Notes from a TIFF Rookie
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There’s just something about a film festival—where crowds of [often wildly eccentric] movie lovers gather to talk shop and rub elbows with filmmakers and take in everything from local indies to stunning foreign films that will probably never show up in your local theater. Over the years, I’ve grown to adore film festivals—in fact, the Cleveland International Film Festival has become my favorite event of the year.

This year, though, after a few years of checking out some of the smaller festivals, I decided that it was time to make my way to one of the biggies: the Toronto International Film Festival. This year marked the 33rd year of the 10-day festival—which, in The Biz, is the unofficial kick-off of Awards Season, that time of year when the studios bring out their top award contenders. And you can see many of them in Toronto—along with their directors and their stars, in all of their red carpet glory.

If you want to read more about my experiences at this year’s TIFF, you can find the stories on the N& blog. But if you’re thinking about checking out TIFF for yourself, you might want to take note of the lessons I learned during the whole whirlwind adventure.

  • The Celebs Pretty much everyone who’s anyone shows up in Toronto. This year, I shared the city with stars like Brad Pitt, Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Anne Hathaway, Adrien Brody, Rachel Weisz, Mark Ruffalo, Michael Caine, and Viggo Mortensen—just to name a few. For a price, you can even attend a Gala screening with the stars—or, if you hang around long enough, you might catch Brad Pitt coming out of his hotel…or Anne Hathaway eating lunch in a café. But the most sure-fire (and free!) way to see the stars is at…

  • The Red Carpet The Galas take place every day during the festival, at various theaters. But the biggest and the best is at Roy Thompson Hall, where, if you wander over at the right time, you’ll get to see the stars arriving and making their way down the red carpet. If you’re lucky (and persistent), you could even walk away with an autograph or two.

  • The Surprises You never know who you’ll run into—or who will show up at a screening. But more on that later.

  • The Contenders Sure, most of these movies will show up in your friendly neighborhood theater sooner or later (and for a whole lot cheaper), but how often can you say that you got to attend the world premiere of a movie—especially one that could go on to be nominated for an Oscar or two? This year, festival-goers were able to check out movies like Keira Knightley’s The Duchess, Viggo Mortensen in Appaloosa, director Rian Johnson’s The Brothers Bloom, and more. But, to make it even cooler, there’s…

  • The Post-Screening Q&A Most of the time, when you see a TIFF movie, one or more of the people involved in making the movie will be there, too. In the handful of public screenings that I attended, all of the directors were there for a question-and-answer time after the movie ended. Often, the screenings (or at least the Q&As) were also attended by writers or producers or even stars. The biggest surprise of all was when, before the world premiere screening of Is There Anybody There?, director John Crowley announced that one of the film’s stars happened to be in town—and out walked Michael Caine. That, my friends, was the one time in my life that I was actually thankful that I’d shown up so late (actually, it was still 30 minutes before the screening) that I had to sit in the fifth row of the theater.

  • The Options Throughout the 10 days of TIFF, there are hundreds of films to choose from (more than 300, in fact)—and plenty of different times to choose from. And with movies showing in 40 theaters around the city, you’ve got all kinds of options. In addition to the big names, you’ll find all kinds of offerings from around the world (like the dark Irish comedy, A Film with Me In It). And though some screenings do fill up quickly, if you plan things out right (and, especially, if you’re an early riser, willing to head to the box office at 6:30 a.m. or so), you’ve got a good chance of seeing what you want to see. You can also order tickets early online—or, for sold-out shows, you can always wait in the rush line to try to get a last-minute ticket.

  • The Atmosphere In addition to having a great film festival, Toronto’s a cool place to hang out. You’ll find plenty of shopping and all kinds of great food lining the city streets. So if you’re looking for a bite to eat (or a little retail therapy) between movies, you won’t have far to look.

  • The Celebs Yes, there are downsides to having celebrities in town. Along with them, they bring the crowds. Fortunately, there are tons of restaurants in Toronto, so the thousands of extra people don’t really add to the wait for meals. But the people are everywhere. They travel down the streets in packs. They crowd around hotels and swanky restaurants and anywhere else that celebrities might be seen. And if you’re heading to check out the stars on the red carpet, you’ll be joined by hundreds of screaming, pushing fans. Most of those fans will also be hot and tired, and their feet will hurt—so they’re not always that happy to share their space with you (especially the crazy fans with their binders full of pictures that they want autographed). But, just for the record, while I did notice plenty of dirty looks shot in all directions, I never did see a fight break out (though it appears that Roger Ebert wasn’t so lucky).

  • The Prices Going to a big film festival like TIFF isn’t cheap. Not only do you have to find a place to stay in (or near) the city (unless you’re lucky enough to have a cool brother-in-law who lives in town, like I do), but ticket prices aren’t cheap, either. For a regular screening, expect to pay $20 (note: all monetary values are in CDN$)—more if you’re going to a couple of the theaters. As for the galas, those will take you back around $40. Also keep in mind things like parking (or cab fare or other transportation) and meals.

  • Getting Around (or Trying To) The TIFF Web site will tell you over and over and over again not to drive into the city when attending the festival. And, if you’re nearby, that’s probably decent advice. But Toronto is a big city, and cab fare isn’t cheap. Not only that, but the city’s public transit system—with its subway, its street cars, and its buses—isn’t exactly easy to navigate. So if you’re not exactly close to the festival venues, you might want to drive in and park for the day. You’ll want to leave really early, in order to deal with traffic, and I highly recommend having a GPS device handy. But if you do, you’re good to go. Parking is available throughout the city, and you can usually find a garage that charges about a $12 daily max (or, if you’re lucky, $6 on the weekend). Keep in mind, though, that you’re still going to have to walk from there. The venues are spread out all over the city—and, unlike some festivals, there’s no festival bus system. So you’re on your own here. But, on the bright side, after walking back and forth from one theater to another all day, you won’t have to feel guilty about ordering dessert. You’ll deserve it. Oh…but don’t forget about…

  • The Weather It could change at any minute. And, since the festival takes place in September, it probably will. When I arrived for the festival, it was ridiculously hot. And, in the city, you don’t get much of a breeze. Two days later, when I finally decided to forego the just-in-case long-sleeved shirt, the temperature dropped by about 20 degrees or so. One morning, it poured—and then, by the time I got out of my first screening of the day, it was hot and sunny. So you need to come prepared for everything.

So if you decide to check out this Movie Lover’s Dream in the Great White North, here are a few things to keep in mind:
  • Do Your Homework! Check out the movies online ahead of time. You might want to bring a laptop with you, too—or figure out the location of the nearest Internet café—so you can check for updates and information throughout your stay. There are plenty of festival guides available at the venues and box offices, but they only give you schedules; they won’t give much information about the movies themselves. There are catalogues available, but they cost $30. So you might want to come with a list of movies you’d like to see (though, admittedly, that’s a challenge, since there are hundreds to check out).

  • Buy a Map—and Keep It Handy Toronto isn’t a small town—and the venues are spread out around the city. So you’ll want to have a decent (though not huge) map handy. Oh, and if you happen to drive into the city, be sure to make a note of where you parked. I drew a quick map to my parking garage each day.

  • Plan Your Wardrobe Wisely Check the weather forecasts daily—and plan accordingly. I highly recommend dressing in layers. That way, you can take off some layers when you’re hiking through the hot city streets, and you can add a layer or two when you’re inside a chilly theater. And, if the forecast calls for rain, you might want to pack a light rain jacket—or, at least an umbrella (I actually kept a tiny umbrella with me at all times.

  • Wear Comfortable Shoes It took me exactly one day to learn this one. I think I may have mentioned that you’ll be doing a lot of walking during the festival—so you’ll want your tootsies to be comfortable. If that means that you’re wearing less-than-fashionable sneakers when you run into Brad Pitt, so be it. At least you won’t be doubled up in pain.

  • Be Prepared Unless you’re just planning on watching one movie and heading back to your hotel, you’ll be wandering the city for a while. So be sure to pack the essentials in a bag before you head out for the day (and after spending the week lugging a messenger bag, which eventually cut into my shoulder, I recommend going with a backpack instead). Since I was there for work, my bag had notebooks and folders and my voice recorder. But the average festival-goer will still need room for things like the following: a small notebook and pen (for autographs!), festival guide, small umbrella, map, camera (don’t forget to bring extra batteries—something I know from experience), and a paperback book (for the time you’ll spend waiting in line).

  • Hit the Red Carpet Okay, so you’re a serious film buff, and you’re not into the whole celebrity thing. Sure. I believe that. But tell me that it wouldn’t be cool at all to see one of your favorite actors in person, on a fancy red carpet. You’ve got to do it at least once—just to get the full TIFF experience. But feel free to stand at the edge of the crowd—it’s probably safer there.

  • Hang Out and Enjoy It! Don’t stress out too much about the whole thing. If you can’t get tickets to the movie you wanted to see, try something else. You could be in for a pleasant surprise. And don’t fill your schedule so tightly that you don’t have time to enjoy the experience. Enjoy the food. Talk to the people around you in line. Stay for the Q&As. No matter what, I guarantee you’ll go home with all kinds of great memories—not to mention great stories to tell your friends (and make them very, very jealous).

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