Interview: The creators of TIFFR discuss their beginnings and improving the festival experience
Scene Creek recently had the opportunity to sit down with Ryan Ming and Mina Mikhail. You may not know their names, but if you’re an avid TIFF-goer you’ve most likely been to their website, tiffr.com. They provide a service to help make your TIFF scheduling process as painless as possible. TIFFR has become the essential tool for every cinephile attending TIFF.
We sat down with Ryan and Mina on one of the busiest nights of the year for the duo – the day the official TIFF schedule was released. Fortunately they took a break from coding to tell us about the history of TIFFR, their experiences along the way, and where they plan to take TIFFR in the future.
Scene Creek: How did you guys meet?
Ryan: We met at University.
Mina: University of Waterloo and we were both in computer engineer together. It was the year 2000.
How did TIFFR start and whose idea was it?
Mina: Well, I’ll give Ryan credit for the name at the very least. I’ve been a film buff for ages. I’ve been going to TIFF since the year 2000. I’ve only missed one year over the last fourteen. I’m pretty hardcore about movies – love them. I was doing the TIFF thing for many years and I thought, “There’s no reason why this has to be this hard”. Why do I have to spend a week of planning to do something for fun? Although it is kinda of fun to read about the movies, but the part where you have to schedule them is a nightmare. Reading the movies is fun.
We’ve discussed it a few times, but never did anything about it. In 2006 and 2007 and by 2008 we were a little bit freer with our jobs and we decided to do it but then we didn’t get anywhere for TIFF 2008. By TIFF 2009 we deiced to learn Ruby on Rails and use this as our project to learn.
So TIFFR was a platform for you to focus on developing your skill set?
Mina: Yeah, at that time I was just doing freelance. I was traveling ‘cause I had worked with Ryan. He was working at a financial services company and I went and did a contract with them for six months and then took that money and just traveled for a year or more less. I was bouncing around and was all over the place. I was in Jamaica for a bit and during this period we were building it out and then we launched it in 2009. That was the first year. That’s when we were using the bookmarklet. It was a really elegant solution to something where we didn’t want to step on their toes of their website. We didn’t want to duplicate the tiff website, we just wanted to compliment it.
That worked out really well. We ended up immediately getting hired by a company called that used to be called The Auteurs but then changed its name to MUBI. They were in Silicon Valley so we were going back and forth for a bit. Then that job ended up with us moving to London, England building a PlayStation application for them and a couple of other cool things, and also going to the Cannes Film Festival. It was a VOD platform for European and festival films. There were people who worked at the company who would go to the film festivals. As perks we would get to go as well sometimes. Which was pretty cool. It was a great marriage of the two things we really enjoy: movies and technology. We got to meet a lot of great people and we lived in London in a pretty badass part of town. We had a great flat. We were flat mates. It was a little intense because we were living together and working together.
All of this was because of TIFFR?
Mina: All of this has been because of TIFFR. TIFFR has been a big part of our lives. Even when we were living in London we were intent on making it work. In fact Ryan flew back and did TIFF the first year we were there.
How did you come with the TIFFR name?
Ryan: It was kind of around the time when every web service had “r” at the end like Flickr. I can’t remember a single other one.
Ryan: Tumblr! Thank you!
Mina: He was, like, “TIFFr!” And I was, like, “That’s brilliant!”
Ryan: And no one has known how to pronounce it since.
Mina: We’ve spelled it different ways. All caps with the “r” lowercase. All lowercase. Ryan: One with just a capital R.
How was TIFFR during the first launch and how was it received?
Mina: The first year we were really gung-ho about it. We were trying to remap up and get people involved. It was 2009 so we were doing a little bit of social media but mostly we printed out postcards. I was volunteering for TIFF at the time and I asked them straight up because I was with the sponsorship team.
The box office was Nathan Phillips Square that year and they had the big tent. I asked, “Do you mind if we just put these on the desk along with everything else so we can people to try and use it?” And they replied, “Absolutely not! Do not do that. You will get in trouble if you do that. People pay a lot of money to have their postcards on this table.” I acquiesced, “Okay, I’m not going to do that.”
So the next day I went down and I stood out in front and I just handed them out to everyone who was picking up their package. Someone told me to leave eventually. The following day I went to the office to pick up my sheet for all the venues I had to shoot and they reprimanded me there too. (laughs) They heard about it. “I heard you were handing out cards,” they accused. I was flabbergasted, “Are you really that threatened by me? I’m a dude with postcards. I’m giving away something for free that benefits your business. I don’t understand in any way why this is a problem.” (laughs)
The first year it was good. We knew immediately because we saved a ton of time when it came down to actually doing it. It was enjoyable it wasn’t this tedious process using pen and paper
Ryan: That’s always the goal though. To scratch your own itch. That’s how we knew it was successful.
Did you guys ever approach TIFF with your app?
Mina: We ended up having a meeting with TIFF in February of 2010 the year after we launched. We reached out to them and said, “Hey, there’s a bunch of people that use this.” Not tons of people but we probably had like 300 users first it the first year. We had our meeting with the Director of Technology at TIFF (I think that’s what his title was I don’t remember) and it was unreal from our perspective. At that point we simply said, “Hey, we made this thing it’s fun, we’re
not going to make any money off this we want to give it to you. We want you guys to take advantage of it because it’s useful.” All we were asking in return was for them to give us the schedule in advance because it’s really challenging. At that point in TIFF history the schedule was released like three days before you had to make your selection so you only had a very small window. It isn’t like the week and a half you have now or whatever it is.
So we said it would be great if they would give us the schedule because if we burn one of the days that’s the end of it. If they got everyone on board and sponsor it, TIFF could get all this interesting data see who’s going to which movie, which movies have a lot of hype, and stuff like that. TIFF’s response was basically, “We do not care. There’s no value in this. No one cares about what you’re doing.” (laughs)
Ryan: Well the other thing they said was… (Mina interrupts)
Mina: If you build us an iPhone app for free we might help you out. Ryan: That was the second clause. We were just dumbfounded.
Mina: We were, like, “Uhhhhh. No.” It was the middle of winter and we had trudged out to their office at College and Yonge and then we left there and we were, like, “Yo, If we make you an iPhone app this is going to cost you a lot of money – a lot of money” Now it cost double. If we did it any point in the past it would’ve cost you a certain amount, now double. Just based on this conversation. That was the dumbest conversation I ever had.
Ryan: It’s clear he never went to the website before.
Mina: He never went to the website. We had the meeting set from before Christmas, it was February and he never went to tiffr.com. We had to explain to him what he did and show him how it worked and he saw no value in this. That was in 2010. It wasn’t the greatest experience with TIFF.
So you guys were crushed?
Mina: Nah. We were just angry. It was upsetting and irritating. But every year there’s different people. There’s a lot of turnover at TIFF. It’s not like he was being malicious – he was just not plugged into what the possibilities were. Which was weird because he was a tech guy. From their perspective their main limiting factor was protecting sponsorships because that’s how they get their money. They were thinking that this could threaten sponsorships that they have because one of their main sponsors at the time was RIM (Blackberry). They were like, “We have an exclusivity deal with Blackberry. We can’t make apps for any other phones.” That’s why they wanted this iPhone thing through the back door.
So that’s what was going on. They need to protect that stuff. I don’t blame them. I totally understand that perspective. They’re not for profit. They have to throw this huge festival every year. It’s not cheap. That’s how they get their money. I don’t want to threaten that -I want to augment it. I felt like that was an opportunity lost.
In fact I do believe that meeting was set up through Cameron Bailey.
Ryan: It was.
Mina: We reached out to him via email through a friend of mine and then he just directed us on to that guy.
Do you reach out to TIFF every year?
Mina: Every year we reach out to them and figure out who’s in charge of the tech side. We no longer do it way in advance we just do it when it’s convenient for us. I get the impression that they’re not always – I don’t know – but that they’re not always on the ball on what direction they’re taking early in the year. As we get closer to the festival people are more stressed but they have more information. We’ve dealt with a lot of awesome people who work there and they do their best to help us out if they can.
Ryan: I’m just going to say that there are really awesome people who work at TIFF. But we’re still hoping to get the same thing we wanted.
Mina: Every year we ask for the same things. One: Can you give us the schedule in some kind of API or some feed that we can parse? Two: Can you give us the Press and industry schedule directly? That has always been a no. The first one has always been kind of like one year it’s yes, one year it’s no. This year absolutely nothing.
Wouldn’t they be worried about you leaking the schedule in advance?
Ryan: It’s public information! As soon as it’s printed on paper it’s public.
Mina: The leaking it in advance, maybe… That’s not really the issue. I really truly believe, as far as I understand what they do from all the years that we’ve been dealing with it, it’s not that they don’t want to tell us the schedule. It’s that the schedule isn’t finalized until the very last day when they put it out. Even still, you know from going to TIFF that the schedule changes slightly as the festival is going.
The schedule must be pretty final if they’re printing all these books out.
Mina: I think they get those books printed at the very last moment at the 11th hour. I don’t think it’s super planned because they’re in competition with all these major film festivals. Venice, Telluride and Montreal. Montreal kind of lost at this point. Venice and Telluride the last couple of years have been eating their lunch. Last year 12 Years a Slave with Telluride, that was a really big blow. That’s why TIFF changed their whole structure where they said they’re only gonna play world and North American premieres in the first four days and if you screw them over your film gets bumped.
How has the growth of the site been from 2009? Does every year get crazier?
I wouldn’t say it’s that crazy, but it’s pretty steady growth. We always grow we don’t shrink so that’s good. There was one year where we had a blip because it took us three days and there were only like 5 days. It took three of the five days to get the full schedule and everything working. We had a lot of bugs. We had a bit of drop off that year, but we grow. It’s not a massive website and it’s use is only for what, a month? (laugh)
Do you ever plan to put ads on TIFFR and do you guys ever planned to monetize the site?
Mina: Nah. We’re not really big on ads. We talked about monetizing. That’s why we’re transitioning to the name RUSHLINE. So it’s not to TIFF related and trying to branch out. This year we ran the same system for Hot Docs 2014. That was cool. They gave us everything we asked for.
Were they really co-operative?
Mina: We had one call with them. They sent us all the images and data and we just put the site together.
Ryan: We put that together in one weekend.
How long does it take to complete TIFFR from the day you get the schedule?
Mina: It’s around 3 – 4 days of solid stuff. Not always, but there are always issues. But probably that’s the amount we budget.
Ryan: The way the data is presented ever year changes so we have nothing to work with.
Mina. And we don’t know until the day that the schedule is out. Our data model hasn’t changed in years but theirs changes wildly. So we have to take whatever they got and funnel it into our objects. Which is a bulk of the problem. If we had some sort of known path that we could follow every time then we could be way smoother.
Ryan: You’d be surprised how much hand typed data there is that doesn’t validate properly.
Mina: Oh yeah, everything they do is manual. You can tell that just by looking at the data. Because sometimes you’ll have a film and the category name is misspelled. How does that happen? It’s because someone is typing that in every time. (laughs)
Do you guys hope to branch out for RUSHLINE? What’s the goal?
Mina: The idea there was to target cultural festivals. So film music and theatre and see if it had any traction. We kind of gave it a go last year trying to get in touch with people. Not a full on effort I don’t think but there was some interest. But we didn’t have everything set up the way we wanted to do, then we got jobs, and we were, like, we’ll see how this goes in the long term.
Will RUSHLINE be back for Hot Docs next year?
Mina: Hopefully. We’re trying to partner with hot docs and maybe some other festivals to see if we can iron out some more kinks and if it can get better. We got some plans for some other technologies.
Ryan: Half the point is to learn stuff too.
Where do you hope to see TIFFR in ten years? What’s the end goal?
Mina: The end game? I’m not sure. We’ll just keep running it. One thing that we were thinking about is that we have a whole bunch of other ideas around film festivals stuff. More monetizable ideas about things that we would build around film festivals. We’ll see how they integrate with this.
Ryan: One of the original goals or motivations behind building TIFFR when we started in 2007/2008 was that the film festival’s own site was horrible. It’s gotten better – it’s still very frustrating in a lot of ways – but it’s gotten a lot better since 2007/2008 so towards that point maybe in 10 years TIFFR won’t be necessary.
Mina: Maybe in ten years they won’t need us. Maybe they’ll have their own stuff that’s not bad. (laughs) That’s good.
Or maybe they’ll just clone you?
Mina: Yeah, we’ve been waiting for years for that to happen. It’s shocking that it hasn’t.
I don’t think it will happen.
Mina: I don’t think so. I think they have a lot of constraints stopping them from making that a reality.