Without stars on the red carpet, prestige titles like the Leonard Bernstein biopic “Maestro” and the Elvis Presley tale “Priscilla” may not get the push they need.
By Kyle Buchanan
With summer movie season at its midpoint, Hollywood typically begins to turn its gaze toward the fall, when a trio of major film festivals acts as the unofficial kickoff to Oscar season. Seven of the last 10 best-picture winners had their debuts at a fall festival, coming out of the gate with standing ovations and critical acclaim that helped propel them through the monthslong awards-show gantlet
But now that SAG-AFTRA and the Writers Guild of America are both on strike, could a protracted battle between the unions and the studios cause those fall launchpads to fizzle?
Though the writers’ strike, which began May 2, didn’t have much of an effect on the Cannes Film Festival that month, the actors’ strike that started Friday may significantly reshape coming fests in Venice, Telluride, Colo., and Toronto. That’s because SAG-AFTRA is prohibiting members from promoting any film while the strike is on, an across-the-board ban that includes interviews, photo calls and red-carpet duties. Without those appearances, festivals will be sapped of the star power that is invaluable to raising a film’s profile.
The first event that will probably be affected is the Venice Film Festival, which begins its 80th edition on Aug. 30 with the premiere of the sexy tennis comedy “Challengers,” starring Zendaya. Venice has lately rivaled Cannes for glamour and headlines, so the loss of famous actors would be a big blow. Nearly all the major moments at Venice last year were star-driven, from the viral clip of Brendan Fraser crying after the premiere of “The Whale” to the social-media scrutiny of Harry Styles and Chris Pine as they appeared to clash while promoting “Don’t Worry Darling.” (Though if there had been a strike, Florence Pugh, the star, would have had a better excuse for infamously skipping that film’s news conference.)
The festival will announce its full lineup on July 25, and buzz suggests it could include highly anticipated films like Bradley Cooper’s Leonard Bernstein biopic, “Maestro”; Sofia Coppola’s “Priscilla,” about the relationship between Elvis Presley and his wife, Priscilla; and “The Killer,” a David Fincher thriller starring Michael Fassbender and Tilda Swinton. Those auteurs are at least famous enough to pick up some of the promotional slack, though Cooper might be in a bind as both the director and star of “Maestro,” since any press he does could be seen as flouting SAG’s prohibition.
The Telluride Film Festival, which runs Sept. 1-4 and shot to the spotlight the likes of “Lady Bird” and “Moonlight,” should be less stricken by the absence of stars: That intimate Colorado gathering is a favorite of famous attendees because they’re not required to do photo ops or media blitzes and can instead mill around like regular people.
But the Toronto International Film Festival, beginning Sept. 7, is a heady 10-day affair filled with red carpets, portrait studios and press junkets that will all shrink significantly if actors are forbidden to attend. Canadian businesses are already bracing for a hit to their bottom line if the festival contracts. Organizers issued a statement of concern last week: “The impact of this strike on the industry and events like ours cannot be denied. We will continue planning for this year’s festival with the hope of a swift resolution in the coming weeks.”
There is a workaround for actors to attend festivals, but it’s a slim one: Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, the SAG-AFTRA negotiator, has said that “truly independent” films able to secure interim agreements with the guild could allow their stars to do media duties. Still, that’s a proviso more likely to spare the indie-focused Sundance Film Festival in January rather than fall festivals, where the biggest titles tend to hail from major studios. And if the SAG strike continues into January, it will be more than just festivals that feel the pinch.
A monthslong strike would hit the awards-season ecosystem with its toughest test since Covid: If stars can’t attend ceremonies, could the events be held at all? (At least when these things were on Zoom, the nominated stars showed up.) Post-pandemic, prestige films need all the help they can get at the box office. If they can’t be sustained by awards chatter and media-happy movie stars, studios could opt to move some more vulnerable year-end titles to 2024.
That could provide an awards-season advantage to streamers like Netflix, which don’t have to factor the box office into decisions on what to debut or delay. And movies that have already had a big cultural moment — like A24’s “Past Lives,” an art-house hit from June, or Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon,” which will be released by Apple in October but received a major premiere at Cannes in May — will be better positioned to thrive this awards season than films that may not have full-fledged press tours.
Will an agreement in this bitter battle be reached in time to save awards season? Even if both sides can compromise before the televised ceremonies begin, one change is likely to still be felt: Don’t expect the usual list of studio executives to be quite so effusively thanked in acceptance speeches.
Kyle Buchanan is a pop culture reporter and serves as The Projectionist, the awards season columnist for The Times. He is the author of “Blood, Sweat & Chrome: The Wild and True Story of Mad Max: Fury Road.” More about Kyle Buchanan
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