Outfest Kicks Off While Acknowledging “Elephant In The Room” – the Actors Strike

The 41st edition of Outfest is underway in Los Angeles after an opening night event dominated by talk of the actors strike.

“Let’s also acknowledge the elephant in the room,” Outfest Executive Director Damien Navarro said as he welcomed the festival crowd at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown L.A. “We are living in uncertain times where the very foundation of our industry is being shaken. Actors, writers and creators are facing immense challenges… I want to extend an even deeper and unwavering commitment to every artist and creator in our community who is grappling with the same fears and uncertainties.”

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The LGBTQIA+ festival, which runs from July 13-23, kicked off with the narrative feature Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, a drama about two high school boys in Texas and their friendship that develops into a romance. Stars Max Pelayo (Aristotle) and Reese Gonzales (Dante) appeared on the red carpet but didn’t join director Aitch Alberto front and center for the film’s introduction.

“My cast was supposed to be on stage,” Alberto said, indicating the actors remained seated out of solidarity with the SAG-AFTRA strike. “I’m endlessly proud of each of you. Thank you for showing up so full of love for me, each other, and this story.”

The strike officially began at 12:01 a.m. this morning Los Angeles time, allowing actors to appear at Outfest’s opening hours earlier without feeling they were sending an unintended signal. Pelayo and Gonzales told Deadline what they see as the major issues in the labor dispute. 

“I think streaming residuals. AI is a beast that is only growing,” Pelayo said. “These are things that do threaten actors’ careers and livelihood and how they can do their jobs, so I think it’s important that the issues are addressed.” 

Gonzales added, “Streaming residuals and AI especially – that’s one of my biggest concerns because taking the human out of the art is something I never really enjoyed, an idea I never enjoyed. It’s really, really, scary, so I think this strike is necessary. I voted for it and I stand with them and I’m ready to be in it for the long haul.”

Actor and standup comedian Jason Stuart, star and creator of Amazon Prime’s series Smothered, said AI also alarms him. On the red carpet, he told Deadline the technology “scares the shit outta me, because my image is who I am, and I also make money doing what I call ‘semi-celebrity’ work where somebody will pay for you to come to do something. And if they can get that [through AI], why are they going to use you?”

Stuart’s credits include the Amazon Prime series Goliath, starring Billy Bob Thornton, J.K. Simmons, Bruce Dern and others. 

“I did an episode of Goliath… and I think I got one fourth of what I used to get on the first residual after a year after it aired,” Stuart said. “Grateful to be on this show, to work with J.K. Simmons and Bruce Stern and all these Oscar winning or Oscar nominated actors. But how do you make a living? How do you do that? How do you make the money for your insurance?”

The Alliance of Motion Pictures and Television Producers insists it has offered actors a package that includes historic pay increases and higher residuals, as well as “substantially higher caps on pension and health contributions, audition protections, shortened series option periods, and a groundbreaking AI proposal that protects actors’ digital likenesses for SAG-AFTRA members.”

Award-winning actor Lío Mehiel, who stars in the drama Mutt screening at Outfest tonight, condemned what they called the avarice of producers.

“They put profit over people, and they’ve forgotten that people are the creative life force that drives this industry and makes people open their hearts and fall in love with characters,” Mehiel said. “I really hope that with the people power of both the unions together [WGA and SAG-AFTRA]… that they [producers] will have to start shaking in their boots a little bit more and rethink their strategy of not negotiating, like not coming to the table at all.”

As Deadline reported, stars of Oppenheimer left the London premiere of the Christopher Nolan film Thursday night before the screening started, in solidarity with the strike. Outfest ED Navarro says he expects a dimming of some star presence at festival screenings. 

“We are probably going to not see as many actors on panels and conversations after the film ends in some cases, being able to talk about the film that they were in,” Navarro said. “But that is not the reason most people are here to come and experience Outfest. [Actors] will still be hopefully encouraged to come as audience members themselves and share in the solidarity of the work that they created.”

This year the festival is packed with “over 170 titles from more than 25 countries,” the festival notes, including narratives, documentaries, shorts and episodics. Among the Outfest narrative features is My Animal, starring Amandla Stenberg. The actress was set to appear at Outfest’s opening night to receive the Platinum Maverick Award but opted out because of the SAG-AFTRA walkout.

“Amandla is deeply honored and would love to be here to celebrate with you,” the film’s director, Jacqueline Castel said, “but she cannot be here today due to her support of the actors strike.”

On the red carpet, Castel took a macro view of the issues facing the entertainment community at this defining moment.

“I think that this is the beginning of what will be many, many, many labor fights that are going to happen across all sectors of the industry. So, this is just the beginning of that conversation,” Castel told Deadline. “I think it’s just the beginning of what’s to come. And I think it’s important for us as humans to understand how we want to evolve as a society and what value we place on human labor.”

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