Promoting a film at TIFF during a strike? Watch what you say

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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.

Maya Hawke walks the red carpet before the TIFF premiere of the film Wildcat on Sept. 11, 2023. The actor was in Toronto alongside her father, actor Ethan Hawke, who directed the film. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

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.

Wendy Crewson attends the Close to You premiere at Royal Alexandra Theatre on Sept. 10. While acknowledging the difficulty American actors are facing, Crewson said she also saw opportunity for Canadian productions. (Brian de Rivera Simon/Getty Images)

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, tohave 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.”

WATCH Jessica Chastain’s message for studios amid actors’ strike:

Jessica Chastain’s message to studios from TIFF red carpet as strikes continue

7 days ago

At the TIFF premiere of her new film Memory, which also stars Peter Sarsgaard, actor Jessica Chastain says she hopes studio heads ‘don’t just talk to the movie stars,’ but also reach out to the actors and writers most affected by the ongoing strikes.

Shifting focus

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?”




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