Friday, April 29, 2011

A Guide to the Hot Docs Film Festival

From April 28 to May 8, 2011, the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival takes a hold of Toronto. The largest documentary festival in North America, it presents 199 films from 43 countries over the course of eleven days. It's Toronto's largest film festival after the Toronto International Film Festival, and like its big brother TIFF, it sells out almost every screening.

Here's some advice for those who are thinking of checking out some screenings or industry events, especially if you've never done it before.

Hot Docs is a very affordable film festival. Like all festivals, the best deals are if you buy packages before the festival begins. Still, there are deals to be had. A single ticket goes for $14, but the late night screenings (after 11 p.m.) are $5 each or $10 for an All-You-Can-Eat Late Night Pass (one ticket to each screening).  For seniors (60+) and students with valid photo I.D., tickets are free for screenings before 6 p.m. (subject to availability).

Many of the screenings are sold out now so check online or at the box office. There are, however, some rush seats made available for every screening. Every theatre will have a tickets-holders line and a rush line. The more high-profile the film and the smaller the theatre, the earlier you will want to join the rush line to be sure to get a ticket. The daytime and very late screenings during the week are good bets to get a rush ticket. Also bad weather can discourage people who already have passes or tickets, so that opens up availability for the rush line.

Of the main theatres used, the Winter Garden Theatre is the largest with 1000 seats. Bloor Cinema is the next with 830 seats. It is a long and narrow theatre though, so the screen isn't especially large and you'll want to sit closer if possible. Even the front row isn't so bad since there's a stage which puts you far enough back that you can still see the whole screen.

My favourite venues for Hot Docs are the TIFF Lightbox theatres, Isabel Bader Theatre and the Royal Cinema. TIFF Lightbox is an exceptional facility that is an ideal place to watch films. There are five public theatres there with the lower theatre number having the larger capacity -- Theatre 1 has 540 seats,  Number 2 has 350, Theatre 3 has 250, Theatre 4 has 150 and Theatre 5 (not used for Hot Docs) has 80 seats. Unfortunately, the Tim Burton exhibit is finished and the Fellini: Spectacular Obsessions exhibit doesn't open until June 30. But while you're there, you should take the opportunity to browse the facility including the free Mary Pickford exhibit on the 4th floor (take the elevator).

Isabel Bader is beside the festival's industry centre and is an excellent venue. It seats over 500 and has a spacious lobby. The Royal cinema has a tiny lobby but seats 450 and has super-comfortable seats that have a bit of flexibility when you lean back. This year, they have expanded to include three theatres not in the downtown core – the Revue, the Fox and the Regent theatres. Like the Royal Cinema, the Regent is spacious and renovated facility that is used as a post-production facility during the day.

The festival is mostly centred around the Bloor West and Queen's Park/Avenue Rd intersection. The box office is at 131 Bloor W. just east of that corner. The Royal Ontario Museum and its theatre are on the southwest corner. The Cumberland Theatre is a short block north and a tiny bit east. The Isabel Bader Theatre and the Industry Centre are a block south and slightly east. Hart House is a block south and a little west.

By subway, the closest stops to that corner are Museum (on the University line) or Bay (on the Bloor line) where the west exit takes you very close to the Cumberland Theatre and Avenue Road. Other venues accessible by subway are the Bloor Cinema which is near Bathurst station; Winter Garden Theatre just north of Queen St. station; Innis Theatre which is a block south of St. George station; and Bell Lightbox Theatre which is three blocks west of St. Andrew station.

For cyclists, the industry centre, Isabel Bader Theatre, Victoria College, Innis Town Hall and Hart House provide places to lock up. The other locations are not so bicycle friendly and you may need to lock up some distance away.

Use common movie-going courtesy at the screenings. As already mentioned, most screenings are sold out so bear that in mind. Don’t use seats as jacket holders or save seats for people who aren’t already there. Turn off your cell phone and never talk or text during the screening.

Many of the screenings will be held with the filmmaker and/or participants in attendance. Often they will participate in a Question-and-Answer period after the screening so keep them in mind while watching. Usually they will have a microphone and repeat the question for everyone’s benefit before answering.

If you are watching multiple movies during the day, give yourself enough time to travel between venues. You’ll probably be spending a good deal of time in line, so you may want to have a collapsible chair. Check the weather to see if you’ll need an umbrella. Bring food, you’ll probably have time to eat while waiting in line.

The Toronto Star sponsors the festival and often provides free copies at the venues. They are Canada’s largest newspaper and the only major paper that doesn’t regularly endorse the extreme right-wing Conservative Party. So much for the myth of the “liberal media.”

Most of the venues have restaurants that aren’t too far away. At the intersection of Queen’s Park and Bloor, there are a number of good restaurants in Yorkville just north and east, but they are pricey. Two good affordable restaurants are the Pho Hung and China Garden just west of the corner. To the east on Yonge Street, there are a number of Asian noodle houses like Ginger and Spring Rolls and the all-you-can-eat Korean Grill House ($8.99 lunch, $13.99 dinner). For more authentic Korean food, check out the many fine restaurants in Koreatown west of the Bloor Cinema, such as Buk Chang Dong Soon Tofu which has hearty dolsotbab dishes for only $7.08 + tax. Ghazale at the entrance of the Bloor Cinema has some of the best falafels in the city. They also have a location near the Royal at 661 College Street. There are many good but pricey restaurants across from the Lightbox on the south side of King Street. If you want fancier fare, I’d suggest going further west past Spadina to Brassaii or Lee Restaurant, the home of celebrity chef Susur Lee. For more affordable restaurants, head to Chinatown and the many choices clustered around Dundas and Spadina.

For those in the industry, you’ll be spending a lot of time at the industry centre at Victoria College just behind Isabel Bader Theatre. The registration desk has moved to the east side of the first floor but otherwise things are as they’ve been in the past. There is a delegate lounge open to all with an industry pass. They are open every day from 9am to 6pm but they are all packed up on the last day. They have good coffee (fair trade from Balzac’s) and tea (from David’s Tea) as well as water and coconut water. There are racks of complimentary publications like Documentary Magazine and Real TV. They have eight internet terminals but also provide a wireless signal. The login information is provided on the back of your industry pass.

On the second floor is a chapel where many of the industry panels and discussions take place. It’s also where you’ll find the Doc Shop where you can watch 143 of the festival selections online. You can also watch about 1700 films that were submitted but were not selected. Be aware that the Doc Shop becomes increasingly busy during the festival and is swamped on the last couple of days. They will give priority to buyers. Also bear in mind that many of the films will still be available online after the festival is over but as films are picked up for distribution, they are withdrawn. In other words, the hot titles won’t be there forever. 

If the Delegate Lounge is too busy, the large foyer of that first floor is a good place to have meetings. There are many couches and chairs set up for guests. If the weather is good, you may wish to head outside to the quadrangle to the east between the college and the residences.

There are courtesy phones throughout the University for those who need them. There is one inside Wymilwood Cafe across from Isabel Bader Theatre just to your left as you enter. There is also one in the basement of Hart House below the Great Hall.

While the Toronto International Film Festival is front-heavy with the first half being busier, Hot Docs is the opposite with the majority of activity happening in the second half especially around the time of the Hot Docs Forum (formerly known as the Toronto Documentary Forum). Industry people from out of town who can’t attend the whole time will tend to be here for the latter part of the festival.

I have found people in the industry to be very friendly and accessible. If you want to meet with them formally, you can contact them by email and try to arrange a mutually convenient time. If you have projects to pitch, have plenty of business cards and other material such as a demo or one sheet.  Otherwise, just be friendly and try to create a good impression for the next time when you want to pitch something. Most people hear “no” many times before funders develop enough of a relationship to comfortably say “yes.”

This is an exciting but anxious time for the documentary filmmaking industry. The films are becoming increasingly excellent and the audience seems to be increasingly open. Yet the industry is in upheaval and financing is drying up. We’ll see what the future brings but in the meantime you should take advantage of the many exceptional offerings that Hot Docs presents over the next week-and-a half.

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