Telluride Film Festival Goes On, Despite Anxiety Over Strikes

Majestic vistas, burbling brooks and sanguine festival goers are the hallmarks of the Telluride Film Festival, a showcase for the most prestigious films of the year. But no amount of natural beauty can overcome the low-level of anxiety that coursed through this mountain town over Labor Day weekend. With dual strikes raging in Hollywood — the writers’ strike just hit four months — no one wants to appear out of step with these unprecedented times.

“It was hell getting here,” Julie Huntsinger, the executive director of the Telluride Film Festival, said in an interview. “There was just so much anxiety and nervousness. Once the actors went on strike, all bets were off. I had to call up every company and say, ‘Please, please, please, don’t go away.’”

But according to Ms. Huntsinger, it went off without a hitch. The festival, long considered one of the preferred stops for films vying for Oscar consideration, both for studio-backed projects and independent films, received every movie it requested, including a handful of world premieres.

Unlike most film festivals, Telluride is more of a viewing than sales opportunity — though some filmmakers do attend in search of distribution partners. This year’s program, one day longer than usual in order to honor its 50th anniversary, was filled, and only two directors didn’t show up. Stars, on the other hand, faced a more complicated situation because of the strikes.

Scheduled tributes for Annette Bening and Gael García Bernal were canceled. Prominent actors such as Austin Butler, Paul Mescal, Jodie Foster and Colman Domingo were not here even though their films were premiering. And those who did come were concerned about how their appearance would play to the public.

The SAG-AFTRA union, which has been on strike against the major studios since July 14, has forbidden its membership to promote any project financed by them. Independent films, though, can receive special dispensation from the union, termed an “interim agreement,” that allows its members to show up and tout their projects as long as the independent producers have agreed to SAG’s latest demands.

Eleven of the 26 narrative films shown were backed by divisions of the big studios, whose actors couldn’t attend the festival because of union rules.

Yet, SAG’s clarity on that guidance came less than a week before the start of the Colorado event, causing a lot of stress for actors eager to promote their films but anxious about running afoul of their union.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s film “Tuesday,” from the indie studio A24, received an interim agreement only on Monday, for a film premiering on Thursday. “I’m delighted to have gotten it. Obviously, I wouldn’t have come otherwise,” she said. “But it was a real mad scramble to get here.”

Ms. Louis-Dreyfus set a path for how her fellow union members can behave during this season of labor unrest. The actress made a rousing speech on behalf of her union’s fight at her film’s premiere and has followed it up with interviews that highlight both her work in the film and her stance on the strikes.

Studio executives would not speak on the record for this article because of sensitivities surrounding the strike, but said the screening experience has been bittersweet because actors were not able to share in their films’ success.

Emma Stone, the star of “Poor Things,” a film from Disney’s Searchlight Pictures that premiered at Telluride on Saturday, came to the festival as a spectator and did not promote her film, in accordance with guidance from SAG. Dakota Johnson, who has an interim agreement, also attended to promote and seek distribution for her film “Daddio,” which she produced.

And Ethan Hawke trekked to the mountain town with “Wildcat,” the independent film he directed about the novelist Flannery O’Connor, along with Laura Linney and his daughter Maya Hawke, two of the film’s actors. The three were also covered by an interim agreement.

Ms. Linney, who owns a home in Telluride and is a longtime attendee of the festival, admitted to being wary early on about attending. “I was very nervous before the interim agreement was made clear to us and why it exists and what it really means,” she said.

Emerald Fennell, the writer-director behind Amazon’s “Saltburn,” who is also a member of both SAG and the Writers Guild of America (she played Midge in “Barbie”), introduced her film on Thursday night while wearing a W.G.A. pin. She was allowed to be there because she was attending as a member of the Directors Guild of America, which recently settled on a new contract with the big studios, but her role is complicated because her movie is financed by Amazon, part of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, the group representing the major studios and streamers.

And on Friday afternoon, Kathleen Kennedy, the president of Lucasfilm, a member of the studio alliance, and her husband, the veteran producer Frank Marshall, held their annual Telluride event at their house in town.

A handmade sign saying “Switzerland” adorned the entryway, and guests seemed to embrace the sentiment with executives from Amazon; National Geographic, a Disney company; and Higher Ground, former President Barack Obama’s production company, which has a distribution deal with Netflix, mingling with filmmakers and actors. The vibe was convivial and centered more on the movies than the contentious rhetoric heard on the picket lines.

On Friday night, the filmmakers Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, who are married, debuted their first narrative feature, the Netflix film “Nyad.” 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 could attend the festival because Netflix is represented by the studio alliance and their appearances would be akin to crossing a picket line. Ms. Nyad, who as a sports broadcaster is also a member of SAG, also chose not to attend.

Rather, it was up to Mr. Chin and Ms. Vasarhelyi to carry the promotional load for the film, lauding the acting prowess of both Ms. Bening and Ms. Foster while also extolling the virtues of their studio for taking a flier on a subject matter that does not get a lot of attention in Hollywood, a movie Mr. Chin called a “female, gay buddy comedy.”

But squaring their gratitude for Netflix with their support for the writers and actors on strike did not come easily.

“We’re just trying to be good citizens,” said Ms. Vasarhelyi, who in one breath uttered her utmost “respect for the writers and actors” and then praised “the great executives” at Netflix who protected her film.

“It’s a lot to balance.”

Nicole Sperling is a media and entertainment reporter, covering Hollywood and the burgeoning streaming business. She joined The Times in 2019. She previously worked for Vanity Fair, Entertainment Weekly and The Los Angeles Times. More about Nicole Sperling

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