To TIFF or Not to TIFF

Getting a Ticket Can be Hell

by Peter Rist December 29, 2015 6 minutes (1340 words)

In 2002, I applied for accreditation at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). I may have been a little bit late, so I wasn’t too discouraged when I wasn’t accorded full press credentials, but rather offered 10 coupons to press screenings. As a professor of film studies at Concordia University, Montreal, it is usually very difficult to attend TIFF for more than a long weekend. It is especially difficult because our first (fall) term begins during the festival. Every seven years we are entitled to apply for a sabbatical leave, and this was the case in the Fall of 2002, when I was also able to attend the Pusan International Film Festival (PIFF) in the Republic of Korea (South Korea) (now “Busan” and BIFF). Since there was a major focus on Korean films at TIFF, and since I was especially interested in the vibrant and growing Korean cinema at that time, I mostly watched this country’s films with my 10 coupons. I was treated as a full member of the press, lining up with pass holders for press screenings and I had access to the press room and all available materials on the films. At the end of the year, I wrote “Korean Cinema 2002,” for Offscreen, and this article was posted on 31 March, 2003. Later I expanded the piece for the magazine Cineaction no. 64 (2004) as “Korean Cinema Now: Balancing Creativity and Commerce in an Emergent National Industry.”

Surprisingly, given the very positive representation of TIFF that was given through these two publications, anybody who has applied for accreditation as a journalist for Offscreen has been denied access. And, when I applied again myself this year, for only the first time since 2002, and now as a member of the Quebec Film Critics Association (AQCC), I was also denied a press pass. I applied before the July 17 deadline, but there were some problems with formatting and I received a very nice e-mail form a real person (Iván González) who offered me five “Press and Industry Vouchers,” because “at this time we cannot grant a full press pass.” Realizing that my participation would be restricted to less than two days of screenings, I decided to not do what I had planned  to cover the excellent “Wavelengths” series of experimental films, programmed by Andrea Picard. I was hoping to see Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin more than once but there was only one press screening in the days I would attend. I am writing a book chapter on the collaboration between Hou and the cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-Bing, and I was anxious to see this film as early as possible, anticipating it to be the pinnacle of their work together.

Everyone knows that TIFF has become one of the world’s great film festivals, and after Cannes, most film producers want their films to show in Toronto. The whole pre-Oscar buzz leaves me cold, but there are still excellent films on show at TIFF, especially those represented by the world-class programmer, Picard. On the few occasions I had attended TIFF between 2002 and now, I didn’t bother to apply for accreditation because of the limited time I would spend there. On these occasions I would work with a Toronto-based friend to apply early for tickets, and once —typically as I’ve learned from others— I wasn’t offered a ticket for the single film I really wanted to see; as it happened another directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien, Three Times. On that occasion, when I arrived in Toronto, I pulled strings and contacted a person very high up in the TIFF organization whom I knew since s/he had been a student of mine many years ago. S/he gave me a ticket. (I am deliberately hiding both my friend and the TIFF person’s names, here.)

On my arrival at the TIFF Press Office on Thursday morning, September 10, I lined up to get my “vouchers.” So far, so good. Then, I noticed that they were termed “Rush” vouchers and I was alarmed by what was written on the back of each of the vouchers. Effectively, the text indicated that no one would be admitted with a voucher to any of the Press and Industry (P & I) screenings until all pass holders were admitted, and that nobody carrying a voucher would be admitted to a theatre until 10 minutes prior to the screening time. So large has TIFF become that I found that there was a 56-page Press and Industry Screening Schedule, and I managed to get myself a copy. All of the P & I screenings that I was interested in attending were occurring at the Cineplex Scotiabank complex. Until the evening hours, all 14 theatres were devoted to P & I screenings! I was hoping to be able to get myself some breakfast before the first screening I planned to attend at 10:45am. It was not yet 9:00am and yet I could see that there was a long line of people at the designated “Rush” point. I asked one of the women who was monitoring the line and she recommended that I join it. So there was no way I was going to be able to eat now until after the screening. Looking back on my two days in Toronto, I realize that I spent almost as much time standing up, in line, as I did sitting down in the theatres. Indeed for my third screening of the day, of The Assassin, the film I absolutely HAD to see, I got to the “Rush line” two hours in advance. I was less concerned about getting in to my second film (at 1:45pm), so I was able to get a fast lunch in between.

It was clear from the start that there was a very elaborate system in place with all three of the line operators equipped with walkie-talkies to connect them with an operator at each of the fourteen theatres. Before my first choice film, Mountains May Depart, there were five other screenings, and two of the line people gave out colour-coded tickets as each theatre became available. (The third person was the boss.) One of these films, Hitchcock/Truffaut was the most popular, and not everyone who wanted to see this film got in. By the time that mine was called, there were only five people in front of me, but only those five were let in. When I was finally given access it was only five minutes before the screening was due to start, and on arrival in Theatre 4, I was shocked to note that there were at least 200 empty seats! The operators on the street were very friendly, and there was lots of time to discuss procedures. During my first wait, I had suggested that they could probably let people in earlier than 10 minutes before if the theatre was nowhere near-full, and after this experience, I gave advice to the “boss,” (the only man on duty; the others were always young women) that he should have conversations with the theatre monitors to ease pressure on the street-based female line operators, who were having to do a lot of “anger management” with irate customers.

Hopefully, this very unusual film festival report will draw attention to how the very large scale of TIFF and its huge popularity with audiences of all kinds has caused problems with people like myself who are not major players on the film festival circuit. It is an increasingly complex event, where one never really knows who one is dealing with, nor who one could contact to effectively change one’s situation once the festival begins. I received an e-mail message on August 20 with information on where I should collect my “vouchers” (not “rush vouchers”) from “The Communications team at the Toronto International Film Festival.” I am also familiar with the situation of a Toronto resident cinephile who used to be a huge TIFF participant, but who no longer attends any of the screenings because the system of getting a senior pass has become excessively convoluted and too expensive.

To TIFF or Not to TIFF

Peter Rist, Ph.D has been teaching film history and aesthetics at Concordia University, Montreal, since 1989. He was principal writer for, and edited, Guide to the Cinema(s) of Canada (2001) and (co-edited with Timothy Barnard) South American Cinema: A Critical Filmography, 1915-1994 (1998). His more recent publications (from 2014) include Historical Dictionary of South American Film and a chapter of Electric Shadows: A Century of Chinese Cinema, “Hong Kong: From the Silents to the Second Wave.” He has written extensively on Chinese and Korean cinemas and is a frequent contributor to Offscreen.

Capsule Reviews   chinese cinema   jia zhang-ke   the toronto international film festival   tiff