Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Occasionally, the curious sort will inquire as to how one goes about "doing" the Toronto International Film Festival. I go through the long explanation of how it works, and then they look at me with eyes that say, "Oh, wow, you are demented. You actually buy tickets, and you don't even know what movies you're going to see?" Yeah, well, I am demented, but that's not the reason.

Anyway, for all those who would like to know how the Toronto International Film Festival works, but don't have a clue where to begin, here's my 101:

TIFF requires commitment, and a little faith. It begins each year the first Thursday after Memorial Day and runs 10 days, ending on Saturday night. However, if you're serious about going, you need to start planning well before then. Here's my XX-step process to attending the festival.

Step 1 - Love to sit around all day watching movies, with occasional breaks for meals, stretching and a little fresh air.

Step 2 - Find a place to sleep at night. I prefer a bed, as the nights start getting chilly that time of year. More specifically, I tend to stay at B&B's. The accommodations are usually as nice, or at least more interesting than your typical hotel. And, you can't beat the advice of a local for dinner reservations. I've always stayed in B&B's in Toronto, so I admittedly don't know much about the hotel scene. From what I gather, a nice hotel will cost $100+ CAD, but you can get by cheaper depending on how far you're willing to commute and how demanding you are for things like clean sheets. B&B's cost a bit less, as I imagine some of the more downtrodden hotels do, but generally they're pretty pleasant and include some form of breakfast. But the big difference for me seems to stem from the fact that the person your dealing with at the B&B is the owner of the place and has a financial stake in you enjoying your stay. I take no chances, reserving my room as early as February or March.

Step 3 - Figure out how you're going to get to Toronto. Your movie passes on which you'll later spend so much money are no good at your local theater, so you'd better figure out how to get to Toronto. I fly into Lester B. Pearson Airport (YYZ) these days, though once upon a time, I would team up with another traveler for the 13-hour drive. By April or May, I've booked my airline ticket. Booking this early gets me the flight times I want, but really I do it this early to spread the cost of the festival throughout the year. It tricks my brain into thinking the festival isn't nearly as expensive as it really is.

Step 4 - Determine your movie absorption threshold. I've settled on 20 as a nice number of movies to see in a week, but everyone has their own limits. For some, a movie a day is really pushing it. I met one guy, a local, who was seeing over 50 movies during the festival, just to see if he could. Tickets are sold in books of 10, or in the form of passes. There are a variety of passes available, the grandaddy of which is simply called The Festival Pass. It admits the owner to as many shows as he or she can fit in the schedule, provided that they are not Gala Screenings at Roy Thompson Hall or special screenings at the Elgin Theater. Other passes are less expensive, such as the Day Pass, the Student Pass, and who knows what else. The advantage of the 10-ticket books is their flexibility -- you can share with friends, loved ones, or some poor sap in the Rush line upon whom you have taken pity.

Step 5 - Buy your tickets or pass. Again, you do this before the movie list comes out. Just have faith that you'll be intrigued by a percentage of the 300+ movies that will be showing. The tickets typically go on sale in early July. Many people have the extreme misconception that the festival is free, or at least cheap. The opposite is quite true. If you attend the festival, you will almost certainly spend more money per movie than you will at any theater, especially if you are an out-of-town festival goer. A good way to prepare yourself for the expense is to go see a movie (at full prices, no matinees allowed), buy popcorn, candy and a drink, and then deposit your food and beverage into the trash before entering the theater. The actual cost to non-Canadians tends to vary greatly with the exchange rate. Me, I'm hoping oil prices dip to all-time lows in June, when I buy my tickets. Books of 10 shows ran about $175 CAD in 2008. Expect to fork over another $150 CAD for the out-of-town selection service. If you have a bigger group going, at least you can share this cost. Each year, I keep hoping that they provide a much cheaper on-line order service, but no luck yet.

Step 6 - Select your movies. That should be easy, right? Generally, though, you're doing this step under time pressure. There are over 300 movies to consider, everything from documentaries to campy horror flicks, and they are from countries all over the world. Really, there's something for just about everyone. Admittedly, things are easier now than they used to be. Before, when you got the book in the mail, that was the first time you saw the list, and you had to FedEx your picks back that same day. This year, the schedule appears on-line a whopping six days before you have to send in your picks. Luxury!

Step 7 - Pick up your tickets. I know, you thought the work and stress were over, right? Wrong. Merely selecting your movies does not guarantee you a seat. If every single festival goer wants to see the latest French depressathon flick, it turns out they don't have a theater big enough to seat everyone. Check to see which shows you got. Didn't get a ticket to that sci-fi rehash of MacBeth? Don't fret, you can always hit the Rush Line and, with any luck, you'll still get to see the dagger-laser scene. Over time, I've learned that not getting all of my first picks forces me to expand my horizons.

Step 8 - Attend your screenings. If you're picky about where you sit in the theater, arrive early and queue (see Appendix A) for an hour or more. But otherwise, arrive ten minutes before the screening and sit where there's an available chair. The lines will seem horrendously long, but fear not - if you have a ticket, you will get a seat, unless you're late. You'll probably still get in, but it's best not to take your chances.

Step 9 - Exchange movie reviews while queuing. One of the best things about the festival is the camaraderie between film goers. Most are plenty willing to share their tales of awful and great movies alike. It's best, though, to size up the person you're talking to and see if they're the kind of person who would like or dislike the type of movie a person like yourself would.

Step 10 - Spend the next month reviewing movies - Your curious friends will want to know which movies to see and which to avoid. Problem is, the movies you've seen may be released in two weeks, 18 months, or never at all, at least in the U.S. Eventually, you should tire of repeating yourself and start up a blog, review the movies there, and then refer them to your url.
Appendix A - English - Canadian Dictionary
  • Bathroom or Restroom = Washroom
  • Waiting in line = Queuing
  • Subway / rail car / bus = TTC
  • One-dollar coin = Loony
  • Two-dollar coin = Two-ny
Appendix B - The Rush Line
If you don't get a ticket to your favorite actor/director's movie, but you really, really, really, really want to go, you're not out of luck. Chances are you can still get in via the wonderful invention known as the Rush Line.Here's the scoop: The festival reserves a certain number of seats each screening for cast, crew, and for special screenings, sponsors. When they don't show, you benefit. Your chances of getting in increase with the amount of time you're willing to wait. For tickets to Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger/Hidden Dragon, my companion and I arrived at 6:30 AM. This pretty much cinched tickets.