When did TIFF-mas become TIFF-miss?
A wise veteran filmgoer that has been attending the Toronto International Film Festival for over ten years used to describe the Festival as TIFF-mas, as it is a time of joy and celebration, and, most importantly, we never know which presents we are going to get to unwrap. This year’s festival, which ironically used the tagline “This is Your Festival”, seemed to belong to us even less. When the Fest began, it seemed as though this TIFF-mas was lacking a certain presence, and of presents. In the spirit of TIFFmas, we have some ideas of how to make the experience get back into the giving mood.
Let’s start with the Opening Night Film. On July 22nd, during the first round of announcements for the upcoming slate of TIFF films, something seemed a little… off. It was only after the presser was over, and the films started being perused, when it dawned on us…they didn’t announce an opening night film! Now for a bit of history: in the past, TIFF used to select a Canadian film for opening night, but in recent years, it was done a little bit differently, with a music documentary about an Irish band in 2011, a American-Chinese co-pro in 2012, and an English movie about an Australian in 2013. This year, though, TIFF went with a purely American film and in a strange way. The announcement was made the same day that The Judge would be showing as a Gala at this year’s festival, but a few days later, TIFF took to Twitter to announce that The Judge became 2014’s Opening Night film, along with a photo of Robert Downey Jr. holding a Canadian flag. This method of execution made it seem like TIFF had one movie in mind for the start of the festival, could not get their first choice, and then slotted in another one. Worse, the choice of The Judge seemed strange, as the film did not seem to pass the eye test of being a “TIFF” film, never mind one that should have been playing on the Opening Night of the Festival. Though it brands itself as TIFF, it is still the Toronto International Film Festival. For the Opening Night Film, perhaps they could consider returning to a Toronto (or Canadian) film, or perhaps one that is International, but most of all, one that best reflects the idea of TIFF being a prestigious and populist event.
Every year, TIFF is a hotspot for fans because they hear that the stars are coming out, and that TIFF is going to be a draw for the biggest actors and celebrities in the world, leading to the creation of Festival Street, which actually worked out quite well. This year’s festival opening weekend just seemed to be somewhat starless in retrospect, and what is more, seemed to be feting stars that have already had their moment to shine, or are just not big enough draws anymore. When looking at the movies that were considered “premium” on the Opening weekend, the names Al Pacino (also the special guest at TIFF’s Opening Night Gala, with tickets costing $1500 each), Kevin Costner, Dustin Hoffman, Denzel Washington, Bill Murray, Richard Gere and Morgan Freeman stand out. Even the cancelled screening of Maggie was in part a draw because of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Believe it or not, comedians Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler, Will Ferrell and Chris Rock are all pushing fifty. Aside from Adam Driver, Ansel Elgort and Jake Gyllenhaal, and British stars Tom Hardy, Max Irons, Douglas Booth, Sam Claflin and Eddie Redmayne where was the next generation of Hollywood leading men on the opening weekend of what is supposed to be the biggest public film festival? At times, it felt like something of an Old Boy’s Club. If this is our festival, then where are the young stars? Eventually, some younger draws made it to town, like Miles Teller, Andrew Garfield, Channing Tatum, Hayden Christensen, Chris Evans, Josh Hutcherson, Benedict Cumberbatch, (thirty-eight), Ethan Hawke (forty-four) and Robert Pattinson but by that point, it was already the middle of the festival.
It almost seemed like a tale of two festivals, with TIFF premieres at first, and Telluride-players later. This was the year that movies that screened at Telluride were punished, with a new rule that these films could not show on TIFF’s Opening Weekend. This created an issue with scheduling for many TIFF-goers, who could not squeeze as many films into their schedule, especially those that could not take off the time at the outset of the workweek. Many films were scheduled for the Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday from the outset, (Foxcatcher, Whiplash, 99 Homes, The Imitation Game, Seymour: An Introduction, Rosewater, Wild, Mr. Turner), but Nick Broomfield’s Tales of the Grim Sleeper, which was originally scheduled for opening weekend, played Telluride, and then got bumped from its spot on opening weekend, and as such, many people were not able to see it with finalized schedules. The highly anticipated Birdman was at Telluride, but skipped TIFF entirely, instead becoming NYFF’s closing night film. Furthermore, the most celebrated movie and perhaps only potential Best Picture winner was The Imitation Game, which first screened on a Tuesday, whereas all of TIFF’s previous Oscar hopefuls showed on the opening weekend, including last year’s 12 Years a Slave, which was at Venice and Telluride, but built much of its buzz at TIFF, and may have prompted this year’s change. What is more is that it felt as though this change did not properly punish the films or the filmmakers, but the people, as there seemed to be a strong demarcation between the first and second ‘legs’ of the festival.
TIFF ticket prices reached an all-time, with a fifty cent increase over the previous year, and only a small discount given to package buyers. Perhaps most egregiously, Premium tickets, once a rarity, became more commonplace. But a Premium experience does not always correspond to a premium ticket. The idea of using Roy Thompson Hall to show Gala films is an interesting one, as Galas receive the longest and most popular Red Carpets. But how does this procession benefit the ticket holders for Galas at Roy Thompson Hall? For starters, the Gala Red Carpets have recently started being held far away from the ticketholders. Galas are always Premium, (meaning that they cost $46 a ticket), but to purchase them from the general system, TIFF-goers are guaranteed to sit only in the balcony, as RTH employs a rigid pod system. Worst is that after shelling out a premium and being forced to sit at the top, moviegoers at Roy Thompson Hall are almost never treated to any sort of Q&A, and very rarely a long introduction, as walking down the Red Carpet causes many of the films start late. At least Premiums at the Elgin, Ryerson and Princess of Wales ensure Q&A’s for first screening, but since the line is that Premiums correspond to a Red Carpet, there is little or no benefit to the ticketholder. Even the vaunted Midnight Madness program broke through the Premium barrier in 2012, though at least the film that year was particularly star-studded, compared to this year’s Tusk, which featured Haley Joel Osment and Justin Long (not ones to inspire extreme fandom, but if they do, more power to you!) seemed like an unnecessary premium. Seeing a film at Midnight Madness is said to be like watching a movie with a “real”, (read, “people’s” crowd), but at the showing of What We Do in the Shadows, a girl in front was bragging about her photo with Jemaine Clement, and behind, a woman took photos almost constantly during the Q&A with a camera with a powerful flash.
Therein lies the divergent futures of TIFF-mas. Do we want it to be a festival of the people, when the people seem to demand (expect!) photo selfies and autographs (the promo pictures that went along with this year’s TIFF showed audiences standing in red carpet lines, and not one showed fans actually watching a film), or do we want it to be an elite festival, catering to VIPs and corporations, (and by the way, RBC, did we really need to ‘get through this’ two years in a row?) with priority lines and roped-off sections of reserved seating? Do we want Bill Murray Day, with free screenings and long Q&A’s, but also a sense that the event is somehow pandering to non-festival people, or the nighttime capper of Bill Murray Day screening of St. Vincent, which was oversold, (along with The Drop), and held in the large Princess of Wales theatre, with a big red carpet and a reasonably short Q&A?
There must a middle ground. This is our festival. But what kind of festival do we want?