Outfest Sees Layoffs & Exec Director Damien Navarro Taking Leave Of Absence Amid Staffers’ Unionization Effort

EXCLUSIVE: Deadline has learned that Outfest executive director Damien S. Navarro is taking a 45-day leave of absence, with Zackery Alexander Stephens stepping in to lead the long-running Los Angeles festival and LGBTQIA+ film organization.

All of this comes amid a unionization effort and news that some staffers who have been pushing to unionize have been laid off. Staffers were told earlier this year that Navarro would be leaving Outfest at an undisclosed date, but the unionization push seems to have hastened his departure.

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Deadline reached out to Outfest, which provided two statements. In the second, the fest confirmed: “The Outfest Board of Directors has appointed Zackery Alexzander Stephens as Acting Executive Director. Stephens has stepped away from their role on the Board to support staff navigating through this transition. The Board has initiated measures to support organizational solvency and help realign the organization.” 

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It added: “Like other nonprofit organizations, Outfest has been severely impacted by the financial climate of the media and entertainment media and entertainment industry. 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.”

The Outfest Board Leadership said: “It is with great sadness that we have to make layoffs, but these are in no way connected to the staff’s desire to unionize. 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. As a nonprofit Board and organization, we believe in empowering LGBTQIA+ storytellers which includes our Outfest staff.

“Outfest Leadership does not have the authority to do what Local 9003 demands – voluntarily recognize – without a vote of our Board. It is the Board’s legal responsibility to adhere to proper governance which requires Board meetings to be scheduled (whether via phone or virtually) to allow for quorum. As this is a matter of urgency, a special meeting of the Board is being scheduled.”

At the same time today, Outfest staffers who are pursuing the union under the Queer Filmworkers United (QFU), CWA Local 9003, have made known the fest’s internal challenges.

Those included in the layoffs are Director of Artist Development and Martine McDonald and Senior Programming Coordinator Gabi Grossman. Also included are other union members including Development Coordinator Alex Gootter, Marketing Manager Hansen Bursic and Senior Programmer Daniel Crooke — all of whom were informed of their layoffs today. Gootter was informed of their layoff via email on a day off.

“All laid-off staff were told their last day is tomorrow, September 29. The rationale given for these layoffs, according to termination letters sent to staff by Alexzander Stephens, was a lack of available funds due to ‘Industry Strikes,’” reads the QFU press release.

“The reality of the situation is our remaining members will now have to carry double the workload, precisely at a time when Outfest Artist Development just launched applications for the inaugural Outfest Producers Lab,” a QFU organizer said in a statement. “This not only challenges us individually but also jeopardizes the quality and sustainability of our work.”

Also in the statement today, the QFU reports that “the Outfest Los Angeles LGBTQ+ Film Festival, [has] filed for an official election with the National Labor Relations Board after the Outfest Board of Directors refused to voluntary recognize the union.” Stephens then “announced layoffs for five staffers, four of whom are union members and represent a majority of the union’s organizing committee.”

“Last Tuesday, September 26, union-qualifying Outfest staffers unanimously voted to pursue the
union under the name Queer Filmworkers United, in partnership with the Communications Workers of America Local 9003. This vote included 12 staff members across the organization whose designations fall below the Associate Director level. They gave Outfest management 24 hours to respond and another 24 hours at the request of the Outfest Board. After that time, the Outfest Board Co-President Nii-Quartelai Quartey responded to the request saying the Board could not come to a consensus on the decision at this time,” the statement reads.

“I am heartbroken over the state of this organization which we have labored with love to build
up,” said one unnamed QFU organizer. “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.”

In Outfest’s first statement to Deadline, its board leadership noted: “As an organization, Outfest is dedicated to facilitating a culture of respect, trust, and transparency for both staff and our community. The organization’s core mission is to champion queer storytellers and create opportunity, which is reflected in their programming and events. Earlier this month, the Board initiated measures to support organizational solvency and help realign the organization with that mission in mind. We are working to rebuild a higher-quality organization and workplace.”

Founded by UCLA students in 1982, Outfest is one of the leading organizations working to promote equality by creating, sharing and protecting queer and trans stories on the screen. The nonprofit has showcased thousands of films from around the world, educated and mentored hundreds of emerging filmmakers and preserved more than 40,000 LGBTQ+ films and videos. Outfest programs include The Outfest Screenwriting Lab, which has mentored and helped launch the careers of nearly 150 screenwriters, and The Outfest UCLA Legacy Project, which, in partnership with the UCLA Film & Television Archive, is the only film archive in the world exclusively dedicated to preserving LGBTQ+ images, among others.

The org had just recently announced Shirley MacLaine and Trace Lysette as the 2023 recipients of its Legacy Awards, which had been set to be presented at NeueHouse in Hollywood on Sunday, October 22. How the Outfest news will impact that ceremony is not yet clear.

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