Toronto International Film Festival Tips

When I started to get more seriously into films in 2000, one of the reasons was that I had read about film festivals and thought that attending one might be fun, but also that maybe with some more knowledge I might get more out of the experience. I saw the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) as the biggest fan oriented festival, so attending this year is something I've been working towards for a while now. When Ken Karn, who runs the Camera Cinema Club for the Camera Cinemas in the San Jose area, sent an e-mail back in March to get together a bunch of club members to go to Toronto, things started to come together.

Before you arrive

Getting everything lined up before you arrive is tricky. Getting a hotel room and an airline flight is pretty normal, except that hotels that your travel agent shows as full might have rooms if you call directly. At least that was the case for me (I booked the room in late May, although my father was able to get a room substantially later). The really tricky part is getting the films you want.

I had been to a couple of other film festivals, and those had worked quite simply: you buy a pass that gets you into most everything, and then you choose on the fly which films to see. The problem is that the attendance at TIFF is so much bigger than most film festivals. As a result if they sold even close to the number of passes that fans would want and all of them showed up for the same screening, many people would be turned away. And if they limited the number of passes to the size of the theaters, the passes would sell out instantly, which wouldn't be fair to those who lost out.

So if you have to pick which specific films you want to see in advance, it would be nice to have plenty of time to do that. So why isn't the list of films known well in advance? The reason is that many of these films are still being finished during the summer, and just barely get completed in time (some that I saw are still listed on IMDb as "in production"). Therefore the list of films is not revealed until very late (August 21st this year).

There are various ways to buy tickets. They have festival passes (up to 50 films at any time, but cannot be used for the VIACOM galas and are theoretically not sharable between people), daytime passes (up to 25 films which must start before 6pm, also theoretically not sharable between people), coupon books (sharable - you can use several coupon for the same film), VIACOM gala passes (8 films, one each night at either 7pm or 9:30pm at Roy Thompson Hall - note that the two showings are not for the same films), and VISA screening room passes (like the VIACOM gala passes except much less expensive and with fewer stars in attendance). Since we weren't sure how the film selection process was going to work, we decided to buy a 7pm VISA screening room pass for each person to make sure we saw something reasonable each day. We also decided to buy daytime passes for each person, and one 30-film coupon book to share for any films we wanted after the 7pm VISA films, and for the first and last nights when there are no VISA screenings (we also used coupons for a couple of us who actually managed to schedule more than 25 films that start before 6pm and therefore wouldn't fit on the daytime pass).

It took a while to figure out how you select the films that you will see with your passes and coupons if you don't live in Toronto. The web page in question (here) was cleverly placed with books and merchandise to avoid detection. You basically pay an extra fee for them to overnight ship the program books and schedules when they come out (the program book is big - over 400 pages this year - and costs real money, while the schedule in much smaller - about 60 pages - and is available free all over at the festival), so you get them one day after people who live in Toronto get them. This extra fee also gives you the right to fax in your movie choices for up to two people per overnighted package (in our case we got two packages since we were four people), which also adds a small additional fee per film. Note that the package fee does not include the program book itself (this even confused the person who took my order).

On July 16th it became theoretically possible to order these passes, coupons, etc. The web site wasn't taking orders (even though it was supposed to be) and I sort of wanted to talk to a person anyway to make sure I was doing it right, so I called. The phones were down and/or busy for close to 4 hours after they were supposed to be open, but I eventually got through. If I had to do it over again, I don't think I would sweat this part quite so much because things don't sell out quite as fast I feared they might. Note: The 30-film coupon book I ordered did not show up in their system, which I didn't discover until much later, so double and triple check the order (checking the total cost might have helped). Even though by the time this was discovered they were sold out, they still allowed me to order the coupon book since it was clear that was my intention (in other words, they're nice people). Another note: Since VISA is a major festival sponsor, they do not take any other credit cards.

In case it's useful, what we bought for four people was the following (prices in Canadian dollars and may be different next year):

On August 21st, the list of films was posted on the TIFF web site. The information posted at that time was simply the title and the director's name. Because I wanted as much information as possible, I used IMDb to search for as much information as I could find, and created this page after many hours of work.

On August 28th, the program books and schedules became available in person in Toronto, and also online (the latter was a surprise to me). Unfortunately, I was out of town, and even if I had been in town the online schedule was slow (I'm told), so I basically didn't find out much until I got home on the afternoon of the 29th. By that time the program books and schedules had arrived in their $55 packages. So far as we could tell at the time, the deadline to fax our choices back and be in the first batch of orders to be processed was fast approaching: 7am the next morning (10am in Toronto).

My father, who had waited for the packages in my absence, took a program book and a schedule home and finished working out his schedule. With input I had previously gotten from my wife Connie and our friend Mark, I started to work on our three schedules. I hadn't gotten very far when my father returned with his picks for the daytime pass. He had worked out a system were each day you pick something at roughly 9am, another at roughly noon, and finally something around 3pm. Since you can pick a second choice for each first choice, you have to be careful to make sure that you'll have time to get between theaters regardless of which choice you get, but in general this approach works fairly well. I added his schedule to my other input, and finished the schedules and transcribing them onto the forms around 3 or 4am.

At 5am (now August 30th) I started to try to fax the forms, since the forms indicated that this was the time the fax lines would open. I was sending through a company called, and unfortunately they only tried a couple of time before giving up. Each such cycle took about 15 minutes, so I ended up driving down to a 24 hour Kinko's and having them try to send it starting around 6am. It took them about 2 1/2 hours, but it eventually got through. In the meantime I had called to find out if the 7am deadline was real (and to make sure the fax lines were in fact working), and was told that for faxes any time that day was okay.

Why go through all this hassle? If you show up in Toronto without having chosen your films, you have to wait in a "rush" line for most films, since most films "sell out" (90% of capacity) in advance. The result is more time in lines, missing some films completely, and worse seats if you do get in.

When you first arrive

When I arrived in Toronto on the afternoon of the first day of the festival (September 6th), the first films that Mark and I were scheduled to see (Connie and my father didn't arrive until the 8th) started at 7:15pm or 6:30pm. We didn't know which because you don't get to know what you actually got until you arrive and pick up your actual tickets at the main box office.

Hurrying in case it was 6:30pm, I found the box office (I'm told it's in a different location each year) and got the tickets. I suspect we got lucky and/or most people didn't make the deadline, because we got literally every single first choice. This even included three of the 9:30pm VISA screening room films, which I had expected would have been filled by people buying those passes.

I was staying at the Bay Bloor Executive Suites, on the recommendation of Ken Karn (Camera Cinema Club). It's major advantage is that it had a real kitchen, allowing us to have breakfast (and snacks) in the room. It's major disadvantage is that some of the rooms (read: ours) need updating, at least considering the room rate. Here is the front and the view up (we were fairly low in the tower, which is an advantage since the elevators are quite slow):
Bay Bloor Executive Suites

Bay Bloor Executive Suites (up)

One minor word of advice: There is a major street called Yonge. It is pronounced like the word "young."

The Festival Itself

Most of the films show at the Uptown (shown here after the festival was over)...

...or the Varsity (this is a short rush line - if the ticket holder line had been long it would have started inside on the second floor and extended out onto the sidewalk where the rightmost person in this picture is standing, next to the stairs).

These two theaters are in adjacent blocks and close to a number of hotels, making it very easy to just walk everywhere. There are also a few showings at the Cumberland (no picture), which is maybe 10 minutes or so (depending on the traffic lights) away by foot.

The only other theater that I saw films in was the Elgin (no picture), which is a marvelous old theater with a large balcony, lots of gilding, and so on. That is the so-called VISA screening room, so we were there every night except for the first and the last. It is substantially further away - maybe 20 minutes (+/- 5) by foot - so a subway ride ($2.25) is actually useful if time is tight. Important note for VISA gold and platinum card holders: if you arrive before the line starts going in, you can go into the VISA lounge, and from there you can enter the theater just ahead of the main line. It's best to arrive comfortably over 30 minutes (45 minutes is plenty) before show time to be sure of being able to do this.

The other theaters used include Roy Thompson Hall (where the VIACOM galas occur), the Isabel Bader Theater (Mark saw one film there), and maybe three others.

If you have an actual ticket to a film (meaning you went through all of the hassle described above to pick your films in advance), you can theoretically arrive up to 15 minutes before the scheduled screening time and be guaranteed a seat (I think it was 10 minutes in past years). After that they may fill in with people from the rush line and you're out of luck. In practice, we generally aimed to arrive 30 minutes before in order to get reasonable seats.

September 11th

Our first film on September 11th was World Traveler, which started at 9:30am at the Varsity, and we went into the theater about 15 minutes after the first plane hit the World Trade Center, but before the news had reached Canada. When we came out we said good-bye to Connie (who was skipping the 12:30pm film, From Hell) and were headed to the Uptown, when we saw everyone looking up. As we got to the intersection of Bloor and Yonge (a major intersection), we saw that people were looking at this large video screen (not showing anything when I took this picture):
Outdoor video screen

Of course what they were looking at was the story of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. It was hard to understand, though, because the screen had captioning turned on, and the words being transcribed covered up too much and didn't really fill us in on the events right away. When someone standing near us told us what had happened, it seemed impossible. He must be wrong.

As we left that area to get some lunch (still in shock), I overheard a woman say, "Oh my god! My sister works in the World Trade Center!" That was a very chilling thing to hear.

My father and I saw From Hell, because we had nothing better to do, after which they canceled the rest of that day's screenings. The effect for the rest of the festival was fairly minor to us since we hadn't been invited to any of the parties (all of which were canceled). There were a few films that were canceled for whatever reason (The Believer was the only additional cancellation for me), and many directors and stars who had planned to attend the screenings of their new films were unable to get into Canada.

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Copyright © 2001-2003 by Michael S. Weston. All rights reserved.