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The Toronto International Film Festival is still more than a month away, but a pair of U.S. entertainment worker strikes have Hollywood North worried the annual event won't offer the usual boost for local businesses.
When the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists walked off the job at midnight Thursday, joining the Writers Guild of America on the picket line, the labour action halted scores of international productions and immediately stopped the promotional work actors carry out for already completed films.
That means TIFF, which is scheduled from Sept. 7 to 17, could see bare red carpets and far fewer stars as SAG members skip premieres, panels and press junkets while they seek better wages and protections from artificial intelligence.
But the strikes could also spell potential trouble for local businesses, which help ferry, feed and fete the bevy of stars that fly in for TIFF and often count on the event to carry their companies through the fall.
“The longer the strike goes on, the worse the impact will be on the local economy,” said Julie Kwiecinski, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business' director of provincial affairs for Ontario.
She’s heard from local businesses trying to navigate their hotel and restaurant bookings, which may wind up cancelled, and figure out how much food, flowers and party favours to bring in for a festival whose look and feel might vary wildly from previous years.
“They don't like being in limbo,” she said. “It's a bad place for businesses.”
The uncertainty around TIFF is exacerbated by the high inflation and interest rate environment businesses find themselves in as they try to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.
A May survey CFIB conducted found almost half of Ontario’s small businesses are making less than normal revenues and 61 per cent are carrying pandemic-related debt.
Such businesses have a lot of hope hanging on TIFF.
“We hope that there is a speedy conclusion to the strike so we can get some movie stars in town and the show can go on,” Kwiecinski said.
Though business has been strong lately, Kristine Hubbard, operations manager of Toronto taxi service Beck, said less star power at TIFF would be "a disappointment."
"Our entire city looks forward to it and restaurants and so many businesses depend on events like it and taxi drivers are certainly part of that."
TIFF has not outlined what it will do in the event the strikes stretch on to the festival period but admitted it won't be unscathed.
“The impact of this strike on the industry and events like ours cannot be denied,” TIFF said moments after SAG announced job action.
“We urge our partners and colleagues to resume an open dialogue. We will continue planning for this year’s festival with the hope of a swift resolution in the coming weeks.”
The last time TIFF and the research firm TNS Canada Ltd. studied the festival's financial impact was 2013. They found the event delivered at least $189 million in annual economic activity to Toronto businesses.
Those numbers likely swelled as the festival grew in the last decade and started hosting an awards night and shutting down a strip of King Street West on TIFF's first weekend for stargazing and corporate promotions.
Jesse Warfield isn't quite sure how much business TIFF will bring, especially if stars stay home, but he is used to the festival drawing steady throngs to his restaurant, District, which sits across from the TIFF Bell Lightbox on King Street West.
"It's our busiest 10-day span by a pretty big long shot," he said.
"We're full from the moment we open at 11 a.m. until the moment we close at 2 a.m."
He books about 30 per cent more staff to work during the festival, which includes a handful of daytime parties, and doesn't take reservations during the event because walk-in business is so strong.
But like most local business owners, Warfield is unsure what a strike will mean for District's busy season.
"I'm a little bit concerned, but to be honest with you, I'm not that concerned ... because we are so busy during that period of time that we could be less busy and still be full," he said.
Front of house manager Julius Chapple said nearby Rodney’s Oyster House doesn't get much of a lift from TIFF, but many of its neighbours who have a "nice, sexy room" with a "beautiful ambience" benefit annually from the festival.
"Having that little dusting of celebrity really does help in terms of burnishing their image for the rest of the year, so there's an impact," he said.
"For the people that invest in those relationship with the various public relations groups that organize parties, they'll definitely feel it."
Public relations Natasha Koifman is no stranger to TIFF’s party scene. The head of the NKPR agency has thrown several star-studded bashes, including her annual Artists for Peace and Justice gala.
The events she is involved with this year are about 90 per cent planned and Koifman has been telling clients that even if U.S. stars stay home, A-listers and locals will still drive plenty of opportunity.
“We might not see Brad Pitt, but there is so much other talent that will be coming into the festival."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 14, 2023.