A Brief TIFF Survival Guide

I’ve been attending the Toronto International Film Festival, to some extent, for the past ten years. I started buying just a couple tickets at a time, then moved up to 10-ticket packages, and have spent the last few years seeing around 40 a week at the festival.  If you love movies, there’s absolutely nothing better than this: Watch movies from around the world, see movie stars and directors and writers, spend an entire week getting no sleep or proper nutrition.

The Festival can seem glitzy and intimidating from the outside, but isn’t nearly so terrifying from the inside. Here are a few pointers I’ve learned over the years:

Take A Chance

Coverage of the festival is often dominated by the big stars. I get that; it can be exciting to see actors & filmmakers you’ve admired in person. I saw Joss Whedon and most of the cast of Much Ado About Nothing last year, and it was genuinely thrilling to see so many people whose work I love.

But there’s so much more to TIFF. While it’s fun to see your favourites, it can be just as exciting to discover a great film by someone you’ve never heard of. I’ve picked many films based solely on a 2 or 3 paragraph description in the program guide; I’ve seen several films simply because they fit into my schedule. Some of them were not very good, but others were wonderful.

There are practical considerations, too: Many of the high-profile films within a couple months of the festival; I’d like to see Gravity and 12 Years a Slave, but both are scheduled for release in October. And while tickets for the hot screenings will get snapped up quickly, tickets for lesser-known films are usually easier to come by. (You should probably count on most screenings selling out eventually, but you can usually find tickets a day or two beforehand.)

Bonus: Sometimes, famous people show up to other movies. There was a minor commotion last year before the Frances Ha screening when people realized that Ewan McGregor had shown up for the screening. He sat accessibly near the aisle, signing autographs for 10 or 15 minutes.

Be Patient

TIFF is a big event, and while it usually runs smoothly, there are always some notable exceptions. Screenings will be late – sometimes really late – and sometimes they’ll be late for a while before being cancelled. But even if you’re facing a wholly unreasonable delay caused by an entirely foreseeable fuckup – last year’s Jason Reitman all-star reading of American Beauty turned into a logistical nightmare, starting hours late and subsequently pushing back everything else at the Ryerson that night – remember that the people around you are seldom to blame. Cashiers at the box office have no control over the system crashing, and volunteers shepherding the line cannot magically make a projector work or a famous actor show up on time.

Bring a book. Listen to some soothing music on your headphones. Lodge your reasonable complaints at the appropriate time & place.

TIFFR is your best friend

Trying to plot out a lot of screenings can be a chaotic ordeal that will strip away your sanity. Tiffr is an amazing application that helps you build your schedule for you. You can choose all the movies you’re kind of interested in seeing, and Tiffr will lay it all out for you in a helpful calendar where you can figure out the most effective schedule, which you can then import into your Google or other calendar. It’s not yet live for 2013, but should be soon; if it’s half as amazing as it has been for the past few years, it will make your life infinitely easier.

When in line, don’t spill your coffee on other people

This is mostly a reminder for myself, as I dumped half a cup of coffee on someone sitting next to me in line last year. Sorry.

First screenings are best

Most movies will have 2 or 3 screenings. Generally speaking, filmmakers & cast are most likely to be at the first screening for introductions and Q&A; maybe they’ll be at the second screening, though that depends on travel schedules and how close together the two screenings are; and they probably won’t be at the third. Keep this in mind when planning – if you’re at a first screening, allow for 20-30 minutes after the film ends for the Q&A before you have to run off somewhere else. Conversely, planning the last couple days of the festival tends to be easier, as a lot of the talent has left town.

Understand geography

If possible, try to arrange screenings in the same general area – it will make your life a lot easier if you don’t have to run across town between every screening.  Given a choice between two films I’m similarly interested in, I’ll almost always pick the one that results in the least amount of travelling time. You can spend an entire day at the Yonge & Dundas multiplex, and I’ve booked 2-3 films in a row at the Ryerson. If you’ve got to go from the Bloor to the Scotiabank to the Ryerson, make sure you’ve got plenty of time between screenings.

You can, in theory, take the TTC, but remember that subways can break down and streetcars can get stuck in traffic. A bike can be incredibly useful for busy days, though I’ve often had trouble finding a place to lock mine within a block of the theatre.

Turn off your phone

You may think you can use your phone, just for a minute, without distracting your fellow filmgoers. You can’t.

Last year, during a screening at the Ryerson theatre – one of TIFF’s largest venues – I sat in the balcony. I could see someone’s phone lit up in the front row of the theatre. Seeing a screen flickering on and off in your peripheral vision can be incredibly irritating.

And obviously, you don’t want to be the tremendous asshole whose phone goes off during a screening. Sometimes, it might even go off when you’re sure it won’t; several years ago, I had properly turned my ringer off, but had forgotten I’d set an alarm, which was impervious to such controls. It went off near the climax of I’ve Seen The Devil, which thankfully has such an incredibly loud climax that I don’t think anyone noticed.

So shut your phone down for two hours. Turn it off, put it in your bag or somewhere it’s safe from temptation. You will have plenty of time while the credits roll to turn it back on in time to take questions of the Q&A.

Abandon dreams of a perfect seat

Even if you’re first in line for every screening, you aren’t going to find a perfect seat. In many screenings, the best seats are typically reserved for VIPs. And the more time you spend dawdling in the aisle, looking for just the right seat, the more seats are being taken by people with lower standards than you.

There’s a time for being an idealist, but this is not it. Decide on an area you can tolerate and focus on it. Head to the back, or the side, or the front, and grab the first couple of acceptable seats you can find.

They all have their pros and cons: Seats at the front are usually easy to find, and offer benefits if you want to take pictures of actors & directors, but aren’t always the most comfortable. Sitting at the back can afford you a quick exit if you have to run to another screening. If you’re on an aisle, sometimes movie stars will walk right past you on their way to the stage.

Just don’t stand about in the aisles with your friends, blocking those who know where they’re going. Assume the screening is going to sell out until it’s proven otherwise – don’t leave empty seats, or take up a seat with your bag. TIFF is not the place for gratuitous amounts of personal space.

Subtip: Many theatres have multiple entrances. Due to some herd instinct of human nature, most people will head for one entrance, likely the closest one to the line. An extra 5-second walk to the second entrance might get you into the theatre before anyone else.

Cut your losses

When watching a lot of movies that you may not know a lot about before hand, there is a possibility that some of them will suck. Or, at least, that some of them will not be what you were expecting, or are the wrong movie at the wrong time. Sometimes it’s worth toughing it out to the end to see if it improves; on a few occasions, I’ve appreciated a film more after hearing the filmmakers talk about it. But sometimes it’s just not going to work, and you shouldn’t feel ashamed about leaving before it’s over. It’s okay. You’ve paid the money whether you love the movie or hate it; if you’re really not digging the movie, there’s nothing to be gained by staying except for masochistic pride. Take the time to get a bite to to eat or nap before your next film.

Needless to say, don’t be a dick about it. Sneak out as quietly and unobtrusively as possible.  If you’re lukewarm on a movie going into it, grab a seat near the aisle or somewhere that allows for an easy exit.  Don’t go all Rex Reed and badmouth the entire film when you walked out halfway.