Here at Film Junk, we’re fortunate enough to live in close proximity to one of the biggest film festivals in the world: the Toronto International Film Festival. Every September, the festival runs for a week and a half, showcasing the latest and greatest that international, independent and art house cinema has to offer, often giving film fans a glimpse at some of the movies that will be in the running for next year’s Oscars. There are big mainstream movies with A-list stars and small underground oddities that you will never see anywhere else… but how do you actually attend the festival?
With ticket packages now on sale for this year’s festival, we thought it might be a good time to address some of the questions that we tend to get every year from people who are interested in going to TIFF and looking for advice. It can definitely be a bit intimidating if it is your first time and some people don’t even realize that the festival is actually open to the public. Many of these tips will probably apply to just about any major film festival, so it’s not all specific to TIFF. Feel free to leave any additional questions you have below and we’ll try our best to answer them.
1. Buy a Package Instead of Single Tickets
Although it is a lot easier to buy single tickets for movies at the festival, the biggest problem for the average person attending a film festival is that by the time single tickets for movies go on sale, many of the bigger titles are already sold out. This may seem both confusing and frustrating, but festivals are all about exclusivity and you have to get in on the ground floor if you want access to the most heavily hyped films. The easiest way to do this is by purchasing a package of tickets before the full festival line-up is even announced.
We usually opt for one of the Flex Packs with the cheapest option being 6 tickets for $150, but the more tickets you buy, the more the price per ticket goes down. There are also different types of packages focusing on specific genres, programmes and screening times available at different price points. If you pool your resources with friends and family, you can get a decent deal without having to commit to seeing a ton of movies yourself.
Once you have purchased a block of tickets, you will get to choose the specific films you want to see sometime in August. This is done using a lottery, where they randomly choose a window of time for each person to select their films online. If you have bad luck and end up getting a selection window towards the end of the process, there may still be certain movies that have already sold out. However, there are other ways to improve your selection window (ie. become a TIFF member at varying levels of $$$).
2. Prepare a Rough Schedule Ahead of Time
Before your ticket selection window arrives, it is a good idea to make a list of the movies you’d like to see (along with some backup options) and to make sure that you will actually be able to attend those screenings. The festival schedule goes online a few days prior to the ticket selection process, so at that point you can see when and where each movie is playing. Most movies have 3 screenings, so you’ll need to pick the specific screening that you want and avoid overlap with other movies you want to see. Also be aware that certain screenings are considered premium screenings and depending your ticket package they may not be available to you. These are red carpet galas and the ticket prices are even more expensive.
TIFFr is a great site for planning your festival, allowing you to see at a glance when your movies are playing and where you have scheduling conflicts. Once the ticket selection process starts, you may also want to keep your ear to the ground to find out which screenings have already sold out so you can be prepared when your time comes. TIFF Talk often keeps a running list of off-sale screenings as the week progresses.
3. Attend Screenings Earlier in the Festival If You Want to See Q&As
One of the best things about seeing a movie at a major film festival is the fact that the cast and crew are often in attendance and usually come up on stage afterward to answer questions from the audience. This is not a guarantee, however, so if you want to increase your chances of seeing a Q&A you should go to the first possible screening of a film. During the last few days of the festival, many actors and filmmakers fly back home, which means that there is a much lower chance of getting to see them in person. So if you’re dying to see a Q&A for a particular movie, try to fit that one in the earlier part of your schedule.
4. Attend Screenings Later in the Festival or in the Middle of the Week If You Want to Avoid Crowds
This is the inverse of the previous point, but I thought it was also worth mentioning. If you don’t want to fight crowds or get caught up in traffic jams and you don’t care about “stargazing”, you might want to schedule your screenings towards the end of the festival instead. Screenings that take place over the last couple of days rarely sell out and weekday morning and afternoon screenings are also generally less heavily attended. This can be a good way to catch movies you didn’t even know about until after the festival was underway (which will definitely happen) and you will also generally get better seats and spend less time standing in line.
5. Give Yourself Enough Time Between Movies
While some film festivals are fortunate enough to have all of their theatres situated within a few minutes of each other, TIFF has not always been this way. In previous years, the Bloor Cinema (now the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema) was a major venue and it was a good 40 minute walk from some of the other theatres. This year they have dropped both the Bloor and the Isabel Bader theatres, but it’s still important to take travel time into consideration when scheduling your screenings (along with possible Q&A times). They will generally let people into a screening at least half an hour ahead of time, so if you’re not there by then, you may be stuck with a terrible seat. And if you’re not there at least 15 minutes before a movie starts, your seat is no longer guaranteed.
6. Don’t Rule Out the Rush Line
If a movie you are dying to see is already off sale by the time your ticket selection window rolls around, you have a few different options. The first is to wait until single tickets go on sale and try to buy them that way. Keep checking back every day at 7 am because new blocks of tickets sometimes open up. If that doesn’t work, you can always try the rush line on the day of the screening, which is really a key part of any film festival experience.
Every screening will have extra tickets that get released to the public just a few minutes before the movie starts. At this point, moviegoers who have lined up outside the venue will have the opportunity to purchase these tickets (using vouchers or cash only) until they run out. If you line up at least an hour or two ahead of time, the success rate is pretty high — especially for bigger theatres like the Ryerson and Winter Garden. Obviously, the earlier you line up, the better your chances of getting in. The only downside is that you will likely end up with the worst seats in the house and you may miss the first couple minutes of the movie. Sometimes people with extra tickets will approach the rush line even earlier and try to sell them (or even give them away for free).
7. Don’t Waste Your Money on Bigger Movies That Already Have Distribution
This is a matter of personal preference obviously, but after years of attending the festival we’ve generally come to realize that it is not worth seeing something at the festival if it is going to be playing at multiplexes everywhere within the next few months. Sometimes there will even be movies opening in normal theatres the very same week that it plays at TIFF, so do your research ahead of time. If you’re dying to see your favourite actor or director in person and you’re interested in a possible Q&A, that might be a good reason to go for it anyway. And occasionally the version of a movie that plays at a festival may be different than the one that ultimately gets a wide release, but that’s pretty rare. A lot of these bigger movies will also be hot tickets at the festival, which means they’ll be harder to get into anyway. Save your money.
8. Take a Chance and Be Flexible
The one final bit of advice for attending a film festival is that it is in your best interest to be open to new possibilities. You might run into a friend (or even a complete stranger) who has an extra ticket for something. The movie you really wanted to see may be sold out but you might hear about another great movie that you didn’t even know was playing at the festival and realize that it fits into your schedule. A movie and/or its Q&A might run longer than expected, forcing you to choose between that and your next screening. There is also a free screening of the People’s Choice Award winner on the last day, but the movie isn’t announced until that morning. The bottom line is that film festivals are chaotic and unpredictable things and sometimes the best experiences are the ones you didn’t even plan for. Good luck!