Outfest is facing turbulent times.
The Los Angeles LGBTQ film festival, which was founded in 1982 and has grown into one of the country’s leading queer festivals, is experiencing upheaval in its ranks as executive director Damien Navarro is stepping aside for a “minimum” 45-day leave of absence.
Separately, five staffers were notified Thursday that they have been laid off, effective on Friday. The five staffers were part of a larger coalition of 12 Outfest employees that had notified Navarro and Outfest board members just two days ago of an intention to unionize following a majority vote in partnership with the Communications Workers of America (CWA) Local 9003.
In an email obtained by The Hollywood Reporter, the staffers offered a request for voluntary recognition of Queer Filmworkers United. The email, signed “in solidarity” by the dozen staffers, confirmed the group’s passion for the festival’s mission of paving “the way to a more just and equitable film industry and culture.” However, they said working conditions “must radically improve.” It is understood that the conditions are in reference to increased pay to meet the cost of living in Los Angeles, organizational culture and decision-making processes.
The union proponents sent their request with a ticking clock by asking the Outfest board to respond within 24 hours. The board replied by noting its bylaws require a 10-day notice to set a meeting at which such a proposal could be discussed. Members of the Queer Filmworkers United responded to that by offering an additional 24 hours to respond with a new deadline of 3 p.m. on Sept. 28.
Shortly thereafter, Navarro alerted Outfest staff of his leave of absence beginning immediately on Sept. 27 and continuing for the minimum 45-day period. He called the move “unanticipated,” and announced that board member Zackery Alexander Stephens would be stepping in to replace him as interim executive director.
According to the union, the affected staffers were told that their termination was due to a lack of funds amid Hollywood’s dual strikes.
“I am heartbroken over the state of this organization which we have labored with love to build up,” an anonymous QFU organizer said in a statement that was distributed Thursday afternoon. “We find it disheartening that, in a time of change and potential growth, the immediate course of action has been one of contraction rather than collaboration.”
An Outfest representative sent THR a statement on Thursday confirming both Stephens’ appointment as acting executive director and the turbulent times due to financial hardships amid the fractured industry. “The board has initiated measures to support organizational solvency and help realign the organization. Like other nonprofit organizations, Outfest has been severely impacted by the financial climate,” reads the statement, signed by the Outfest board leadership. “We are working to rebuild a higher-quality organization and workplace. Leadership is in the process of scaling the organization sustainably in order to ensure that it is able to carry out its mission for the next generation of filmmakers.”
Regarding the impacted staffers, the organization disputes the characterization that union efforts had anything to do with layoffs: “Staff was notified that the organization had planned for a reduction of the workforce prior to any communication of unionizing. Outfest is decidedly pro-union. The work our organization accomplishes wouldn’t be possible without Hollywood unions.”
The situation this week at Outfest comes amid a larger labor movement that has reverberated everywhere from Hollywood to Detroit. The news also arrives at a time when Outfest is preparing for its marquee fundraiser, the Outfest Legacy Awards. The event is scheduled for Oct. 22, with headliners Shirley MacLaine set to receive the James Schamus Ally Award while Trace Lysette will be awarded the Trailblazer Award for her work in Monica. Outfest workers’ push to unionize follows similar efforts by nonprofits including the Academy Foundation and Documentary Workers United at the International Documentary Association.