Outfest is heading for turbulent times.
The Los Angeles LGBTQ Film Festival, founded in 1982 and grown into one of the country’s premier queer festivals, is experiencing turmoil in its ranks as executive director Damien Navarro steps aside for a “minimum” 45-day leave of absence.
In addition, five employees were informed on Thursday that they had been dismissed with effect from Friday. The five staffers were part of a larger coalition of twelve Outfest employees who had notified Navarro and Outfest board members just two days ago of their intention to unionize following a majority vote in conjunction with the Communications Workers of America ( CWA) Local 9003.
In an email obtained by The Hollywood Reporter, the staffers petitioned for voluntary recognition from Queer Filmworkers United. The email, signed “in solidarity” by the dozens of staffers, affirmed the group’s passion for the festival’s mission to “pave the way for a more just and equal film industry and culture.” However, they said working conditions must ‘radically improve’. It is clear that the conditions relate to higher wages to cover the cost of living in Los Angeles, organizational culture and decision-making processes.
The union advocates sent their request with a ticking clock by asking the Outfest board to respond within 24 hours. The board responded by noting that the bylaws require ten days’ notice to call a meeting at which such a proposal can be discussed. Members of the Queer Filmworkers United responded by giving an extra 24 hours to respond, with a new deadline of 3pm on September 28.
Shortly thereafter, Navarro alerted Outfest staff to his furlough, which would begin immediately on September 27 and last for a minimum of 45 days. He called the move “unexpected” and announced that board member Zackery Alexander Stephens would step in to replace him as interim executive director.
According to the union, affected staffers were told their layoffs were due to a lack of money during the twin strikes in Hollywood.
“I am deeply saddened by the state of this organization, which we have built with love,” an anonymous QFU organizer said in a statement issued Thursday afternoon. “We find it disheartening that, at a time of change and potential growth, the immediate course of action was one of contraction rather than collaboration.”
An Outfest representative has been sent THR a statement on Thursday confirming both Stephens’ appointment as acting executive director and the turbulent times due to financial hardship in the fractured industry. “The board has taken measures to support the solvency of the organization and to help restructure the organization. Like other non-profit organizations, Outfest has been severely affected by the financial climate,” reads the statement, signed by Outfest board leadership. “We are working to rebuild a higher quality organization and workplace. Leadership is sustainably scaling the organization to ensure it can deliver on its mission for the next generation of filmmakers.”
With regard to the affected staffers, the organization disputes the characterization that unionization efforts had anything to do with layoffs: “Staff were informed that the organization was planning a workforce reduction before any communication regarding the formation of a union was made done. Outfest is decidedly pro-union. The work our organization does would not be possible without Hollywood unions.”
The situation this week at Outfest comes amid a larger labor movement that is reverberating everywhere from Hollywood to Detroit. The news also comes as Outfest prepares for its major fundraiser, the Outfest Legacy Awards. The event is scheduled for October 22, with headliners Shirley MacLaine receiving the James Schamus Ally Award, while Trace Lysette will receive the Trailblazer Award for her work in Monica. The push by Outfest workers to unionize follows similar efforts by nonprofits, including the Academy Foundation and the International Documentary Association’s Documentary Workers United.