This year marks my 12th time attending the Toronto International Film Festival, meaning I’ve been coming here for nearly half my life. After making the rounds on the film festival circuit this year – first at Sundance, then at Cannes – I’m still a firm believer that TIFF is the best film festival of them all. And not just because it’s my hometown festival: I’m saying this despite the fact that it’s the only festival that hasn’t extended me proper media accreditation, even though there are always empty seats in the press screenings. TIFF is my favourite festival because it offers the best festival experience, either as a lay person or as a member of the press, because it’s all about celebrating international cinema.
1. More movies + more diverse programming = you’re more likely to find your niche or learn something about the world.
Each year, TIFF programs 300+ films, compared to the ~100 across all sections of Cannes and the ~200 at The Sundance Film Festival. Toronto’s program spans the globe and all genres: in a single day, you can take a trip from West Africa to China to Turkey to Argentina to Bulgaria. In recent years, TIFF has been doing a particularly good job of showcasing Canadian film (which made up a sizable chunk of this year’s Discovery section, a program for first-time filmmakers). But it’s also good at finding new and exciting international auteurs, as well as programming films, which, if nothing else, provide a window into a different culture. There also isn’t a strict hierarchy of films, and with so many films programmed, it’s not possible to see everything, which gives you the freedom to pick and choose the films that are of most interest.
That’s less the case at Sundance and Cannes. While Sundance programs a fair number of international films, its main focus is American cinema, which makes up about half the program: the bizarre foreign film that sells out first at TIFF won’t sell out at Sundance. Generally, the biggest discoveries of the festival are American films, while the international slate is often ignored by audiences and critics unless they can’t find an American film to see.
Although Cannes is ostensibly about international cinema, the Official Competition (films which compete for the prestigious Palme d’Or) is full of films by festival favourites even if the film entered is awful. There are many movies that are merely there for the glamour of attracting the stars involved. This is the only explanation I have for why Ryan Gosling’s first feature won a spot in Un Certain Regard: it was pretty much universally panned (I missed it). I saw a lot of duds at Cannes, and that’s partly because there’s pressure to see certain films (the competition) even if they’re not your cup of tea, while the films on the fringes of the festival get slotted in only as time and energy permit.
2. The talent isn’t just there for the glamour, but to answer questions about the movies, from lay people, in the Q&As. at public screenings.
Almost every film at TIFF has a Q&A, including the ones with the big stars. Although fans will line up for hours to catch a brief glimpse of Benedict Cumberbatch entering the cinema where his new film is premiering, he’s not just there to strut down the red carpet and talk to the press: like all the other celebrities at TIFF, he’s also there to participate in post-screening Q&As with the punters. And most films will have at least one screening with a Q&A with the talent.
The only screenings I attended with Q&As at Cannes were the Director’s Fortnight screenings. At the Un Certain Regard screenings, the master of ceremonies would always be sure to point out all the famous people sitting in the audience (Costa Gavras and the Dardennes ranked among them) and introduce the filmmakers, but the audience never had the opportunity to interact with the talent. Most Sundance screenings also offer Q&As, but the stars are rarely anywhere accessible: they exit and enter via the stage door. By contrast, at TIFF in 2005, I was able to just walk up to Steven Soderbergh at the screening of his film and spend a good 10 minutes talking to him one-on-one.
3. A truly international film festival where audiences come for the cinema and not just the glitz and glam and awards buzz.
The first films to go Off Sale at this year’s TIFF weren’t just star-studded features, but the Swedish black comedy “Force Majeure,” the 3.5-hour inauspiciously-titled-Palme-D’Or-winning “Winter Sleep” from Turkey on a Sunday night at 9PM on the last day of the festival, and the latest film from French auteur François Ozon, “The New Girlfriend.” Yes, the Bill Murray vehicle “St Vincent” sold out quickly, too, but there were far more people disappointed about missing a Swedish film by a virtually unknown director, which has been getting good buzz on the festival circuit. The foreign films were the last to sell out at Sundance, and even at Cannes, the American movies tended to generate the most buzz.
4. No need to line up for P&I screenings & guaranteed, affordable entry to public screenings with a ticket. + big cinemas making both easier.
The pseudo-accreditation TIFF granted me this year allows me to “Rush” Press and Industry screenings: that is, they won’t even consider letting me in until 10 minutes before the film starts. But I’ve never been denied entry to a screening I wanted to attend, even if I showed up only five minutes beforehand, effectively skipping the rush line (I’ve also never been at a P&I screening where all the seats were filled). This is thanks, mostly, to a ton of counter-programming (5+ films are always screening at any given time) and large cinemas, which average about 350 seats. At Cannes, you can line up for 2.5 hours and not get in for a press screening, even if you don’t have the shittiest press pass (it’s a graduated accreditation system). And at Sundance, the press screening cinemas seat less than 200 people, making it easy to get shut out if you’re rushing a film and even if you showed up 30 minutes early with a better press pass.
As a punter, the big advantage of TIFF is that you are guaranteed entry with a ticket, whereas at Cannes, you’re the last group to be let into any screening (i.e. only after all interested press, many of whom often get shut out make it in). Sundance is also accessible to the public, but you’ll pay a big premium to actually be able to buy tickets. Pretty much everything is sold out by the end of the advance ticketing window, and the cheapest way to do advanced ticketing at Sundance is to shell out $50 per ticket: it’s more if you want an earlier selection window. You’ll pay the same at TIFF for a big red carpet screening, but the regular screenings go for $20-24, and the stars will show up to most day-after-the-red-carpet screenings, which are at the cheaper rate. There’s also a greater likelihood of there being a Q&A at that second, less hectic screening.
5. No entitlement bullshit about being awesome enough to attend (even though it’s easier to get accreditation for Cannes than TIFF).
So much of the press coverage coming out of Cannes was incredibly smug: reporters bragged about how amazing it was to be one of the “chosen” to attend the festival, always reminding the rest of the world how much better than them they are. Since TIFF is an audience film festival, anyone with $20 can get a ticket, making it more egalitarian. Ironically, it’s way easier to get media accreditation for Cannes (the seemingly exclusive festival) than for TIFF: Cannes extended me their lowest-priority accreditation, which allowed me to go to as many films as I was able to get into, whereas TIFF offered me 10 opportunities to be let into screenings at the last minute, should someone more important not want the seat. But at TIFF, the public won’t have to wait months to see the same films the press are seeing, which tones down the smugness of the reporting.
6. More nuanced critical reaction to films: everything can’t be divided into “masterpiece” and “worthless trash.”
At Cannes, each day is dedicated to a certain set of films: 1-2 from the Official Competition, 1-2 from the Un Certain Regard sidebar, and 1-2 from each of the other sections. The films premiering on any given day get all the buzz, and, by the next day, everyone’s moved on to the next slate of films. Given this small window, everyone is in a hurry to get his or her review written quickly and published first, both so that it’s still relevant and so that you can help shape the conversation. The result is that I saw reviews declaring the next “masterpiece” published within two hours of the press screening’s finish: these can hardly be considered opinions given how quickly they’re cobbled together. A film designated as a “masterpiece” at Cannes is usually just very good, and when a film is unanimously denounced at “trash,” this usually means it was just OK, like Atom Egoyan’s “Captives.” “Grace of Monaco” was this year’s exception: it was as bad as everyone said.
The conversation at TIFF is different. Partly because there are 300+ films and no obvious 20 films that should be the focus of all coverage, like the Cannes Official Competition, it matters less when you see a film, which also means it matters less exactly when you publish your review. The press (and public) screenings of each film are also scattered throughout the 11-day festival, meaning that there’s only a slight advantage to having your piece published ASAP after the first screening, instead of a day later, or after the second one. The result is that the reviews coming out of TIFF tend to be more reliable and nuanced as than those coming out of Cannes: a film can be great without being a masterpiece and get praised even as its flaws are tallied.
7. Q&A’s after almost every public screening. Still excellent (especially for understanding cultural context) even if bad questions get asked.
Whether it’s a big film with big stars or a small film from a Norwegian arthouse director, the majority of films publicly screened at TIFF, at least in the first six days, are accompanied by a post-screening Q&A with the talent. It’s a great opportunity to engage with the people behind the film. These are especially illuminating for foreign films where the cultural context is extremely important.
At the end of my screening of the Chinese film, “A Touch of Sin,” at last year’s festival, my friends and I gave each other a “what the fuck did we just see?!” look. But after hearing the filmmaker talk about where this fit in the canon of Chinese cinema, we had a much better understanding of where the director was coming from, and consequently, a much better appreciation for the film.
As the festival becomes more and more populist, the quality of questions asked by the audience deteriorates each year. When Tom Tykwer’s “Drei” screened in 2010, someone asked him why he cast such ugly actors even though they were all above-average attractive: they just weren’t supermodels. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get a lot out of the Q&A sessions. When I saw “Oslo, August 31st” at the festival in 2011, every single question asked was eye-rollingly stupid, but director Joaquim Trier just opted to answer smarter version of the questions of his own devising and thus talked intelligently and thoughtfully for the full fifteen minutes.
8. Christie Projectors: the way films were meant to be seen.
If you still think celluloid prints are superior to digital projection, you’ve probably never seen a film projected with a Christie projector. This Canadian company has produced the best digital projectors I’ve ever seen, and at TIFF, they recalibrate the projector for each screening, meaning every film screened looks crisp, clean, and fabulous. When Soderbergh screened “Bubble” at TIFF in 2005, he noted he’d never seen his film look so good.
This is the way movies were meant to be seen. Now that I live in Northern California, where the digital projection is decidedly less good, I spend the first day of every TIFF just elated about how fabulous the Christie projectors work. Sundance and Cannes have followed suit, now projecting every film digitally, but they took much longer to adopt the technology than TIFF did, and the projection never looks as perfect as it does at TIFF.
9. Stadium seating in most cinemas (or other design choices), which means tall heads don’t block the screen or the subtitles.
As a short person, I have many stories of the time the tallest person in the cinema decided to sit in front of me, thereby causing me to bob side to side. This is my most vivid memory of seeing “Russian Ark.” Having part of the screen blocked for a film in my mother tongue is one thing, but having half of the subtitles blocked is much, much worse.
Thankfully, almost all of the screens at TIFF have stadium seating, and those that don’t tend to be designed in such a way that the tall person in front of you still isn’t blocking the subtitles. Bliss.
At Cannes, however, the bottom portion of the screen was often blocked a little, and to make matters worse, the English subtitles were projected underneath the screen. Thankfully, I speak French, so I trained myself to read the French subtitles, which are printed on the film (the English ones were almost never visible), but even those still got blocked now and then. Mostly, at Cannes, I had to sit on the far outside aisle or plan to spend the entire film bobbing up and down just to read the French subtitles. This was less of an issue at Sundance, where most films are English language and several of the cinemas have stadium seating.
10. Caters to locals.
Although TIFF has become very important on the international cinema scene, it’s a festival that primarily caters to the local middle-class: it’s pricey but affordable to attend, and the majority of audiences are Torontonians. In recent years, we’ve been getting more audience members from around the globe, taking an 11-day vacation in Toronto to absorb the latest in world cinema. But at its core, this international film festival is for the multicultural Torontonian audience. And the Toronto folks that take 11 days off work to see 3+ films per day are the real lifeblood of the festival. Sundance also has public screenings, but they’re pricey and mainly targeted at rich out-of-towners and industry types: locals steer clear of what they condescendingly call the PIBs (People In Black). On the other side of the spectrum, Cannes is almost exclusively for press, industry, and the well-connected. Although they do make some screenings available to the locals that’s more a case of trying to give back to the community than trying to cater to the local audience. Every day at Cannes, I was confronted with scores of locals holding signs begging for invitations to that evening’s screening: most press don’t even have those and we’re certainly not allowed to give them away if we do.