Pre-Pre-TIFF

There's nothing wrong with summer, but as soon as Independence Day is over, I start looking ahead to fall, my favorite season for a number of reasons. The Arkansas heat lets up enough that we can open up the windows and run the attic fan instead of the AC, giving our house a fresh, autumn-y smell, instead of the usual aroma of kid-poop and yesterday's spaghetti dinner. The kids are back in school. The new TV season starts. There's football on TV on the weekends, and meaningful baseball games all week long. I celebrate my birthday and my wedding anniversary. And–increasingly the highlight of the fall–I get to go to the Toronto International Film Festival.

Ticket packages for TIFF go on sale today for Visa credit-card-holders, and guess what: You can go! You can totally go. Airfare and lodging aside–and don't count on finding a hotel room close to the action at this late date, by the way–tickets for Toronto screenings are surprisingly affordable, and not that hard to get. The biggest expense for non-Torontonians is what the festival calls the "out-of-town service," which covers the charges for shipping and processing ticket orders during the three-day crunch after the full schedule is announced on August 28th. That'll set you back 150 bucks, though the festival does throw in a 30-dollar full-colour programme book. As for the ticket packages, they range from a 10-ticket deal that costs, again, 150 bucks, to a 50-ticket book that's just over 500. (Your best value!) You can also buy a "daytime pass" that'll get you into 25 movies of your choice, so long as they start before 5 pm. That's 200 bucks, and a reasonable option, because unlike a lot of other festivals, TIFF screens nearly every movie twice, and the biggest movies usually re-run during the day.

(All prices are in Canadian dollars, but unlike when I first started going to TIFF, the exchange rate doesn't give U.S. citizens much of an edge. For example, $100 CAN = $95 USD as of today.)

You can even buzz into town for a couple of days and scare up tickets to some of the lesser-known movies that haven't sold out yet. Or if there's something you desperately want to see–like The Coen Brothers' No Country For Old Men–you can get in the "rush line" a couple of hours ahead of time and there's a good chance you'll be one of the people to squeeze into the remaining front-row seats (or back row, in the case of the cavernous Elgin Theater).

The point is that of all the major film festivals, Toronto may be the easiest for non-media/non-industry types to attend. It's like a 10-day convention of cinephiles, pro and non-pro alike. And hardcore attendees have developed their own mini-culture, based around noodle bowls, street vendor hot dogs, friendly arguments on street corners and last-second schedule changes to accommodate tiny films that get unexpected raves. Last week, Greencine linked to a cool new blog, 1st Thursday, which deals with everything that goes into attending the festival, including how long it takes to get from theater to theater. Even if I'd never been to TIFF and had no plans to go, I think I'd find Darren Hughes' blog interesting, just as a glimpse into the ins-and-outs of fest-going.

But one aspect of TIFF-going that I haven't seen written about much–though veterans often talk about it amongst themselves–is the emotional rollercoaster of "announcement season." From the moment Cannes ends, TIFF-goers start contemplating which of the most hotly buzzed Cannes titles will make it to Toronto. (Answer: Pretty much all of them.) And then we start watching the preliminary announcements from Venice and New York–the former because they often schedule must-see films that we didn't previously know existed, and the latter because whatever gets pegged as the opening night NYFF film won't be playing TIFF. (So no Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited for us in Toronto this year.)

Since this year's Cannes was reportedly one of the strongest in about a decade, the first wave of TIFF announcements was packed with goodies: the Coen Brothers, Faith Akin, Roy Andersson, Carlos Reygadas, Anton Corbijn, Béla Tarr and Jacques Rivette all have new films I won't want to leave Toronto without seeing, and though I'm not as excited by the work of Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Alexander Sokurov or Pen-ek Ratanaruang, they all have devotees who'll be waiting for their new films as much as anything else.

The next really big announcement day will be July 23rd, when the full slates for "Midnight Madness" and "Wavelengths" will be unveiled (as will the slates for "Sprockets Family Zone" and "Canadian Retrospective," both of which surely matter to someone). And the next key date after that is August 21st, when all the festival titles will be announced. But in the interim, the Toronto organizers will dribble out another handful of films every week or so, prompting the inevitable excitement of, "Hey, new TIFF announcements!" followed the inevitable disappointment of, "Oh, they're showing Helen Hunt's directorial debut! Who gives a shit?"

Every film fest has its own character, whether it be Sundance with its preponderance of alternately quirky and dreary Amerindies, or Cannes with its love of placid, static, elusive Euro-fare. Since TIFF is sort of the "festival of festivals," it contains its share of both of those, as well as plenty of the kind of movies that top-line the countless regional fests scattered across the country. The kind of movies that get made because some semi-big star or another is willing to take a pay cut in order to get his or her indie cred on.

Because TIFF is a business, and because newswire services and local news channels are more likely to carry the story that "Helen Hunt will walk the red carpet in Toronto" than, say, "John Sayles has a new movie that doesn't look ungodly dull," the Toronto organizers tend to spotlight things like Helen Hunt's directorial debut. And heck, maybe Hunt's film, an adaptation of Elinor Lipman's novel Then She Found Me, will turn out to be good. Or it may turn out to be a non-starter that'll eventually get buried by some indie film distributor in their spring 2008 release schedule–or even 2009. Personally, I'll be waiting until I hear some buzz before I clear a spot in my TIFF-going day.

But while I don't blame the TIFF powers for trying to secure a little star power, it is bemusing how certain types of star-driven films are almost guaranteed a prime slot. Films directed by actors. Mopey psychodramas. Half-hearted genre exercises. Dryly serious sociopolitical fare. It it's got Sigourney Weaver or Bette Midler or Ryan Gosling, then for at least one night, the Toronto organizers will make it seem like an Oscar-winning blockbuster in the making.

Of course, sometimes they're right. Crash--the kind of multi-star vehicle that TIFF veterans greet with shrugs when it gets announced--screened in '04 to little critical attention, then was released in the spring '05 dead zone to mixed reviews and surprisingly strong box office. And then it won Best Picture, overtaking TIFF '05 sensation and critical darling Brokeback Mountain. Though as anyone who attended TIFF '05 can tell you, Brokeback Mountain wasn't being pegged as a best-of-the-year contender either, until it screened to a rapturous reception. Brokeback wasn't anywhere near a "oh crap, a movie by Helen Hunt" kind of situation, but certainly people approached it with more caution than lust (to quote another Ang Lee film that will most likely be announced for TIFF '07 soon).

So that's the game we play at this time of year, rolling our eyes at some announcements, salivating at others, and approaching a lot of films with an exasperated "who knows?" Because we can't wait for September, we take every July dispatch more seriously than we should. That's part of the experience.

And did I mention you could have it too? Because you can totally have it too.

Filed Under: Film

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