Scenic views, flowing streams and upbeat festival-goers are the hallmarks of the Telluride Film Festival, a showcase of the year’s finest films. But no amount of natural beauty can overcome the low level of anxiety that gripped this mountain town over the Labor Day weekend. With dual strikes raging in Hollywood – the writers’ strike is just four months into – no one wants to seem out of touch with these unprecedented times.
“It was hell getting here,” Julie Huntsinger, executive director of the Telluride Film Festival, said in an interview. “There was a lot of anxiety and nervousness. Once the actors started striking, all bets were off. I had to call every company and say, ‘Please, please, please, don’t go away.'”
But according to Ms. Huntsinger, the plane went off without a hitch. The festival has long been one of the favorite stops for films in contention for the Oscars, whether for studio-backed projects or independent films. She received every movie she ordered, including a few world premieres.
Unlike most film festivals, the Telluride Festival is more of an exposure than a sales opportunity—although some filmmakers attend the festival looking for distribution partners. This year’s programme, a day longer than usual for its 50th anniversary, was packed with only two directors in attendance. On the other hand, the stars faced a more complicated situation due to strikes.
The scheduled honors for Annette Bening and Gael García Bernal have been cancelled. Leading actors such as Austin Butler, Paul Mescal, Jodie Foster, and Colman Domingo weren’t here even though their films were shown for the first time. And those who attended were worried about how their appearance would affect the audience.
SAG-AFTRA, which has been on strike against major studios since July 14, has barred its members from promoting any projects it funds. However, independent films can get a special dispensation from the union, called a “temporary agreement,” that allows its members to appear and promote their projects as long as the independent producers agree to the bar’s latest demands.
Eleven of the 26 feature films screened were subsidized sections of the major studios, whose representatives could not attend the festival due to guild rules.
However, SAG’s clarification on this directive came less than a week before the Colorado event kicked off, causing a lot of stress for actors who are eager to promote their films but worried about violating their union.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ film “Tuesday,” from independent studio A24, secured a tentative deal only on Monday, to premiere on Thursday. “I’m glad I got it. Obviously I wouldn’t have come otherwise,” she said. “But it was a real mad scramble to get here.”
Louis-Dreyfus has set the tone for how her fellow union members should act during this season of labor unrest. The actress delivered a rousing speech on behalf of her union’s struggle at the premiere of her film, and followed it up with interviews highlighting her work on the film and her stance on strikes.
Studio executives did not speak on the record for this article due to sensitivities surrounding the strike, but said the show’s experience was bittersweet because the actors were unable to share in the success of their films.
Emma Stone, star of “Poor Things,” a Disney Searchlight Pictures movie that premiered in Telluride Saturday, came to the festival as a viewer and did not promote her film, as directed by the SAG. Dakota Johnson, who has a temporary agreement, also attended to promote and seek distribution for her film, “Daddio,” which she produced.
Ethan Hawke traveled to the mountain city with Wildcat, the independent film he directed about novelist Flannery O’Connor, with Laura Linney and his daughter Maya Hawke, who also star in the film. The three were also covered by a provisional agreement.
Ms. Linney, who owns a home in Telluride and has long attended the festival, admitted she was wary early on about attending. “I was very nervous before we were explained to the interim agreement, why it was there and what it really meant,” she said.
Emerald Fennell, the writer-director behind Amazon’s “Saltburn,” who’s also a member of both SAG and the Writers Guild of America (she played Midge in “Barbie”), introduced her movie Thursday night wearing a WGA pin. She was allowed to attend because she was attending as a member of the Directors Guild of America, which had recently settled on a new contract with major studios, but her role is complicated because her film is funded by Amazon, which is part of the Directors Alliance of America. Motion picture and television producers, the group representing major broadcast and broadcast studios.
On Friday afternoon, Lucasfilm president and studio alliance member Kathleen Kennedy and her husband, veteran producer Frank Marshall, held their annual Telluride event at their home in the city.
A handmade sign saying “Switzerland” adorned the entrance, and the guests seemed to embrace the sentiment with the Amazon executives; National Geographic, a Disney company; and Higher Ground, the production company owned by former President Barack Obama and which has a distribution deal with Netflix, where it mixes with filmmakers and actors. The atmosphere was joyful and focused more on the movies than the controversial rhetoric heard at the picket lines.
On Friday night, married directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarheli premiered their feature film debut, the Netflix film Naiad. The film, about Diana Nyad’s 35-year quest to swim from Cuba to the Florida Keys, stars Ms. Bening as the swimmer and Ms. Foster as her best friend and coach.
Neither actress was able to attend the festival because Netflix is represented by the studio alliance and their appearance would be like crossing the picket line. Ms. Nyad, who is also a sportscaster and member of SAG, also chose not to attend.
Instead, it was up to Mr. Chen and Ms. Vasarheli to shoulder the promotional brunt of the film, praising the acting prowess of both Ms. Bening and Ms. Foster while also extolling the virtues of their studio in taking a post on a topic that doesn’t get much attention in Hollywood. It is a sports drama that Mr. Chen described as a “gay female comedy”.
But reconciling their gratitude to Netflix and their support for striking writers and actors hasn’t been easy.
“We’re just trying to be good citizens,” Ms. Vasarheli said, momentarily expressing her “huge respect for the writers and actors,” and then praising the “great executives” at Netflix who have protected her film.
“There’s a lot to balance.”
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