For well over a decade I really did love the Toronto Film Festival but it changed by small degrees, going from a highlight of late summer to a source of such aggravation I had to walk away. At this time of year I used to love being a part of it, now when I'm in downtown Toronto and see the signs and crowds I'm thrilled to be doing anything else.
I was introduced to the festival by a friend around 1990. He’d take a week off from work, buy a pass (one that would let him see unlimited movies), and spent the whole week watching movies. Talking to people in line it was clear he wasn’t alone – that kind of pass was an affordable way for people that loved movies to take a holiday doing something they really enjoyed.
It didn’t really work otherwise though. The problem, at least if you valued your time, was the ticketing system. You bought passes, and had to wait in a rush line to get into individual screenings. This was long before smart phones, so information about what movies were good was generally traded while waiting in line for other movies. OK so far, but if you wanted to see something you generally had to plan to wait for an hour or more, without being guaranteed of even getting into the movie. It made it almost impossible for more casual fans.
A few years later they would introduce screening specific tickets. The schedule and festival guide would be released, and you’d make first and second choice selections for specific times, then put everything into an envelope and submit it for processing. A few days later you would pick up your tickets. Hopefully anyway, there was no guarantee about what you would get.
The first couple of years they took them in the order they were received. One year, maybe the first, I spent the night before on the street with a few other diehards so we’d be the first people to submit our picks (which we hoped would guarantee we’d get passes to all of our movies).
It seemed like a fair system – the people that cared most about the festival and were willing to camp out on the street were most likely to get the tickets they wanted.
Unfortunately it didn’t last. After a year or two I got tired of staying up all night and started giving the person at the front of the line some money to drop off my picks for me. Likely others started doing the same and the festival had to switch to the lottery system.
With the lottery system festival volunteers took your picks and put them into a sequentially numbered box, telling you what it was. Later they would draw a number, and that was the number of the first box they would process. They’d then continue through the rest, starting back at the first.
So let’s say you dropped your picks off a few hours after they start selecting them. The first five boxes are already full and you’re told you are in box six. Later, on the Toronto news you’d see that they had filled 127 boxes, and that they had drawn the number four. This is great news – it means that your box, number six, would be processed third, right after boxes four and five. That means you probably get all of your movies. If instead they drew number eleven immediately you knew you were out of luck – they’d start with box eleven, go all the way through 127, then start over again at the bottom. It meant you’d be one of the last to be process, and probably would not get any of your picks.
It worked OK for a few years, but as the festival continued to get more popular and more and more boxes got filled it became harder and harder to get access to the tickets you wanted. Changes to pricing and the addition of primary/secondary lotteries (explained below) made it even harder still.
For as long as I can remember there were gala presentations that were always separate from the regular ticketing process – you always had to buy a special (and more expensive) ticket for these.
Over time another class of ticket was created, kind of a gala light, that was more expensive than the regular screenings and separate from that ticketing process. This included the series that contained what were always some of the most popular films at the festival, so a lot of the movies you wanted to see were no longer even available through the normal ticketing process.
The also started asking for donations, and started dividing the lottery up by the size of your donation. Bigger donations went into a special early lottery, then there was a general lottery.
It meant that many of the movies you were likely most interested in seeing weren’t even available (because they were part of the gala light series and not the general selection) and, if you weren’t a donor. you were relegated to the secondary lottery and unlikely to even get tickets to movies you were only feigning interest in anyway. Getting access to event movies became really hard,
And prices of the standard tickets increased dramatically. In the mid 90s it worked out to well under $10 a ticket – thirty passes cost about $240, and single tickets were still under $10. Now the cheapest tickets are about $25, with a premium placed on movies that are in high demand. Premium tickets start at $49.
As a fan it was frustrating to see prices rise so much, especially as (and there is no getting around this) access to the movies you actually wanted to see was diminished – you were paying more and getting less.
At the same time it was hard not to admire the ruthless efficiency of it… they were just brilliant at extracting more money from this thing.
But it became a lot to pay, especially when the selection kept getting worse.
As time went on it seemed to be driven solely by metrics – every year it had to be more screenings of more movies from more countries….
The problem is that there are only so many good movies out there, and a lot of the stuff they were showing just wasn’t very good. Just because a movie is made overseas doesn’t mean it is good. Subtitles don’t equal depth. Minuscule budgets don’t guarantee artistic genius. Eventually watching another third-rate thriller from France that was likely going straight to video in it’s domestic market just got to be too much.
In the 90s, before Netflix and so many other content delivery options, this kind of thing was less available, and it was sometimes kind of interesting to see what was happening in other countries. But nowadays that kind of movie is readily available, for much less than $25, and without the greater misery (long lines, late start times, etc.) that is such a big part of the TIFF experience.
Here are some specific memories, both good and bad:
Every Single Question From Every Q&A Ever
The idea of a question and answer with the filmmakers seems very promising but you soon realize that every question asked by an audience member in Toronto takes the following format.
The only appropriate answer ever to a TIFF question is “I’m sorry, was there a question in there?”.
State & Main Q&A
The movie was great but the Q&A with most of the cast was insufferable. Toronto had recently implemented a no-smoking policy, and Alec Baldwin made a big show of lighting a cigarette on stage in defiance of the ban. To some extent the movie seemed to be an indictment of show business, and how his character (he plays a movie star) is protected because of his celebrity. But when he needed a smoke he was gonna have it. Even more disappointing – the Toronto crowd cheered him. If the regular Joe sitting beside them had lit up they would have been outraged, but when a star does it suddenly they want to give him a standing ovation for his… courage? Equally ridiculous – Sarah Jessica Parker pretending that she was too shy and tenure to answer questions, blushing and turning from the crowd like she couldn’t bear the attention.
Very Bad Things
Addressing the audience before showing Very Bad Things writer/director Peter Berg read a passage that he said had really informed the script he had written – something about how someone falls from grace not because of one big action but a series of smaller decisions. But the movie starts with the murder or a prostitute…. which seems like kind of a big deal. Some of his later stuff was really good though.
The Seats At The Uptown Theater
Now a condo building the old Uptown Theater on the West side of Yonge Street just South of Bloor was huge (1000 seats in the main theater at the time) and probably the best place to see a movie at TIFF. Unfortunately the seats were terrible, and it was often more comfortable to sit on the stairs in the aisle.
The Pirate Thing
At some point, presumably because these films are being shown in Toronto well before the rest of the world, each screening got a little anti-piracy message at the beginning. To which one or more wags in the audience would have to yell out “ARRRRRR!” in a pirate voice. It was mildly amusing the first time I heard it. Then the first time it happened each year…. kind of a “oh yeah… that pirate thing. I had forgotten about that. Cute”. But year after year, day after day, screening after screening, it became unbearable. It was like on Seinfeld, when George went to see a movie for the second time just so he could yell out some lame joke…. it was that these people were so excited, so eager to be the first one to inflict this tired old joke on everyone yet again. I get angry just thinking about it.
There was a time in Toronto when bars had to stop serving alcohol at 1 AM. And there was a time in my life when that seemed like a huge deal. It was probably the “issue” I was most passionate about.
But every year, during the festival, bars in Downtown Toronto were able to keep serving until 2 AM. It was like Christmas came in September and lasted almost two weeks.
Then there were more and more exceptions – one being for the World Championship Of Basketball which was held in Toronto back in the mid 90s. Eventually they just gave in and allowed bars to serve until 2 AM all the time. Still, the way I remember it TIFF gets credit for being the thin end of the wedge.
Bruce Campbell Answering Questions About Bubba Ho-Tep
One year during Midnight Madness they premiered Bubba Ho-Tep. It started lated and by the time Bruce Campbell got up on stage to answer questions it must have been 2 AM… but that guy was on fire and 100% there for the fans. He said he’d stay until he answered every last question and he did… it was like we let him down when we ran out, like we were the quitters. Really amazing display of generosity. People from Michigan are the greatest.
Q & A With Joe Simpson After Screening Of Touching The Void
Touching the Void was a great documentary about two mountain climbers. One of them, Joe Simpson, falls into a crevasse and is basically left for dead by his friend and climbing partner. But, miraculously, he survived and made it down the mountain and, eventually, to Toronto for a Q & A after the film.
The interesting thing was that a women in the audience, who certainly wasn’t a climber, was outraged on his behalf – telling him he was wrong for forgiving his climbing partner, insisting she would somehow have done it differently. Joe disagreed, he felt his friend did the only correct thing, and it was amazing to see how clear that truth was to him.
Seeing Boogie Nights
After Hard Eight and just before Paul Thomas Anderson got huge, at the Uptown Theater. The firecracker scene in that movie is such an amazing piece of extended suspense, and experiencing it with everyone in that huge, packed theater sitting on the edge of their seats was incredible.
Watching Roger Ebert Deal With Unlikely Industry Insider
Walking along Bloor a very dishevelled homeless person yelled out something like “DID YOU LIKE THE MASK OF ZORRO?” and I realized he was asking Roger Ebert, who was walking just in front of me. Roger said something about liking it, to which the homeless man yelled “YA THINK THERE’S ROOM FOR A SEQUEL?"
TIFF was an amazing place to see documentaries that just weren’t available anywhere else at that time. Some of my favorites included Me & Isaac Newton, startup.com, Sick: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist, Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. and Feed. It seemed like documentaries were consistently the best thing about the festival but, as much as I loved them, I can’t imagine enduring the TIFF experience to see another one, even one as good as my all time favorites. Fortunately, with the Toronto Hot Docs Festival and things like Netflix, there is more access to documentaries.
Descriptions In The Festival Guide
Every year the festival would print a guide of all the movies, with a one page profile of each. It is fascinating reading because it is so completely detached from reality. It presents each and every movie in the festival as the greatest film ever made, and the great majority of them as movies so profound that they will absolutely rock your world redefine the very idea of filmmaking.
It would have been so much better if there was just a little honesty, but it just isn't there. So why is this a highlight? Because the hyperbole is so ridiculous it’s hard not laugh while reading the descriptions. For even more fun hang on to the guide for a year or two, then compare the descriptions there with the real reviews the movies get when released.
For well over a decade the festival was something I truly loved. I’d first start getting emails about ticket packages in July, and anticipation would build until the guide/schedule was released shortly before Labour Day. After that there would be a couple of frenzied days making selections, then waiting until you found out what picks you actually got. And after that of course were the movies, which were supposed to be the real highlight.
The first year I sat out and didn’t buy passes I was worried. I was sure I would regret it. But as time went on I was just happier and happier with the decision… happy to not being spending all that time trying to pick out movies the new lottery system meant I’d never get to see anyway, happy to not be scrambling trying to find second choices for movies I was barely interest in seeing, spending all that time in line and waiting for the late start of a movie I really wasn’t interested in seeing. There was no looking back.