Film festival season carries on in Toronto, despite a star-power outage

When SAG-AFTRA announced a strike this summer, Cameron Bailey, the longtime chief executive of the Toronto International Film Festival, dusted off his COVID-19 playbook

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TORONTO (AP) — When the Hollywood actors union announced a strike this summer, Cameron Bailey, the longtime chief executive of the Toronto International Film Festival, dusted off his COVID-19 playbook.

For two years, TIFF, the largest film festival in North America, had maneuvered through pandemic editions that persevered, one way or another, through travel restrictions, social distancing measures and other upheavals. Now, TIFF was faced with a sudden eclipse of star power.

“This is the nature of running a festival,” Bailey says. “You have to respond to what the year gives you. We have good experience from recent years in terms of handling how the COVID pandemic affected us. And we put some of those same measures at the beginning of the news about the actors strike.”

Some performers are still coming to the 48th annual TIFF, which opens Thursday night with Hayao Miyazaki's long-awaited "The Boy and the Heron." Filmmakers will be present. Documentaries and their subjects will still there. Independent productions have the chance of securing interim agreements from SAG-AFTRA.

But the biggest film festivals depend on having red carpets flush with stars. And it’s not only about the photo opportunities. Films come to a festival like Toronto looking to make as big a splash as possible, and announce themselves to moviegoers and Oscar voters.

A movie like "The Pain Hustlers" could have expected to cause quite a stir. Directed by "Harry Potter" filmmaker David Yates, it boasts a starry cast led by Emily Blunt and Chris Evans as pharmaceutical drug reps in the early days of the opioid epidemic.

“It is a shame that they’re not going to be with us when we premiere in Toronto, but it is what it is. These are seismic times,” says Yates. “Yes, I will miss the actors. Obviously, they really help. But I think they’re doing the right thing at the right time. We support them, but we’ll miss them.”

The dual strikes have already taken the spotlight at the Venice Film Festival. Lead juror Damien Chazelle wore a writers guild shirt to the opening press conference. Adam Driver, who stars in the independently made Michael Mann film "Ferrari," wondered why "a smaller distribution company like Neon and STX can meet the dream demands of what SAG is asking for … but a big company like Netflix and Amazon can't?"

But most stars have simply stayed home. Even though Bradley Cooper could have come to Venice as a director for his Leonard Bernstein biopic "Maestro," in which he also stars, Cooper elected not to hit the Lido with his Oscar contender.

Word is still getting out on many of the breakout films. Yorgos Lanthimos' "Poor Things" was a sensation in Venice. Out of the recent Telluride Film Festival, which has always focused more on movies themselves than the circus of larger festivals, Alexander Payne's "The Holdovers," George C. Wolfe's "Rustin" and Andrew Haig's "All of Us Strangers" have been much celebrated.

At Toronto, Bailey grants the absence of actors has a cascading effect on other parts of the festival — the amount of media that makes the trip, the number of industry members on hand and the press junkets that fill up hotel floors throughout downtown Toronto. But, he notes, the films stay the same.

“What we found was that in terms of the lineup and our audience’s interest in seeing the films, very little changed,” says Bailey. “We’re on track to match or even better last year’s audience numbers.”

But less star power inevitably means less buzz. And Toronto is arguably the premier buzz factory in movies. Because — unlike Cannes or Venice — TIFF audiences are packed with moviegoers and not just industry people, Toronto has an enviable record of hosting both the best in global cinema and crowd-pleasing hits. Its top award, the audience award, is voted on by attendees. Year after year, that winner has gone on to be a best-picture nominee, whether "Green Book,""Nomadland" or last year's "The Fabelmans."

What might pop this year? Craig Gillespie's "Dumb Money," an entertaining portrayal of the GameStop stock frenzy, should be a hit with TIFF audiences. Gillespie, whose feature debut "Lars and the Real Girl" premiered at TIFF and whose "I, Tonya" was the most sought-after acquisition of the 2017 festival, knows what a warm reception in Toronto can mean for a movie.

“The crowd, they’re so receptive,” Gillespie says. “And it’s such a great atmosphere.”

To him, “Dumb Money” — a farcical tale of high-finance rebellion starring Paul Dano, Seth Rogen, Pete Davidson and America Ferrera — in some ways reflects the battles actors and screenwriters are waging with Hollywood studios.

“The irony is that the message of our movie — which is so much about the discontent going on in our country with the wealth disparity — is timely,” says Gillespie. “We’re so in the thick of this commentary that’s going on in our society.”

With Hollywood in a pitched, existential battle over pay, streaming economics and artificial intelligence, some of those who are free to attend festivals are still hesitant to do so. Two weeks ago, SAG-AFTRA national executive director and chief negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland encouraged members to work in projects with an approved interim agreement "and applaud them for promoting their work in these productions."

Crabtree-Ireland was expected to walk the red carpet Thursday for TIFF’s opening night. On Friday, SAG-AFTRA is set to hold a rally in downtown Toronto.

Among the stars expected at TIFF are Sean Penn, Dakota Johnson, Jessica Chastain, Willem Dafoe, Nicolas Cage and Finn Wolfhard — all of whom are bringing projects with interim agreements. The festival has also notably programmed a number of films directed by actors, including Viggo Mortensen’s “The Dead Don’t Hurt,” Kristin Scott Thomas’ “North Star,” Michael Keaton’s “Knox Goes Away,” Ethan Hawke’s “Wildcat” and Anna Kendrick’s “Woman of the Hour.”

Toronto programmers have also leaned into music. The documentaries “Lil Nas X: Long Live Montero,” “In Restless Dreams: The Music of Paul Simon” and “Hate to Love: Nickelback” will premiere, as will a new restoration of the classic Talking Heads concert film “Stop Making Sense.”

Some of TIFF's hottest tickets include Taika Waititi's "Next Goal Wins," Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin's "Nyad," Jessica Yu's "Quiz Lady" and Cannes prize winners including "Anatomy of a Fall," "Fallen Leaves" and "Zone of Interest."

With stages mostly bereft of stars, more attention may go to young filmmakers breaking through. Cord Jefferson, an award-winning TV writer of "The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore," "Succession" and "Watchmen," will premiere his directing debut "American Fiction," an adaptation of Percival Everett's "Erasure," starring Jeffrey Wright.

“I’ve loved movies since I was child and I’ve never been to a film festival before,” says Jefferson. “Even the idea that I’m going to a film festival with a film that I’ve directed feels surreal. I can’t comprehend it fully yet.”

“It’s a dream come true, literally,” he adds. “I’m just excited to be amongst other filmmakers.”

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Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP

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