At this year’s Venice Film Festival, the two recipients of the festival’s major acting award, the vaunted Volpi Cup, had more in common than their lauded performances. Both “Memory” star Peter Sarsgaard and “Priscilla” star Cailee Spaeny were able to attend their films’ respective premieres because the films’ producers were granted interim agreements from SAG-AFTRA that allowed the stars to head to the Lido and promote their films.
As the AMPTP, studio brass, and the Writers Guild head back to the bargaining table this week, cautious optimism that at least one strike might soon end is creeping into Hollywood. And with awards season in the offing, perhaps the pressure of a starry season without stars might just push forward SAG negations. (To say nothing of the stars who may be putting pressure on their own studios to end the strikes, so they can get down to campaigning for their work.)
So-called “Oscar movies” are the traditional box-office hallmark between now and year-end, but ongoing strikes mean millions of dollars left on the table. (Recent examples of films that hugely benefitted from their awards campaigns include “1917” and “Green Book.”) The strikes have already done irreparable damage to the network TV season and now puts at risk the companies that bank on film awards attention to give their films a long, healthy theatrical run.
There was initial hesitancy from some productions when SAG announced it would grant interim agreements during its historic, ongoing strike against the AMPTP; in practice, the waivers proved to be a major success. (Also on deck during the fall festival season, care of said agreements: Adam Driver for “Ferrari,” Ethan Hawke for “Wildcat,” Viggo Mortensen for “The Dead Don’t Hurt,” and more, all heartily encouraged by their union.)
Now, slowly but surely, there are reports that other performers from films released earlier in the year are being granted their own interim agreements to promote their films for awards season. Contenders like “Past Lives” star Greta Lee and “Blackberry” star Glenn Howerton, once dark horses for a Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor nominations, respectively, may now shake hands with Academy members; perceived frontrunners like Carey Mulligan (“Maestro”) or Ryan Gosling (“Barbie”) currently cannot.
That change will surely shape awards season, but can it also help end the strikes?
Consider A24, now armed with its own interim agreements. It achieved total domination of the major 2023 Oscar categories. And now, the independent shingle starts its 2023-24 award season campaigning all but unopposed. (That must stick in the craw of studios’ specialty imprints in particular.)
At this writing, these distributors can’t execute proper marketing campaigns and that leaves plenty of prestige — and money — on the table. That’s especially unfortunate in a year when the biggest box-office story is the success of studio titles “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer.” Popular blockbusters that are also serious Oscar contenders — how often does that happen?
Even after robust fall festival debuts, specialty labels are also in a dangerous spot. Searchlight Pictures release “Poor Things” (the big winner at Venice) or Focus Features’ “The Holdovers” (a runner-up for the prestigious People’s Choice Award at TIFF) can’t capitalize on their acclaim because they are under the umbrella of struck companies.
Currently, there are — at best — a handful of names who might be able to win an Oscar without campaigning. “Poor Things” star Emma Stone, for example, shouldn’t have any worries about securing a Best Actress nomination, having won before. But if there is any studio that has proven — and recently — that it can take a lesser-known name and guide them toward a triumph (think Mahershala Ali for “Moonlight” or Yuh-Jung Youn for “Minari”) it’s A24, which has the aforementioned Spaeny and Lee submitting for consideration in that category.
Sandra Hüller is another formidable Best Actress contender currently able to campaign, as Neon, the distributor of her Palme d’Or winning film “Anatomy of a Fall,” is not an AMPTP member, nor is the German actress a member of SAG. Even “Oppenheimer” star Cillian Murphy, now the face of the most successful biopic of all time, may have trouble securing a Best Actor nomination without being able to celebrate his film’s success on the circuit.
While many writer-directors are tiptoeing around script questions, big names like Noah Baumbach (“Barbie”) and Tony McNamara (“Poor Things”), conceivable screenplay Oscar frontrunners this year, are currently sidelined with the WGA strike.
Perhaps the financial pressure of a dark awards season might push the AMPTP-affiliated studios, facing down weak theatrical business projections, to finally get down to real business when it comes to negotiating with both the WGA and SAG. Otherwise, we’re looking at a cold, cruel winter in the film world, and a dismal awards season indeed.