox Goes Away,” Anna Kendrick’s “Woman of the Hour,” Viggo Mortensen’s “The Dead Don’t Hurt,” Patricia Arquette's "Gonzo Girl," Chris Pine’s “Poolman,” Kristin Scott Thomas’ “North Star” and Finn Wolfhard and Billy Bryk’s “Hell of a Summer.”

“I think actors directing at our festival this year is not a strike story, it's a pandemic story,” said festival CEO Bailey. “It's a byproduct of what happened years ago, not of this year.”

Read more: Heading into its 50th edition muted but unbowed, Telluride Film Festival reveals lineup

There are also a high number of for-sale titles at the festivals this year. Some filmmaking teams are pursuing interim agreements so their casts can promote the films, while others are reluctant to sign over concerns about discouraging potential buyers with contractual stipulations they may not want to be bound by.

On the other hand, thanks to production shutdowns, distributors may want to buy now to ensure they still have an inventory of finished movies to put out next year.

“The interim agreements are truly interim agreements. They should not get in the way of sales,” said Bailey. “For those who are hesitating about an uncertain climate for sales right now, there's no need to do that at all. And so we're looking forward to buyers seeing these films and just shopping away and choosing the ones that they like. And then when the strike is settled, I think the landscape of distribution and going onto platforms will be clearer for everyone.”

Dennis Lim, artistic director of the New York Film Festival, acknowledged that in preparing for this year’s festival, which kicks off Sept. 29, a Plan A and a Plan B have been considered for certain titles depending on whether actors do or do not attend.

"But it's certainly not something we factored into the decision-making [about the festival selection]," he said. "Whether or not an actor can attend is beside the point when we're thinking about whether or not we want to show the film.”

According to Lim, the NYFF program was 90% locked by the time the SAG-AFTRA strike began. He estimates that around 25% of the films in this year’s program are from the United States, and of those titles roughly half are from struck AMPTP member companies. So, in reality, only 10% to 15% of the lineup is affected by the strikes.

“The event is what happens in the cinema, between the audience and the film,” said Lim. “The filmmaker could be present or not, but I feel the event begins and ends with what's onscreen. Contextualizing the film is important, having discussions about the film is important. Having the people who worked on the film present to talk about that is important. But what is most important to me is the film.”

But as summer turns to fall and Hollywood moves into what looks to be a strike-scarred awards season, it remains to be seen if audiences will feel the same way.

Awards columnist Glenn Whipp contributed to this report.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.