Well, September has arrived, and that could only mean one thing... the Toronto International Film Festival! (What, you thought I was talking about football?) And as usual, part of me wishes that I could return once more this year. I have other commitments that take precedence in my life right now, and even if I had enough money to cover a trip to Toronto there are a number of other vacations for my whole family that I would spend it on first. Nonetheless, my trip back in 2007 was great, and I have a feeling that someday, I’ll make it back again.
If you consider yourself serious about cinema, you owe it to yourself to go to TIFF at least once in your life. Whereas festivals like Cannes and Sundance seem to be staged primarily for critics and industry folk, Toronto places its emphasis on appealing to the audiences themselves, making it very user-friendly even for a first-timer. Still, a festival as large as Toronto can be daunting if you don’t know the lay of the land. So, if you’re going this year, or you’re thinking of going in the future, here are a few tips to make things easier on you:
1. Start planning early.
Going to TIFF isn’t cheap, so locking in your transportation and lodgings early in the game could save you money. This is especially true of area hotels, which get booked pretty solid the closer one gets to September. By taking care of your lodgings early on, you can find a hotel that suits your purposes and won’t drain your wallet, instead of having to settle either for something that costs more than you were hoping to pay or is cheap but subpar.
2. Know why you’re going.
With 300-plus films screening, there are plenty of options for all sorts of filmgoers. So if you’re heading to Toronto, it helps to know what your expectations are from the festivals. TIFF offers more than a dozen programs, from Gala screenings (ideal for star-gazers) to Wavelengths (for fans of avant-garde cinema) to Real to Reel (manna for documentary fans). By knowing what you want from Toronto, you can help to make it a little smaller.
3. Get familiar with the movies before you go.
Beginning in July, the TIFF web site begins to announce the films that are screening at the festival. By mid-August, all of the titles have been announced. So if you want to TIFF, use the official site as a resource to determine what you might want to see. When I went, I even went so far as to make a list of titles that were interesting, with a separate category for movies that intrigued me the most- the movies, you might say, that justified the trip. This may take some time, but when it comes time to schedule your screenings, your efforts will pay off.
4. Take advantage of ticket packages…
Package-holders sometimes have preference for buying tickets to screenings, especially those who buy packages to specific programmes. This is especially true if you want to attend the nightly Gala screenings, which sometimes require special Gala screening passes. And even if you have the option of paying cash at the box office, having a pass can be preferable if you decide to rush a screening or if someone wishes to exchange his ticket.
5. … But don’t bother with the Out of Town service.
I know that for some festival vets, this is going to sound controversial, but hear me out. For those who don’t know, the Out of Town service is the initial chance for non-Toronto residents to purchase tickets to screenings. The process entails receiving your registration packet (including your screening passes, registration forms, and program catalog) one day in late August, filling out your desired schedule overnight, and FedExing it to Canada the next day. Doesn’t sound too bad, right? Except that it costs a rather galling $150 for the service. And even if you do everything you’re required to do, you’re still not guaranteed to get everything you want. To me, it doesn’t seem to be worth the price.
Instead, I recommend sketching out a screening schedule before you go up to Canada, then when you arrive, head to the ticket office with your schedule and your passes and buy tickets to as many of the movies you really want to see as you can. If you get locked out of some screenings- and this will probably happen in at least a couple of cases- don’t worry. By and large, the Festival doesn’t sell every seat in the theatre in advance. Every morning, the screening status for movies playing that particular day will be updated, and screenings that had been locked will suddenly find themselves with tickets available to those who don’t mind getting up early and making the trip to the ticket office. And if all else fails, there’s always the rush line (more on this later).
6. Hit town early.
This is especially important for first-timers. Toronto is a very friendly and easily navigable city, especially around the Festival. But like any large city, it can be a little imposing if you don’t know the territory, so plan on showing up a day beforehand and getting the lay of the land. Take the time to find all the screening venues, as well as with the subway that will be transporting you between them. This will prove valuable once the screenings begin, in that you’ll know more or less where you’re going and can concentrate on getting there. And if you have time left over, check out the city, which is lovely and offers plenty of fun even for those who aren’t going to the Festival.
7. Be flexible.
One of the biggest rookie mistakes one can make at Toronto is over-booking oneself. With so many movies to choose from, there’s a temptation to schedule as much as possible in the interest of not missing anything. But by locking yourself in to too many movies, you run the risk of overlooking something just as good or better. So when you arrive in town and head to buy your tickets, go ahead and fill up your few two or three days, but beyond that leave plenty of space in your itinerary. Then as the festival progresses, keep an ear out for buzzed-about titles. TIFF is filled with people who get excited about movies, so if you’re seated next to someone before a screening starts, go ahead and ask about what they’ve seen. Then if something sounds interesting, you can always try to buy a ticket the morning of the next screening, or even…
8. Rush, rush, rush.
For all the assurance you can get from knowing you’ve already gotten your ticket for a particular movie, there’s something about the rush lines that really encapsulates the TIFF experience like nothing else. The way it works is that people who don’t have a ticket to a particular screening can line up outside the theatre in the hope of getting in. Fifteen minutes before the screening starts, the wonderfully helpful festival volunteers will begin letting in people in the rush line, who are permitted to watch the movie in exchange for the cost of admission. So what is it about rush lines that’s sort of magical? Perhaps it’s that tense excitement about the movie, or about the festival experience as a whole, that motivates people to queue up without knowing for sure whether they’ll actually be able to see the movie. Some of my best conversations at the festival were had with complete strangers in rush lines, talking about what we’ve seen, what we were waiting for, and what we’ve heard about from others. And even if you don’t get in, you can always commiserate with your new rush-line pals afterwards, perhaps over dinner or drinks. When the hero of Fight Club referred to single-serving friends, he could have been talking about rush lines.
9. Beware the festival wall.
There are plenty of opportunities to have fun in Toronto, but avoid overdoing it. Seasoned TIFF-goers often talk of a “wall” that sets in around the fourth or fifth day of the fest. After several days filled with four, five, or even six screenings, coupled with having to scramble between different venues, one’s body begins to rebel. Suddenly, those 9 AM screenings aren’t looking so appealing anymore. This is the other reason why you shouldn’t fill up your schedule during the second half of the festival- sometimes it’s necessary to head back to the hotel for a quick nap so you can be alert for the movies you really want to see.
10. Don’t forget to eat.
The festival wall is pretty much inevitable, but it’s less of an issue if you keep to a regular schedule. Sleep sometimes needs to go by the wayside- after all, there’s a new John Carpenter film in Midnight Madness this year!- but that doesn’t mean you need to skip meals as well. Always grab breakfast in the morning, even if it’s just coffee and a bagel at one of the Tim Horton’s that has sprouted up on seemingly every corner. And don’t take all your lunches and dinners during screenings. Concession stand food isn’t the healthiest for you, nor is it always the tastiest option. Every day, try to do either lunch or dinner outside of a theatre setting as a way of decompressing. There are plenty of great restaurants in the festival area to try. Or if you’re pressed for time, there’s always the wide variety of Toronto hot dog carts. Trust me on this- unless you’re completely grossed out by either hot dogs or street vendors, you really owe it to yourself to sample Toronto’s street meat at least once. If those things aren’t famous, they damn well oughta be.
There are plenty of other tips I could give here- for example, avoid seeing movies at the festival if they’re due to be released within the next few weeks, since you’re basically paying three or four times as much for a movie you could just as easily see in the near future for theatre price. But I think the ten bits of advice I’ve given here cover most of the major aspects of the festival that would be of interest to first-timers. If anyone has anything else to add, feel free to use the comments section below. And for everyone who’s TIFFing this year, have a great time!