Every fall, the star-studded Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF for short) helps to kick off the year’s award season, with filmmakers and celebrities alike flocking to Canada to get a head start on their big Oscar campaigns. For those 10 days in September, everyone who’s anyone in Hollywood is spotted climbing into black SUVs with tinted windows while racing off to premieres and parties.
For the average movie buff—who experiences TIFF by reading the daily news updates and clicking through the pictures online—it’s a glamorous experience: 10 days of red carpets and industry parties and buzz-worthy premieres and hob-nobbing with the stars. And, for some (those named George or Brad or Madonna), it really is a pretty glamorous experience. But if you want to know what the TIFF experience is really like for the average festivalgoer, read on.
While Attending TIFF, You Will Not…
- Hang Out with George Clooney. George was the talk of this year’s TIFF. After all, he had two movies at the festival (The Ides of March and The Descendants) and a new girlfriend to show off. But that doesn’t mean that, if you head to Toronto for the festival, you’re going to run into him on the subway. Yes, TIFF is loaded with celebrities. There’s a good chance that, if you buy a ticket to the right screening, you will see a few from afar, before or after the screening (like I saw tiny, ant-sized versions of Emily Blunt and Ewan McGregor before Salmon Fishing in the Yemen). If you’re lucky, there might even be a Q&A, and your favorite directors and/or stars will answer a few questions. If you wait for hours outside Roy Thompson Hall, you can see them walk the red carpet. If you’re pushy enough, you might even get an autograph. And if you spend enough time hanging around the Bell Lightbox, you’ll probably see them walking in and out (my biggest celeb sighting outside a Q&A: Greta Gerwig—though the people in line around me responded with blank looks when I pointed her out). But unless you spend your time at TIFF stalking celebrities (incidentally, a good place to start: The Hazelton Hotel on Yorkville—which is conveniently located across the street from a Starbucks), you probably won’t see a whole lot of celebrities in the wild. During the festival, they hang out in rooms that are roped off and heavily guarded, and they go to parties to which you’re not invited.
- Get a Great Parking Spot. Actually, you might—but only if you’re lucky. If you’re spending the day in the city and you plan to drive there, be prepared to (a) spend a lot of time driving around, looking for a good spot and/or (b) pay an arm and a leg (and maybe more). For that reason, TIFF recommends the TTC. The public transit system is a decent alternative, but it’s a bit tricky to navigate, since it involves various modes of transportation: train, subway, streetcar, bus. This year, I stuck to just one form of transportation: the subway. It wasn’t always a speedy way to travel (a train stoppage on Monday morning meant that it took me an hour and 45 minutes to get to my first screening—not exactly a great way to start a long day), so I had to plan accordingly. But at least I didn’t have to try to find a parking spot in the city. Then again, the thought of the subway also reminds me that you will not…
- Be Allotted Much (If Any) Personal Space. The subway is crowded. The streets are crowded. The restaurants are crowded. The theaters are crowded. You will have people around you (and perhaps even pushing into you) all day. Really, the most personal space you can expect is in a toilet stall. If you don’t particularly enjoy having people around you all day (and even if you do), it can be a bit daunting. But that’s just a part of the experience.
- Have Much Time to Eat. Of course, it all depends on how you schedule your festival experience. But if you’re really doing the festival and seeing more than one movie a day, there’s a pretty good chance that you’ll spend so much time running around, racing to your next movie (or at least the line for your next movie), that you won’t have a lot of time to sit down and enjoy a nice, relaxing meal. Fortunately, there are plenty of fast food restaurants around (especially at the AMC, which has its own food court). So grab a burger. Grab a smoothie. Or grab a snack from your festival survival bag (I never left home without a little bag of crackers, just in case). Then feel free to enjoy your meal while waiting in line; everybody else does. I do recommend taking some time off to get away from the insanity and enjoy a meal, but, sometimes, that’s just not possible.
- Manage to Get Everything to Go According to Plan. You can start planning your TIFF adventure well in advance. You can buy the pricey festival guide and pick out all of the movies that you want to see. But there’s a pretty good chance that two of your top picks will end up showing at the same time. Or they’ll go off-sale before you can get tickets. In that case, you can always press your luck and hope that you’ll be able to pick up a ticket on the morning of the screening—or, if that doesn’t work, you can always get in the infamous Rush Line for last-minute tickets. Or you can just do something else. Choose another movie that sounds interesting. Spend some time wandering around the city. Check out a red carpet event. Do some shopping at the Eaton Centre. Eat a real meal in a sit-down restaurant. Toronto’s a cool city—so, whatever you decide to do, you’re sure to enjoy it.
However, While Attending TIFF, You Will…
- Break the Bank. The TIFF experience doesn’t come cheap. Unless you’re lucky enough to have a friend or family member in or around Toronto who’s willing to loan out a bed/couch/spot on the floor, you’ll have to find a hotel. You’ll need to book it well in advance, since they fill up quickly (I recommend booking in June or July—or even earlier)—and, the closer you get to the center of everything, the more you’ll have to pay. Meanwhile, screening tickets are around $20 each ($40 if you want to go to a fancy premiere). And don’t forget about food, transportation, and, of course, the $28 TIFF T-shirt.
- Wait in Lines. Even if you’re just going to the box office to pick up tickets that you’ve already purchased, be prepared to wait in a long, winding line. Some smaller screenings won’t be a problem, but most of them come with some kind of line. Of course, if you’re attending screenings by yourself, you can always sneak in at the last minute and find a seat somewhere. But if you want a good seat, be sure to get there early. If it’s a big movie in a big theater, the lines get pretty ridiculous (the line for the Sunday morning screening of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen at the Elgin was more than three blocks long), so plan ahead. On the bright side, companies around Toronto see the TIFF lines as captive audiences, and they’ll often bring you free drinks (like little Diet Coke bottles) or free pizza or free bags of ground Starbucks coffee. At the same time, you’ll…
- Get a Lot of Reading Done. Just about everyone brings a book when they show up for a TIFF screening. Why? Because they know that they’ll be waiting in lines. Be sure to pack a paperback in your TIFF survival bag, and the time will fly right on by. Still, don’t spend the entire time with your nose in a book—so you can still…
- Meet Some Great People. The long lines are inevitable, but they also give you plenty of time to chat with the people around you. Be sure to take advantage. While waiting in line, you’ll hear about people’s favorite (and not-so-favorite) movies. You’ll hear about celebrity sightings. You’ll get some festival tips. And you’ll just meet some cool people who are fun to talk to.
- Put on Some Miles. Since the festival is spread out around the city (and since I never actually saw the shuttle that supposedly traveled from venue to venue), you will inevitably do a lot of walking. So forget about fashion; wear comfortable footwear.
- See Some Great Films. While you’re at the festival, you’re pretty much guaranteed to see something that you’ll absolutely love—whether it’s a quirky comedy, a Finnish thriller, or a potential Oscar contender. Keep an open might—you might be surprised. You’ll also…
- Learn a Thing or Two. There’s a pretty good chance that you’ll discover a new favorite director—or a new favorite actor. And you’re sure to get some interesting insights from TIFF’s regular post-screening Q&As. So if you have the time to stick around, be sure to do so—even if it means sacrificing a real sit-down meal.
- Enjoy the Experience. Film festivals give movie lovers the ultimate movie-going experience. Sure, you’ll have to wait in lines and pay a little bit extra for your tickets, but there’s just nothing like seeing a movie with hundreds (sometimes thousands) of other eager movie lovers. One of my colleagues once pointed out that it’s almost impossible to hate a movie at a film festival—and he’s right. There’s just something in the air that makes every movie just a little bit better. It’s a thrilling experience—one that you’ll never forget.
- Go Home and Crash. After a few days of battling the subway, standing in lines, trying to rearrange your schedule, and racing from theater to theater, you’ll be absolutely exhausted. You’ll probably sleep all the way home (hopefully, you won’t be driving at the time). But it’ll be totally worth it.
- Earn Some Bragging Rights. After you leave TIFF, you can go home and brag to your friends that you got to see some of the fall’s biggest movies before they did. You got to see George Clooney (from a distance, sure, but still…). You got to ask your favorite director a question about her his latest movie. Even if they don’t love movies as much as you do, they’ll still be impressed.
Okay, so maybe attending a big film festival like TIFF isn’t a star-studded experience for the Average Joe (or Josephine) movie lover. Sure, there’s a chance that you’ll end up in a bar with Ryan Gosling. You might get George Clooney’s autograph. But don’t count on it. You probably won’t be discovered by a big Hollywood director, either. But you will definitely have one big, crazy, exhausting, and absolutely unforgettable experience. If you’ve ever thought about checking it out, you might want to start planning now for TIFF 2012.