How do you promote a film during dual writer and actor strikes at the biggest international film festival north of the border?
The answer at the Toronto International Film Festival, it turns out, is very carefully.
That’s because, even as one of the pre-eminent “big five” festivals, in a normal year TIFF is uniquely situated to function as an awards season tastemaker; alongside Venice, its early fall start date gives it the perfect distance from the majority of major shows like BAFTA and the Oscars to build up a film’s buzz.
But unlike Cannes, that buzz doesn’t just come from how many knee-cracking minutes a film’s standing ovation lasted. Alongside TIFF’s People’s Choice Award — a notoriously accurate best-picture predictor — a big part of the PR-machine is star sightings, Q&As and, of course, red carpets.
Those Instagrammable moments work as a kind of organic excitement that can lead to attention, then discussion, then perceived relevance among awards voters as they try to divine what people actually care about.
So following two years of online and hybrid festivals during the pandemic and last year’s festival that somewhat fell from the headlines due to the death of Queen Elizabeth II on its opening day, the challenge this year, as actors union SAG-AFTRA and the Writers Guild of America (WGA) are both on strike, was promoting films without breaking union rules, or appearing to capitalize on the misfortune of others who couldn’t do so.
Not being able to promote ‘heartbreaking’
“Listen, goodbye. Goodbye American stars — hello Canada!” was actor Wendy Crewson’s triumphant cry at a red carpet event for Close To You, a Canadian drama that received its world premiere at the festival. “We’re so happy that we get to be here representing these pictures.”
In the case of Close to You, the ability to promote came about because the movie originated outside of America. This is what also let movies like Canada’s Backspot and Seven Veils, along with England’s The Critic, to have carpets that actually included actors.
But even while recognizing that Canadian movies — which can tend to be overshadowed most years — are one of the few TIFF events for media and fans to focus on, Crewson touched on how difficult it is that others can’t do what is necessary to have their productions be a success.
“You put your heart and soul into these pictures, and then not to be able to come out and sell it — which you must do to get a picture seen … it’s heartbreaking for people,” she said.
It was a common refrain in a festival promoting film through working actors — who are themselves locked in a contract dispute with Hollywood studios.
That’s especially relevant as streamers and distributors may look north to fill their content coffers as the strike drags on — an appetizing possibility that became an ongoing discussion at TIFF itself, according to the Hollywood Reporter.
Balancing union support, opportunity for promotion
Walking the red carpet for their Karen Kain ballet documentary Swan Song — which is not barred from promotion during the strikes — Canadian director Chelsea McMullan pushed back on the idea of the strike setting up Canada for success.
“I don’t really think about it that way, I really stand with the unions and SAG-AFTRA and believe in what they’re doing,” they said. “Of course it’s nice — you know, I’m so excited to bring the film here. But we’re thinking about those people now.”
That ambivalence deeply affected the festival’s lineup — both among directors like McMullan, whose union is not striking, and especially among actors-turned-directors who were often the sole famous faces for festival-goers to gather around.
In some cases, those celebrities — virtually all of whom also starred in their productions — did not appear at the festival at all, navigating both the need for SAG-AFTRA interim-agreements, and the public perception of promotion during the strike.
Anna Kendrick’s producing team read a statement from her ahead of the premiere of Woman of the Hour, saying she was “heartbroken” not to be with audiences at the premiere of her directorial debut.
Canada’s Neve Campbell — who, during a recent Scream panel at Toronto’s Comic Con, was forced to refrain from actually speaking about the film due to the strikes — echoed that concern. In an interview with CBC News, she said she had checked with the union to make sure her behind-the-scenes contributions on Swan Song allowed her to help promote it by using her well-known name to draw more attention.
“For me to not be able to support and shed light on this project was going to be heartbreaking, I was really worried about it,” she said. “So I’m very grateful that I’m allowed to step into this because I’m a producer, I’m not on camera, I’m able to support these wonderful people.”
Before Michael Keaton’s noir hitman drama Knox Goes Away had its world premiere, TIFF audience members were informed that no members of the cast or crew were in attendance — and that the festival respected creators’ decisions to attend or not during the strikes.
Others, either unaffected by strike rules or with interim agreements of their own, did decide to make the trip.
Ethan Hawke, along with daughter and star Maya Hawke, spoke to journalists and festival attendees about their film Wildcat — with directpr Ethan going so far as to take a Greyhound bus to Toronto after three of his flights were cancelled.
Canadian Stranger Things star Finn Wolfhard attended the festival — both as a director of his horror-comedy Hell of a Summer, and to perform with his band, The Aubreys.
And Viggo Mortensen — who spoke at length to TIFF audiences about writing, producing, starring in and directing The Dead Don’t Hurt — told the Hollywood Reporter he would not have attended as just a director (which he theoretically could have) without an interim agreement. He also said he would adhere to all the unions’ payment and streaming revenue demands once the strike was over and the film was released.
The allure of the festival was often high on the list of reasons for decisions to attend. Atom Egoyan, promoting his Amanda Seyfried-led drama Seven Veils, cited the effect TIFF has had on the trajectory of his career, both in the past and today.
“I wouldn’t have had my career without TIFF. Like, there’s no question about that,” he said. “As a young filmmaker, when I was showing those films that really got attention through this festival, [it] meant the world to me.”
Even still, the discussion turned to who wasn’t there — the film’s lead and sole international star.
“I screened it for Amanda yesterday in New York, and she was just so frustrated that she couldn’t be here,” Egoyan said. “But we all understand why, and she’ll be here obviously in this amazing performance on screen.”
For the actors who were able to attend, the message was often on shifting focus.
Jessica Chastain, here under an interim agreement for the movie Memory, said despite the perceived importance of stars, studios especially should focus more on the working-class members of the industry.
“Don’t just talk to the movie stars. I mean I’d love to be in the room and try to get everyone to get along, but it’s about the people … They need to go talk to those people to really understand what their life is like,” she said.
“And I think when they do — because they are compassionate and intelligent and lovely human beings — how can they help but create a fair contract?”