On May 2, 2023, the Writers Guild of America (WGA) declared a strike over an ongoing dispute with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP). On July 14, 2023, they were joined in solidarity by the Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA). For weeks now, both unions have called for higher salaries that take into account inflation, greater residuals from streaming media, and stronger protection against artificial intelligence. While the WGA’s guidelines prohibit their members from writing, revising, or pitching a project to the AMPTP for the duration of the strike, SAG-AFTRA forbids their members from working on television, film, or streaming projects. Moreover, actors are not allowed to participate in any promotional activities related to productions they are involved in. This means no taking part in press junkets, no sitting down for panels, and no attending glamorous premiers. With no end to the strike in sight, important film festivals are scheduled to open in cities such as Venice, Telluride, and Toronto in just a few days. The absence of crowd-pulling movie stars is sure to be noticed, but just how heavily will their nonattendance weigh on this fall’s film festival circuit?
First in line is the Venice International Film Festival, which opens on Wednesday, August 30. It will, for the most part, be unaffected by the strike. SAG-AFTRA is an American labour union, which means international actors are not affected by its protest. Actors who worked on independent films are also exempt from the injunction. Alberto Barbera, the festival’s artistic director, has stated that despite losing their opening film, Luca Guadagnito’s Challengers, the impact of the strike has been “quite modest.” Their planned lineup, which will run until September 9, remains unchanged despite the absence of Hollywood actors. Ava DuVernay’s Origin, an adaptation of Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, Bradley Cooper’s Maestro, a biographical drama about American composer Leonard Bernstein, and Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla, based on the 1985 memoir Elvis and Me by Priscilla Presley, will be among the films competing for the Golden Lion, the festival’s top prize.
The Telluride Film Festival (TFF) will take place concurrently, starting on Thursday, August 31. Since it operates on a much smaller scale, it too should not be greatly affected by the disputes. TFF only reveals their programming at the very last minute, once their attendees have gathered on the western flank of the San Juan Mountains, making it impossible to know if their lineup was disrupted by the ongoing negotiations. What’s more, the festival is not intended to be a competition, but rather a celebration of cinema. This means no prizes are awarded, no press conferences are held, and no sit-down talks are organized. In other words, Telluride is a place where celebrities can lay low and blend in with the crowd. They could technically show up to screenings as fans, however it is unlikely they would risk being identified as strike-breakers. The festival, which will close on September 4, has become an important touchstone of the fall circuit thanks to its quirkiness. Many acclaimed filmmakers have premiered their work in Telluride, including Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain, in 2005), Barry Jenkins (Moonlight, in 2016) and Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird, in 2017).
This leaves us with the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), which will take place after Venice and Telluride close, starting Thursday, September 7. The festival, which prides itself on being an event put on for the public, has been associated with big American premiers in past years. Roaming the streets of downtown Toronto to rub shoulders with A-listers is a big part of the TIFF experience, one which movie lovers will have to do without this year. The festival did manage to secure Hayao Miyazaki’s hit animated feature The Boy and the Heron for its opening night. They have also announced that Hong Kong actor Andy Lau will be in attendance for a moderated conversation, as will writer-director Pedro Almodóvar. Set to premiere are Craig Gillespie’s Dumb Money, a comedy-drama film about the 2021 GameStop short squeeze, Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall, which won this year’s Palme d’Or at Cannes, and Hitman, Richard Linklater’s new film starring Glen Powell.
While film festivals are not all about pageantry, red carpets and celebrity appearances are a huge part of their appeal. Photo calls generate lots of excitement and remain an essential promotional tool for studios. The absence of actors from the festival circuit – no matter their level of fame – will certainly reduce media coverage, and in turn, lower cinema attendance. If the strikes are still ongoing during these high-profile events, the potential loss in revenue could put additional pressure on the WGA, the SAG-AFTRA, and the AMPTP to come to an agreement quickly. Although the settlement of labour disputes involves complex and strenuous negotiations, one can only hope that the spotlight cast on these festivals will amplify the need for a quick and equitable resolution.