Tuesday, September 7, 2010

2010 TIFF survival guide

It’s that time of year again.  Starting on the first Thursday after Labour Day, Toronto plays host to the largest public film festival in the world, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). Some people would even rank it as the top film festival in the world, above the revered Cannes festival.  Cannes isn’t a public festival and has things working against it such as its earlier, pre-summer timing.  Sundance, Venice and Berlin may be more famous, but are smaller and have less influence in the industry.  Toronto does many things well and keeps trying to improve even further.

Some have complained that TIFF has grown too large or elitist.  These complaints take place every year and while some have a degree of validity, the usual gripes about festival’s size and programming are getting tired. No matter what they do, some will object.  The fact is that the festival has always been large, but has maintained an excellent balance of artful Hollywood movies with small independent, foreign, Canadian, experimental, documentary, genre films, and other categories.  The Hollywood movies benefit all the others by drawing attention to them.

With a schedule of 339 films (258 features, 81 shorts), the festival is going to be an entirely different experience for everyone.  Some people will primarily see galas, whereas others choose films based on region, filmmaker or subject matter (e.g. romance, period pieces, gay films, horror, etc.).  Some prefer to see films that they know do not have distribution and they might never otherwise get a chance to see.  Others, such as myself, like to throw caution to the wind and prefer to not know too much about the films ahead of time.  We simply trust the festival’s outstanding programmers; even if a film isn’t to our taste, it will be interesting and worth watching and discussing.  I would strongly recommend seeing at least a few films that you might not ordinarily choose, since the best way to try something new is with the savvy, sold-out audiences of TIFF.

Here are some other tips to make your TIFF experience a pleasurable one.

Buy your ticket packages and/or passes as early as possible. 
Keep this in mind for the future.  Buying single tickets just before or during the festival means you pay $19.69 a ticket ($17.04 for students and seniors), which is down from last year’s prices of $19.76 ($17.14).  Premium screenings are $38.27 ($19.03 for students and seniors).  But if you buy a package or pass, the cost goes down considerably.  These are released first to Visa cardholders - Visa is a TIFF sponsor - then to everyone else in early July.  This year, there were more types of packages available than ever, many of them bringing the price well under $10 per ticket. But you had to move fast as many sold out quickly.

Study the lineup of films as early as possible
Trying to study a line-up of hundreds of films all at once is tough to manage, so spread it out if you can.  Keep an ear to the ground as to what films were hits in Sundance in January and in Cannes in May.  The hits from these festivals often show at TIFF if they haven’t gotten a theatrical release yet. Then TIFF has press conference(s) in  July to announce the opening night film and a good number of other films.  Throughout the summer, they continue announcing titles until the schedule is complete in late August.  You can follow the progress of the schedule here or at the TIFF website (http://tiff.net/).

Make sure you hand in your booklet with your film choices before the deadline
The convoluted process to select films has evolved out of necessity because of the festival’s popularity.  It goes like this: once you have a pass or package, you’ll be required to make your selections marked in a schedule booklet according to your first and second choices.  They try to fill as many of your first choices as possible, before filling your second choices.  If they still owe you some tickets, they will give you vouchers redeemable for films during the festival. As long as you get your selection booklet in before the announced deadline, you’re okay.  You’ll be told what box number your envelope was placed in.  A random draw is held to select which box will be the first to have its orders filled.  Then they go in ascending order until they reach the top, and only then continue from the bottom.  So there is absolutely no advantage to getting your choices in early and being in Box 1.

Don’t fret if you don’t get all your choices
With this randomized process, you will likely only get all of your choices if you were in the box chosen or the boxes immediately following.  It also depends on your choices and your times.  Hollywood movies and ones with big names tend to sell out quickly.  Weekend and nighttime screenings sell out before weekday screenings.  But getting all your choices is no guarantee that you’ll enjoy the festival any more than if you make an arbitrary selection.  We all know that popular and good are not the same thing.  Even in a festival where the programming is less commercial, this can still hold true.

You can exchange tickets before single tickets go on sale
If you didn’t get all of your choices or you want to exchange some of them, you’ll have that chance a few days before the single tickets open up to the public.  But the lineup will likely be long.  If you didn’t use up all the tickets on your pass or package, you can look at the posted schedule outside the box offices that let you know what films are sold out and which still have available tickets.  You may have to make your remaining choices based on availability and scheduling.

Get help if you have any questions
Feel free to call the festival itself with any questions you may have at 416-968-FILM or 1-877-968-FILM).  But if at all possible, find someone who has done it before and get his or her advice.  It can seem very intimidating but once you’ve done it, it becomes easy.

Pace yourself
If you’re a first-timer at TIFF, you will probably only be able to handle 6-12 movies over the festival.  This year, it returns to being 11 days long (September 9-19) after some years of running only 10 days. As you become more experienced with the festival, you can gradually increase your film count to around 30 or more, or several films a day.  I’ve met some hardcore film fanatics who catch as much as humanly possible, starting with the earliest 9am screening and going straight until the Midnight Madness screening every day.  Even I couldn’t handle that and I wouldn’t recommend it to festival novices.

Don’t schedule your films too close together
You should give yourself at minimum a half-hour between screenings, but more comfortably an hour to be safe.  The theatres are all fairly close together so it’s reasonably convenient.  But the traffic in downtown Toronto can be tricky, especially at rush hour.  It’s possible to walk or take transit (bus or subway), but biking is better and also the fastest means of transportation.  Driving is more trouble than it’s worth.  The films generally start on time, but introductions, announcements, sponsor trailers (they don’t show ads and/or coming attraction trailers) and frequent Q&A sessions with filmmakers, cast or crew can mean the timing given in the schedule is just a guide.  And there are always lineups.

Be prepared to wait in line
Or “wait on line” as they say in New York.  Almost every screening will sell out, so of course there will be long line-ups.  One line will be for ticket-holders and pass-holders, and the other line is for rush tickets.  There are always some tickets available on the day. You will want to join your line as early as possible, especially if you want a good seat or if you want multiple seats together.  Lining up isn’t such a terrible thing though; it’s actually some of the most fun you’ll have at the festival.  Everyone is very friendly and eagerly shares info about films or festival stories.  Bring a collapsible chair if you don’t feel like standing the whole time.

Choose seats knowing that the theatre will almost certainly sell out.
There’s no point in spacing yourselves out like you normally would at a lazy afternoon matinee.  Most screenings at TIFF sell out completely.  Seats that aren’t filled 15 minutes prior to the start of the film will be sold to people waiting in the rush line.  If you’re claustrophobic or like to leave quickly, arrive early enough that you can get an aisle seat.

Don’t save seats for friends who are late.
Screenings start on time and as mentioned, empty seats are counted so that they can sell rush tickets.  If your friends are late, their ticket might not be honoured since tickets state clearly that they are only good until 15 minutes before the screening time.  If they are in the rush line, your saving seats will actually hamper them from getting in since those seats won’t get counted and there will be fewer rush tickets sold. Having a jacket on an empty seat during the screening is shameful proof that you kept out someone from the rush line.

If in doubt, go to the washroom before the screening.
Obviously, it’s in your interest so that you don’t miss anything from the movie.  But in a packed theatre, others will benefit too from not being interrupted during the screening.

Be courteous to those around you
Don’t ever use your phone during a screening, whether for talking, texting or just letting it ring. Just don’t. Refrain from talking or whispering with your seatmates. Don’t wear too much perfume. Remember, you're sharing the theatre space with many others.

If there’s a Q&A, stay and ask good questions
One of the great things about a festival is or course seeing the people who made the film and having the opportunity to interact with them immediately after seeing the film.  Galas usually bring out more stars and they participate in the intro, so they often forego the Q&A.  But many other screenings will have someone from the film present the screening and then stay for a Q&A afterwards.  Keep your questions short, since the programmer with the guest will repeat it into his or her microphone.  Avoid the standard, boring questions (What was your inspiration? your budget? your shooting schedule?) and think of something original that has more to do with the uniqueness of the film you just saw.

If you want, have a pen and a compact camera with you
Of course, you’re forbidden to use a camera during the screening itself, but before and after the film it’s fine.  After the Q&A, there is usually a brief window where you may approach someone like a director or actor and take a photo or ask for an autograph.  Usually, they will have handlers trying to hustle them to another event or a press conference, though, so you have to be quick.

Be polite
You never know who you’re next to.  Many people from the film or in the industry will be attending the screenings, so you don’t want to be in the position of unwittingly bad-mouthing a film near its director or distributor or anything like that.  When you meet celebrities, be respectful.  Canadians generally are and that’s one of the reasons for the success of TIFF.  We wouldn’t like hordes of strangers demanding stuff from us, yet we expect that from celebrities. Go figure. Just take it easy and be reasonable and considerate. Celebrities often prefer a photo with you or a personalized autograph instead of a generic signing since they know it won’t be sold or exploited.

Plan your meals
If you’re seeing multiple films, it’s not a bad idea to bring lunch with you.  It’s best to have these between films while waiting in line, but eating in some theatres can be done if you’re discreet.  Theatres don’t like when you bring your own food obviously, but during the festival, the staff is too busy to care. You can get cheap sandwiches at several Vietnamese shops just north of Spadina and Dundas for $1.75 each ($2.25 for large, ie. more meat). For cheap all-you-can eat dining, Grill Time at 454 Yonge St. at College (close to the Ryerson and AMC Theatres) is $7.99 every day at lunch. For finer dining, many restaurants on King St. from Bathurst to University are excellent. Lee (603 King St. W.) features the exotic cuisine of legendary Chef Susur Lee – check out my interview with him in the latest issue of Ricepaper Magazine.

Dress comfortably
Check the weather every day, and know the long-range forecast.  You’ll see that Toronto weather in the fall is similar to New York or Chicago — usually quite hot.  September in Toronto began with a heat wave, followed immediately by a cold snap. The forecast for the rest of the festival looks to be mostly sunny but a bit cool with daytime highs between 20°C and 24°C (68°F to 75°F). Wear comfortable shoes, because you’ll be on your feet quite a bit.  You may want to have some more formal attire available for the evening events.

Get to know the new TIFF neighbourhood
The festival core no longer based near Yorkville but has migrated south to the Bell Lightbox at King and John, and the adjacent Hyatt Regency hotel. The surrounding neighbourhood has a very different vibe but has just as much to offer. It's just as well too, since Bloor Street is under major construction from Yonge to Queen's Park.

Check out some free stuff
TIFF has expanded it’s lineup of free screenings and is having a block party to celebrate the opening of the new Bell Lightbox  Other folks try to unofficially piggyback off the success of TIFF by scheduling free events during the festival, e.g. a film that didn’t make the festival might have a free screening to generate interest.  Sometimes they’ll pass out info for things like this at the lineups or other gatherings of TIFF patrons.   Various companies will often pass out free samples of their wares (food, candy, coffee, beauty products, etc.) to people in the lineups.

If you’re in the industry, make sure you have plenty of business cards
Have a whole lot of them. You’d be amazed how quickly they go. You’ll also collect quite a few yourself. Make sure you follow up with each of them soon after the festival or you risk losing that contact.

Enjoy some late night drinks
Some bars have extended hours until 4am during the festival.  Though they will be still be scaled back this year because of the economy, many films, production companies and studios will have big parties.  Some consider the parties to be decadent but they are vital for business and are not usually paid for by the festival but by the film companies.  Usually you need to be in the industry or have a connection.  But don’t call up friends who you never otherwise speak to and expect that you’ll be a priority.  Sometimes you can get in just by being friendly to the right people.  It never hurts to be nice. And never pay for a TIFF party - if there's an entry fee, then it's not a real TIFF party.

Know your limits
Try to be well rested before the festival starts.  It’s hard to keep up with all the films and various other events packed into such a short time frame.  I’ve gone overboard before and find I start to fall asleep during some screenings, even ones I’m excited about. I found that I’d always start to get sick towards the end of the festival.  Last year, I took a regimen of Cold F/X and managed to avoid becoming sick for the first time at TIFF.

Volunteer, if you have the time
Volunteers for the festival get one or sometimes two vouchers for each shift that they do.  Vouchers are good for any screening during the festival, including galas and press/industry screenings.  If you can, you can volunteer for many of the shifts before the festival (organizing, moving projectors, stuffing envelopes, translating, etc.) so that you are free to watch films when the festival itself begins.

Vote wisely with your Audience Choice ballots
Though TIFF is a non-competitive festival, there are a number of small awards such as the People’s Choice Award.  Past People’s Choice Award winners have gone on to great success with other awards including the Oscars, e.g. American Beauty and Slumdog Millionaire.  So the industry pays close attention to the smart choices of the TIFF audience.  Last year, they introduced separate People’s Choice Awards for Documentary and Midnight Madness.  The award winners are announced on the last day, in time for the free screening of the general Audience Award winner at the Elgin Theatre on the closing night.

Daily checklist:
-    tickets
-    appropriate clothing
-    sunscreen
-    collapsible chair
-    (umbrella)
-    TIFF programme book
-    pen
-    camera (batteries)
-    batteries
-    charged phone (sound turned off)
-    food, drink, water
-    breath mints
-    business cards

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