Thursday, September 8, 2011

2011 TIFF survival guide

And so it begins. 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). Already considered one of if not the top film festivals in the world, they continue to work hard to improve it every year.

This year, they’ve completed their move from Yorkville and the northern part of downtown to the entertainment district around TIFF Bell Lightbox. They’re no longer using theatres like the Varsity, but have instead completely taken over the Scotiabank (formerly Paramount) Theatre and have added the Princess of Wales Theatre. The only remaining theatre in use up north is the Isabel Bader Theatre.

If you’ve read over the list of films and events, you’ll be quite blown away by the staggering array of offerings. There are simply too many good things to choose from. This is not a bad thing. This year’s edition of the festival is showing 336 films (268 features; 68 shorts). So of course, everyone’s experience of the festival will be unique. The festival is large, but maintains an excellent balance of artful Hollywood movies with small independent, foreign, Canadian, experimental, documentary, genre films, and other categories.

The best way to enjoy the festival is to keep an open mind. When it comes to movies (and all arts), many are quick to brush off something new. There’s no such thing as a “perfect” work of art, So it’s much too easy to dismiss or dislike something for what it isn’t rather than appreciating it for what it is. Nobody heard Kane whisper “Rosebud” in Citizen Kane. There are no such magical “letters of transit” as in Casablanca that are so powerful that everyone has to honour them. But Citizen Kane and Casablanca are great movies nonetheless.

Try to see things that you wouldn’t ordinarily see. I don’t see the point of clamouring for commercial films that will be in theatres within days or weeks. True cinephiles embrace the entire breadth of the movie-going experience. If you’ve never seen a foreign film, Midnight Madness, documentary or short film program at TIFF, now’s the time. The experimental films of the Wavelengths program were singled out by Manohla Dargis of the New York Times last year. Canadian films get a bum rap, but some of the best I saw last year were Canadian, including my favourite of the year the Oscar-nominated Incendies. The point is, don’t get too wrapped up in getting all your first choices; as in life, sometimes your second choice ends up being just as good or better.

Presumably, you should have your packages or tickets by now. As I recommended with last year’s TIFF survival guide, you should by your tickets as early as possible if you know you’re attending. If you do, you can end up paying less than $10 per ticket. If you wait to purchase single tickets, you’ll pay full price.  Single tickets are $19.69 each ($17.04 for students and seniors), which is while premium screenings are $38.27 ($19.03 for students and seniors). This is the same pricing as last year.

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

Check out some free stuff, exhibitions and installations.

The free programming was announced a while back. The Fellini exhibit is a wonderful show that ends when the festival does. There is also a free exhibit by the Canadian Association of Costumers and Designers (CAFTCAD) on costume designs in Canadian films on the 4th floor of Lightbox. Take the elevator up to 4 and go to the left, behind the reception desk. The installations will be open throughout the city.

Pace yourself

If you’re a first-timer at TIFF, you will probably only be able to handle 6-12 movies over the festival. 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 or come close.  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. Know which films are longer than two hours, so you don't miss anything unnecessarily.

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. Don't kick the seats of those in front of you. 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.  A friend inadvertently bad-mouthed an actor who she then realized was sitting right beside her, before bolting from embarrassment. 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. The restaurants across from Lightbox and the Hyatt Regency are generally good. For finer dining, head west of Spadina to Brassaii, Lee Restaurant or Crush Wine Bar.

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.

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, Slumdog Millionaire and last year's The King's Speech.  So the industry pays close attention to the smart choices of the TIFF audience. The award winners are announced on the last day, in time for the free screening of the general Audience Award winner at the Ryerson Theatre on the closing night.

Daily checklist
-    tickets/pass
-    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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