Fall Film Festivals Kick Off an Awards Season Without Actors – For Now?

And now we get to see what awards season looks like without actors and writers.

The fall festivals have arrived, bringing with them a deluge of potential awards movies featuring the likes of Bradley Cooper, Annette Bening, Carey Mulligan, Emma Stone, Adam Driver and Michael Fassbender. And most of those actors are staying home, forbidden by SAG-AFTRA rules from promoting films during the guild’s strike.

So instead of whipping up enthusiasm for their top contenders by filling the red carpets with star power, the Venice, Telluride and Toronto film festivals will have to make do with directors, producers and below-the-line talent. It’ll be an unprecedented look for the fests, which are still fighting their way back from the COVID years in which they had to either cut back on crowds or go entirely virtual.

And it stands to make for a tepid kickoff to the awards chances of Bradley Cooper’s “Maestro,” Michael Mann’s “Ferrari,” Alexander Payne’s “The Holdovers,” Yorgos Lanthimos’ “Poor Things,” Taika Waititi’s “Next Goal Wins,” Sofia Coppola’s “Priscilla,” Emerald Fennell’s “Saltburn,” David Fincher’s “The Killer” and many more.

We nevertheless stand to learn a lot about the state of awards season during the Venice International Film Festival (Aug. 30 through Sept. 9), the Telluride Film Festival (Aug. 31 – Sept. 3) and the Toronto International Film Festival (Sept. 7 – 17).

First, though, a caveat: In three of the last four years, we didn’t need the fall festivals to show us the Best Picture winner. In 2019, “Parasite” had already screened at May’s Cannes Film Festival, winning the Palme d’Or and announcing that it was a formidable contender. In 2021, “CODA” premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won the audience and jury awards; it started streaming on Apple TV+ in mid-August, two weeks before the festivals. And last year, “Everything Everywhere All at Once” premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival in March, opened in theaters later that same months and was old news by the time Venice, Telluride and Toronto rolled around.

Granted, few people thought those films would be Best Picture winners at this point on the calendar. So it’s possible that we’ve already seen next year’s winner, either among the films that seem like logical choices (“Oppenheimer?” “Killers of the Flower Moon?”) or the ones that feel like real longshots (“Past Lives?” “Anatomy of a Fall?” “The Zone of Interest?” “Barbie???”).

But it’s also likely that the next month of moviegoing at three festivals in three countries and two continents will introduce us to many of the big contenders going into awards season. Last year, after all, five of the 10 Best Picture nominees premiered at one of the three fall festivals and six of them played at least one.

So here are some of the top contenders that’ll be unveiled over the next three weeks, most of them headed to Venice, Telluride and/or Toronto without their actors and writers.


It doesn’t have the biggest lineup and it’s heavy on international films that are often too esoteric for U.S. awards races, but this year’s Venice lineup is full of heavy hitters.

It starts with director/star Bradley Cooper’s “Maestro,” with Cooper and Carey Mulligan playing conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein and his wife. There’s also Michael Mann’s passion project “Ferrari,” with Adam Driver (one of the few actors who will reportedly be in attendance to support a film that was given a SAG waiver); Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla Presley biopic “Priscilla,” arriving a year after Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis”; Yorgos Lanthimos’ “Poor Things,” with Emma Stone reuniting with the Greek director on the heels of their Oscar-winning “The Favourite”; William Friedkin’s final film, “The Caine Mutiny Court Martial,” which will be joined in Venice by a revival screenings of Friedkin’s 1973 classic “The Exorcist”; David Fincher’s “The Killer,” with Michael Fassbender as a hit man; and Richard Linklater’s “Hit Man,” with Glen Powell as, you guessed it, a hit man.

And just in case any or all of those films fall flat, Venice has guaranteed itself headlines by booking films by both Roman Polanski and Woody Allen, who will be there with “The Palace” and the French-language “Coup de Chance,” respectively.  Plus the festival will present Pablo Larrain’s vampire movie about Chilean dictator August Pinochet, “El Conde”; Ava DuVernay’s no-doubt searing look at racial injustice, “Origin”; J.A. Bayona’s no-doubt harrowing survival drama “Society of the Snow”; and Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s followup to his Oscar-winning “Drive My Car,” “Evil Does Not Exist.”


Starting only one day after Venice, and screening a handful of the same titles, Telluride also landed a couple of major world premieres. Foremost among them is Alexander Payne’s “The Holdovers,” which stars Payne’s “Sideways” star Paul Giamatti and has been drawing strong word-of-mouth ever since a private buyers’ screening in Toronto a year ago. The Colorado festival will also premiere “Nyad,” which stars Annette Bening as long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad and marks the narrative debut of Oscar-winning documentary directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin (“Free Solo”).

Other Telluride debuts that could figure in the awards race include “Saltburn,” which reteams actress Carey Mulligan and writer-director Emerald Fennell three years after they were both nominated for Oscars (with Fennell winning) for “Promising Young Woman”; “Rustin,” George C. Wolfe’s drama about gay civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, which comes from Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions; “The Bikeriders,” with director Jeff Nichols using an ensemble cast that includes Tom Hardy, Michael Shannon and Austin Butler to follow a (fictional) Midwestern motorcycle club over the course of a decade; “Wildcat,” for which director and co-writer Ethan Hawke cast his daughter, Maya Hawke, to play Southern author Flannery O’Connor;  and “The Royal Hotel,” an Australian film from director Kitty Green and actress Julia Garner, who last collaborated on 2019’s “The Assistant.”

The Telluride lineup is far smaller than Venice and Toronto, but its programmers also curate a selection of features and documentaries with a good chance to feature in the awards race. Veteran documentarian Erroll Morris has a new film in the latter group with “The Pigeon Tunnel,” based on the last interview given by the late David Cornwell, better known as spy novelist John le Carré, while Oscar-nominated nonfiction director Matthew Heineman takes a detour from his usual position in war zones to follow musician Jon Batiste to Carnegie Hall in “American Symphony” and director Robert Kenner teams up with Melissa Robledo for “Food, Inc. 2,” a sequel to his 2008 Oscar-nominated doc “Food, Inc.”


TIFF is by far the biggest of the first three fall festivals. Its lineup of more than 200 features including selections from Venice (“Hit Man,” Harmony Korine’s “Aggro Dr1ft,” Michel Franco’s “Memory”) and Telluride (“The Holdovers,” “Nyad”) as well as earlier 2023 festivals, including Sundance (“Flora and Son,” “Shayda”), SXSW (“Frybread Face and Me”), Tribeca (“Mountains”)  and Cannes (“Anatomy of a Fall,” “The Zone of Interest,” “Perfect Days”).

About half the Toronto bookings, though, are world premieres – and while these don’t include awards contenders on the level of “Maestro” and “The Holdovers,” the slate does contain filmmakers who’ve been in the race before. Taika Waititi premiered his Best Picture nominee and Best Adapted Screenplay winner “Jojo Rabbit” at TIFF four years ago, and he’s bringing his soccer dramedy “Next Goal Wins” to the festival this year. Craig Gillespie used Toronto to premiere “I, Tonya” in 2017, and he’s using it to introduce “Dumb Money” six years later.

Other participants at TIFF include French director Ladj Ly, who was Oscar nominated for 2019’s “Les Miserables,” is back with the similarly incendiary “Les Indesirables”; cinematographer Ellen Kuras, who brings “Lee,” with Kate Winslet as photojournalist Lee Miller; “L.A. Confidential” screenwriter Brian Helgeland, who premieres “Finestkind,” with Ben Foster and Tommy Lee Jones; and Jessica Yu, who won an Oscar for a short film and has now directed “Quiz Lady,” with Sandra Oh and Awkwafina. Other directors at the festival: Cord Jefferson (“American Fiction,” with Jeffrey Wright), Azazel Jacobs (“This Three Daughters,” with Carrie Coon, Elizabeth Olsen and Natasha Lyonne), David Yates (“Pain Hustlers,” with Emily Blunt and Chris Evans) and a typically rich selection of top documentary directors, among them Alex Gibney (“In Restless Dreams: The Music of Paul Simon”), Karim Amer (“Defiant”), Maciek Hamela (“In the Rearview”), Frederick Wiseman (“Menus-Plaisirs Les Troisgros”), Lucy Walker (“Mountain Queen: The Summits of Lhakpa Sherpa”), Raoul Peck (“Silver Dollar Road”), Roger Ross Williams (“Stamped From the Beginning” and Caroline Suh and Cara Mones (“Sorry/Not Sorry”).

Toronto is also heavy on films directed by actors, which may enable a few actors to circumvent the SAG ban on promotion if they do so in their capacity as directors. We don’t know yet if Michael Keaton will show up with “Knox Goes Away,” Kristin Scott Thomas with “North Star,” Viggo Mortensen with “The Dead Don’t Hurt,” Tony Goldwyn with “Ezra,” Chris Pine with “Poolman” or Anna Kendrick with “Woman of the Hour,” but they’re all part of the TIFF lineup.

And they’re all part of a festival landscape that will undoubtedly feel very different this year. By the time TIFF ends in mid September, with the New York Film Festival looming for its Sept. 20-Oct. 15 run, we’ll know a lot more about awards season’s contenders and a little more about whether an awards season can survive without actors.

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