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SURVIVING TIFF –The Highs and Lows of an International Film Festival

October 22 2012

How one film fan made it through 11 days of sheer hell, and why he’s going back next year.

by David Baldwin

The Toronto International Film Festival, or TIFF as it is more commonly called, is like film geek mecca. For 11 days in early September, Toronto is transformed into something truly extraordinary. Buzz runs high as fans young and old eagerly run from place to place, waiting with faint hope that they can bump shoulders with some of the biggest stars in Hollywood. Autographs and photos rather quickly become a sign of wealth, and if you can get your hands on some of the big ticket films, including future Oscar winners, you practically become rich overnight.

For years, I waited and dreamt of a time when I would have the opportunity to experience TIFF myself. Being in early September, the festival did not really jive too well with any of my school schedules. So I waited, ever so patiently, for when I would have enough free time to join in the fun. When that time finally came, in 2010, I was both excited and frightened. It was something totally new and wondrous, and unlike anything I had ever experienced. And now I have gone for three years straight, and as you can probably guess, am already making plans for next year.

So while I am by no means an expert, I think I am more than qualified to offer a brief crash course in what to expect when you go to something like this; a mix of rules and tips to follow if you want to attend a festival like TIFF and get the most out of it. Not all festivals are the same, but considering some moments really were like survival of the fittest, I feel like I am well prepared if I ever manage to get into Fantastia, SXSW, Sitges, Sundance or the holy grail of them all – Cannes. Some sites will call their explanations definitive, but there is truly no right or wrong way to pull something like this off. But having some form of an idea of what to do usually helps.

Day 1 – September 6, 2012
Films: None, surprisingly.
Events: Jason Reitman’s American Beauty Live Reading
Rating: 12/10. Simply amazing. One of the very best live events I’ve ever been to. Practically indescribable.
Celebrities Seen: Bryan Cranston, Christina Hendricks, Jason Reitman, Paul Scheer, Adam Driver, Nick Kroll, Mae Whitman, Sarah Gadon, George Stroumboulopoulos (he’s practically Canadian royalty), Kristen Stewart, Kirsten Dunst, Garrett Hedlund, Marion Cotillard.
Moment of the Day: Seeing Cranston’s flawless performance as Lester Burnham. Simply magical.

Bryan Cranston waves to the crowd. (Photo credit: David Baldwin)

Tip 1. Consider a package.

Tickets for TIFF (or, indeed, most major film festivals) are not easy to come by, and have many hidden strings attached. Ticket packages are offered two months before it begins, with donors/members getting first crack at them in late June, Visa cardholders in early July (they are a big sponsor of the festival, and thereby are the only credit card accepted for purchases) and the rest of the general public in mid-July. There are a variety of ticket options available, from packages of 10-50 films that you choose yourself, to packs of 5 films the festival programmers choose for you. They are all priced accordingly (a 10-pack of “Flex” tickets runs about CDN$160 before tax).

But the catch with the majority of those packs of tickets is that they are only available to use on “Regular” screenings – not the “Premium” screenings where most of the stars attend. So immediately you need to make a choice if you care about the movies, or care about seeing the stars. Rather luckily this year, TIFF had the foresight to add a 6-ticket Premium pack that could be used just for those types of screenings. But of course, those 6 tickets cost almost as much as it did for the 20-pack of Regular tickets I ended up purchasing.

To further complicate things, the films being shown at the festival do not start getting announced until the end of July, when most of the ticket packages are sold out. So you need to decide rather quickly if you want to take a pricey gamble on films you may not even be interested in at all. Worse yet, you need to sit and bide your time waiting for the final announcement of all the films near the end of August, because only then is a schedule made available.

Soon after the schedule goes live, package holders get to decide on their films. Each year is different for how and when you get to choose, but to summarize – it is basically done in a lottery format. After the donors and members get their crack at tickets, the rest of the package holders get to choose. Half the time, most of the popular films are gone quickly (tickets for Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master and surprisingly, Martin McDonough’s Seven Psychopaths were basically non-existent after the donor/member stage), so you need to have a number of second and third choices on deck at all times.

(For thoughts on the disappointment that was Seven Psychopaths, see below.)

After this, single tickets are made available to everyone in early September. They usually open up a small amount of tickets for films that were sold out during the package holder selection process, but they too are quickly snapped up. But you need to understand, if you waited this long to buy your tickets, you will likely not get any of your first choices. You may get lucky on a few, but most will not be available. And worst of all, you have to pay more because you would be buying by the ticket, as opposed to getting a slight discount for buying a pack. So again, you end up taking a pricey gamble.

Day 2 – September 7, 2012
Films: None, again. Surprisingly.
Celebrities Seen: Ben Affleck, John Goodman, Jennifer Garner, Bryan Cranston (again), Bradley Cooper (from a far), Eva Mendes, Ryan Gosling
Moment of the Day: Watching Gosling get out of his Escalade, wave to the crowd across the street and then get swarmed by about 300 screaming fans.

Day 3 – September 8, 2012
Films: The Place Beyond the Pines, Frances Ha, The Brass Teapot
Pines – 7/10. Boring, dragged out. Decent performances, but just way too long for its own good.
Frances – 6.5/10. Amusing, but ultimately empty. Gerwig is significantly more talented than this second rate mix of 1970s Woody Allen and HBO’s Girls.
Teapot – 6/10. Ridiculously amateur and slightly too happy-go-lucky for the grim content it presents (hurting yourself for money).
Celebrities Seen: Johnny Depp (behind what was likely a thousand screaming fans), Bradley Cooper (again, but much better angle), Jennifer Lawrence, Robert DeNiro, Chris Tucker, David O. Russell (he wasn’t pleased when I told him I loved I Heart Huckabees).

Tip 2. Plan your schedule accordingly.

Ryan Gosling, before the crowd descends... (Photo credit: David Baldwin)

Even with advance tickets, your entire festival experience comes down to proper scheduling. While you may have a list of films already in mind when the film announcements are made during July and August, they are merely just ideas until you see when they are scheduled to screen.

Over the course of the 11 days, the festival plays over 300 films in 11 different theatres in downtown Toronto. Each film plays 2-3 times in that span at varying times of the day. Sometimes they run at night, sometimes early morning. There does not seem to be a set pattern for any particular film or genre, it just seems to be as much of a lottery process as the advance ticket process. The beauty of the schedule is that it lays it out for you on a day-by-day basis, but then also offers a list of each film and when it screens. So you can take your list of films, and immediately knock off the ones you cannot feasibly go to, and start the heartbreaking process of deciding which ones you can see. Often I have run into the problem of two movies I want to see being shown at the same time. Now that is the real heartbreaker.

Also, decide on your limit early on. Are two movies enough for one day, or are three?

... and after. (Photo credit: David Baldwin)

I saw five in one day this year, and my entire body was cooked for two days afterwards. If you think that’s bad, I know people who have managed 6-7 in a day. And they have done that more than once too.

Finally, remember the mention early on about how many theaters the movies play at? Well, they are not all exactly right next door to each other. Some are literally a stones throw away, but others are halfway across the city. So if you are planning on catching two movies back-to-back, make sure that they are in nearby theatres, or that you have more than enough time to get from the first to the second film. I spent a lot of time scrambling this year to make some movies because of films not starting on time (another crucial factor when making your schedule), and I was saved by the fact that the next film was so close to the one before it. The last thing you want to do is shell out more than $20 per ticket, and then have to skip out twenty minutes before the ending so you can get to the next film. You never know what you might miss out on.

Day 4 – September 9, 2012
Films: How to Make Money Selling Drugs, The Sessions
Drugs – 7/10. Really interesting documentary that gets long-winded and overly political all too frequently. Sad because it spends too little time on the actually interesting material, and too much time on the boring stuff.
Sessions – 8.5/10. Magnificent. Hilarious, heartfelt and deeply emotional. John Hawkes delivers an Oscar-caliber performance as a polio survivor, and Helen Hunt does her best work in years as his sex surrogate.
Celebrities Seen: Will Smith, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Jaden Smith, Willow Smith, Danny Glover, John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy.

Day 5 – September 10, 2012
Films: The Master, Seven Psychopaths
Master – 8/10. Exquisitely made, but infuriating to try and comprehend. What does it all mean? Joaquin Phoenix gives his best performance to date, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman is spectacular. Watching them spar on-screen is the stuff of movie legend.
Psychopaths – 7/10. One of the biggest disappointments of the festival. 2/3rds are brilliant, the rest is contrived, lazy and a total betrayal of what came before it. Some say it’s brilliant, I say it’s pretentious farce. But Sam Rockwell is astonishing and Chris Walken gives his best performance in decades. So at least it has that going for it.
Celebrities Seen: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Viggo Mortensen.

Day 6 – September 11, 2012
Films: None.
Celebrities Seen: None. A rare day of rest.

Tip 3. Make friends in line.

Will Smith. Not one of my favorite actors, but quite likely my best shot of the festival. (Photo credit: David Baldwin)

I know I missed a step in explaining how you pick up your tickets (but believe me when I say it is the very definition of insanity), but you can actually apply this tip to the ridiculous waiting times for tickets as well.

Lineups start early for each film, and depending on which film it is, can stretch out quite far. It is not out of the question for lineups to the big ticket films starting 2-3 hours in advance, and even less out of the question for one person to be holding a spot in line for ten of his closest friends and their ten closest friends. If you get there early enough, you miss out on this idiotic and all too common scene. But if you get there too late, then you will be stuck behind this. And believe me, when that many people show up and descend on one person standing in line who was holding a spot for all of them, you better believe you do not want to feel the wrath of some of the people behind them.

Once you are in line, it is likely not a good idea to get back out of it. Unless of course, you brought a friend, or as the step suggests – you made a new one.

The summer heat is ridiculous in early September, so you need to do something to pass the time while you wait to get into the theatre. You could bring a book, or use your well charged cell phone (which is an absolute necessity). You could use both to entertain you, but neither will bring as much fun or enjoyment as talking to the people next to you. While you will get many first timers, you will more often get people who have been to the festival before and are more than willing to tell you all about their experiences. And since the uniting thing is film, you should have more than enough to bring to the conversation as well.

Suddenly, you are able to go to the bathroom because this new friend will hold your spot for you. Hell, they may even save a seat for you inside too should you be nice enough. This is a crucial element to the festival process, and should you be doing this alone, it is absolutely vital to your survival. The possibilities for what could happen after your discussions are endless, but they hinge on the kindness of strangers. So make sure to pay it forward, because it may help you in the future.

Day 7 – September 12, 2012
Films: To the Wonder, The Bay, Antiviral, Smashed, Le magasin des suicides [The Suicide Shop]
Wonder – 5/10. Amazing to look at, but seriously one of the most boring and incomprehensible films I’ve ever seen. You can say what you want about Terrence Malick being a brilliant artist; I do not even think he knows what he made here. Ben Affleck’s worst performance, ever.
Bay – 4/10. My least favorite film of the festival. It’s all lead-up, and runs around in circles to its inevitable, inconclusive ending. It is supposed to be creepy found footage, but it just comes off as lazy and haphazard. More than 25 critics walked out of the screening, and the theater was less than half full to start.
Antiviral – 6/10. Deeply disappointing, pretentious and boring. Brandon Cronenberg rips his famous father off way too much and way too often. What little originality and satire is here is ruined by homages and a terrible performance by lead actor Caleb Landry Jones.
Smashed – 7.5/10. A great little indie with an awesome performance by Mary Elizabeth Winstead. I would have rated it higher had it not felt like only half a film with a rushed, unsatisfying conclusion.
Suicide – 8/10. It may sound grim, but it’s a musical-comedy about a family who runs a shop for people who want to commit suicide. Wonderful, heartfelt, imaginative and downright hilarious.
Celebrities Seen: Mary Elizabeth Winstead (again), Octavia Spencer.

Day 8 – September 13, 2012
Films: Aftershock
Rating: 5.5/10. I did not expect a whole lot, and I didn’t get much either. There are some creative deaths, but it takes far too long to get to the madness that ensues… for all of five minutes. Fairly tame for a movie inspired by the earthquakes in Chile.
Celebrities Seen: None.

Day 9 – September 14, 2012
Films: Spring Breakers
Rating: 7.5/10. It’s not perfect, and is the very definition of style over substance. But dammit, it was my absolute favorite film of the festival. It has James Franco as a drug dealer/pimp, covered in tattoos with grills and dreadlocks. And that should be more than enough reason to see it.
Celebrities Seen: Zac Efron (zomg!).

Tip 4. Sit back and enjoy the show.

Winstead and Spencer: typical look of actors waiting their turn during the Q&A.

After you get into the theater, find your seat quick. Once the stampede of people behind you comes in, you have very little time to choose between the middle and the aisle. Some people are courteous when it comes to picking seats; but it really is a mad dash to get the best seat possible. Do not be surprised if a group shoves past you and practically run to grab seats. It can get vicious, but do not let a few bad apples discourage you from your ultimate goal.

Much like standing in line, once you have your seat, stay there unless the person next to you, friend or otherwise, is willing to hold it for you and not sell it to the highest bidder (something I am always terrified of). Should you have made a friend outside, you should be set already. And if you did not, it is time to make friends with the person next to you!

While the wait for the film can get absolutely excruciating, you need to remember that it is nothing compared to buying tickets, proper scheduling and standing outside in the blistering sun. It is child’s play compared to all of that. And the excitement in the room as you wait for the film to begin is truly extraordinary, especially if the film has a lot of buzz. But the moment the programmer comes out to introduce the film (and if you got lucky, the director and cast), the room becomes something else entirely. No longer are you in a room of people chatting, gossiping and scrambling for the best seat. No, you are in a room of absolute reverence. Everyone goes quiet (until the inevitable applause), and the long wait suddenly becomes totally worth every minute you spent on it.

Even if the movie you see following all of that sucks beyond any of the worst putrid garbage you have ever seen, it is the experience that more than makes up for it. Where else would you be able to meet such an eclectic cast of likeminded individuals, all with the same common goal? Where else would you be able to sit through a movie, and then have the potential opportunity to see the cast and crew introducing and talking about it? Hell, you may even get the opportunity to ask a question during a Q&A session that follows most screenings. It really is something out of this world, and something that really needs to be seen to be believed. Just make sure you bring a camera to document it all, because you may not believe it yourself afterwards.

Day 10 – September 15, 2012
Films: Cloud Atlas, The ABC’s of Death, Come Out and Play
Atlas – 7/10. Visually astounding from beginning to end, with some of the best make-up effects in years. The acting and storylines are a bit of a mixed bag, and the whole thing does not come together nearly as well as it could. But it is fascinating and riveting, and will leave you puzzled for days.
Death – 7/10. Some fun segments (26 short films, each to do with a different letter of the alphabet), but I found the off-the-wall tonal structure to be somewhat lacking. But I have never been nearly as amused and mortified all at once.
Play – 5/10. Has so much going for it (including one hell of a creepy atmosphere), but the payoff comes too little too late.
Celebrities Seen: None. They’re mostly all gone by now.

Bonus Tip: Celebrity photo etiquette.

A Zac fan getting a little carried away... (Photo credit: David Baldwin)

My goal at TIFF, after seeing as many movies as I can, is to get as many photos of as many celebrities as possible. If I can get them posing with me in the picture that is a bonus, but is not something I absolutely strive for.

The rules are basically the same – read the schedule, figure out what stars you want to see that are confirmed to appear (the gossip sites and even TIFF’s website usually have a rundown of who to expect, but some still end up being complete surprises), and then decide who you want to line up to see. Get there early for the best spot in line, and again, make friends.

The big premieres all have some form of red carpet entry by the stars, and depending on who is showing up, will depend on how many people will be clamoring for autographs and pictures. Screaming teenage girls are extremely common, as are the photographers without enough credentials, standing on ladders blocking all the best shots. Avoid these groups as much as possible, because they will make your life a living hell when you are just trying to snap a picture of your favorite celebrity. You will inevitably get pushed and shoved as people try to get as close as possible, but try to stand your ground. Do not push back, but make sure you apologize to anyone who you inadvertently push.

Even though it gets crazy, try to have as much fun as possible. And if you want that photo or autograph, make sure you get there really early (people camp out to wait for some of these celebrities, so there is never such thing as being too early). Just be prepared for what is to come. And if you are claustrophobic, stay very far away.

Day 11 – September 16, 2012
Films: Imogene, Silver Linings Playbook [the winner of the prestigious Audience Choice Award]
Imogene – 7.5/10. Really funny, really heartfelt. It is a bit too much like a sitcom, and the characters are underwritten, but this is the rare case where all of the actors come together and really make something out of almost nothing.
Playbook – 9/10. The best film I saw at the festival. A hilarious and emotional ride that is truly uplifting. It screams Oscar, and has some absolutely amazing performances from just about everyone. I left with a smile on my face, and look forward to seeing it again.
Celebrities Seen: None.


That hair? That's Depp's hair. One of the best shots I got. (Photo credit: David Baldwin)

In the end, it all comes down to what you want to experience at a festival like TIFF, and just how much you want to do. Some people just go for the movies; some just go to watch the celebrities. I try to mix in both as much as I can, but the idea of seeing some of these movies months, or even years, in advance is sometimes too much to pass up. But that is where the sheer hell of TIFF comes in.

Running around from place to place and standing in lengthy lines for 11 days on end will get to anyone. It was a complete whirlwind running around this year, and I know some of my friends simply could not handle it when I brought them with me. And that’s fine, but you need to always be prepared for the worst. You will have people push past you, and you will have people yelling all around you. Some people simply cannot handle the festival atmosphere, and on more than one occasion, it really did get to me as much as it did them. The festival volunteers, bless their brave souls, can only do so much and it is a fact that something can and will go wrong on a daily basis: movies starting late, celebrities showing up late or not at all, enormous amounts of seats being “Reserved”. The list goes on and on, and the stress of navigating your way through all of this is enough to put you off ever going again.

But I tell you, TIFF has now become my favorite time of the year. It is hell incarnate because of all the hoops I have to run through in order to experience everything I possibly can, but I would not change a thing (except maybe add another theatre or two and stagger the times slightly better). I already know exactly what I will be doing at the beginning of September 2013, and the majority of my family and friends are already prepared for me to be totally MIA from everything during that time.

So I hope these steps and tips have helped you wrap your mind around this gargantuan event that keeps getting bigger and bigger, and events like it. Hopefully if there is a festival coming up near you, or with any luck you can access TIFF, and experience it all for yourself. Just be sure to make some time for rest. The last thing you want to do is fall asleep during the film you were most excited for. I dozed off during two films this year, and one was a film I specifically took time off work to see. You better believe I have yet to forgive myself.

– David Baldwin


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