How to do the Toronto International Film Festival - Real Tips For Real People #4 Last of a four-part series

In How to do the Toronto Film Festival - Real Tips For Real People #1, I offered some general advice for travelers headed to the 36th Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), which runs from September 8-18. For those deciding what to see, I also posted a handy guide, How to decide what to see at the Toronto International Film Festival. Then in Real Tips For Real People #2 we went over some of the rules, etiquette, and secrets of what happens from the moment you enter the theater until you leave. And Wednesday, in Real Tips For Real People #3, I helped guide you through the logistics of getting from place to place in order to calculate travel time between venues.

The final consideration in deciding how big a gap to allow between the end of one screening and start of another can be summed up in three words: waiting in line, and I'll cover that in this set of tips. When I talk to people who haven't been to TIFF (or any festival, for that matter) the term "waiting in line" usually elicits looks of horror. But to those of us who've been there, the reaction is more of a big grin.
You see, waiting in line is a time-honored tradition which ranks right up there with Thanksgiving dinners, family reunions, and holiday barbecues. It's a time when festival veterans meet up with folks they may only see once a year, and make new friends whom they hope to see in future Septembers. Waiting in line also offers one of the best opportunities to fill out your schedule with one question posed to a line mate: "So what have you liked so far?"

1) First, some non-venue-specific generalities. Each location handles it differently but there are usually two lines: one for ticket holders and the "rush line," for those who will fill any empty seats just prior to the screening. Ticket holders get in first. Once they're seated rush line patrons may purchase individual tickets and take any empty seats remaining at that point. The official festival policy for ticket holders states, "Your tickets guarantee admission to your film until 15 minutes prior to the posted screening time. If you arrive fewer than 15 minutes before the start, your seat may be released. Latecomers will only be seated at the discretion of the theatre staff. There will be no admittance 10 minutes after the scheduled start time of a screening." For the purposes of this article I'll assume you're a ticket holder, as the procedure for getting tickets is itself worthy of an entire article.

2) Upon arrival at the venue you should immediately be able to see where the lines are located and which is which. If not, there are usually clearly marked signs and there is always a multitude of volunteers who really are extremely helpful. If you're lost or confused, do not hesitate to ask for help. They usually have the answer and, if not, can get on the horn and flag down someone who does. Chances are the people in line also know what line they're in.

3) Take your place at the end of the appropriate line and try to spark up a conversation with someone ahead of you (or behind you, as you surely won't be last for long). Even if you're with one or more people it's a smart thing to get to know the folks around you, especially since you may be standing together (or sitting) for a long, long time.

4) Normal social rules don't necessarily apply here. It is generally not considered rude to "overhear" someone else's conversation about a particular film and ask a question or give your opinion about it. Of course there are exceptions, but of the hundreds of times I've done it I rarely recall anyone treating me with disdain for poking my head in to discuss a film. Likewise, you should expect others to hear what you are saying and be prepared for them to chime in. It goes without saying that the reaction you get will vary if the person hasn't seen anything yet or hated everything they have seen. It's okay to slink away and slyly turn to someone else. Just be sure to avoid spoilers. Saying anything that might give away important plot points for those who might be within earshot and haven't yet seen the film being discussed is a big "no-no." Everyone waiting in line is part of one big community (I've actually waited in line and joined in a rousing chorus of "Kum Ba Yah," but that was at a Midnight Madness screening at the Ryerson and those patrons, myself included, have their own unique subculture).

5) Naturally, some prefer to simply carry a good book or read the morning paper. But you'd be surprised how fast the time flies when you're engaged in conversation about the films you've seen and liked, didn't like, or hope to see. Some of my favorite films from festivals past were called to my attention from discussions while waiting in line. I've also learned what to avoid. I can't stress it any more: I have never turned to someone standing next to me and asked, "So what have you seen/liked/not liked so far?" and not gotten into an engaging conversation. Even folks who look like they've had the worst day can be the most pleasant when approached. I've made some great friends this way and lifelong relationships can be forged while waiting in line.

6) Now for some venue-specific tips. Like my earlier posts, this is not meant to be all-encompassing, but just some points based on my own experiences at these venues. Some rules apply to all locations. For example, the larger the party the less likely you'll find seats together, and the earlier you'll want to arrive (and the longer you'll wait in line) if you do want to. If you're solo or don't mind sitting apart you can afford to arrive later (and not wait as long).

7) Of the several multiplexes utilized by the festival, my personal favorite is the Scotiabank at Richmond and John Streets. Outside the building you'll find festival volunteers clearly separating those entering and exiting. After passing through the doors you'll be directed up what must be one of the longest single escalators in North America. You're even entertained with a sound and light show as you ascend. You'll then walk through an intimate circular lobby with a food court and even a small cafe with hot drinks and tables.

The Scotiabank dedicates five screens to the festival and, depending on the theater, the line will either snake bank-style around ropes outside the house doors or along a wall towards the rear. At first glance it looks like mayhem but is actually very well-organized. It's quite easy to leave the line and come back for any reason as neighbors generally are happy to hold your place. The popcorn and poutine may be irresistible. The houses vary in size from one to several hundred.

In my experience the lines here are not as long as at other venues, perhaps because it's not as centrally located and uses less screens than the larger AMC. In most cases if I showed up an hour beforehand I'd be first in line. A wait of a half hour is usually sufficient. I've staggered in ten minutes prior to the start of the film and still gotten a good seat, although I don't recommend it and the festival does not guarantee admission less than 15 minutes before the start of a film. Of course, all this varies depending on the popularity of the film, size of the house, time of day, and number of screenings the film may already have had. In my opinion these are the coziest lines because they're indoors and comfortable.

8) As I mentioned in a previous post, the AMC 24 in Toronto Life Square, at the bustling intersection of Yonge and Dundas, is situated within a large multi-level mall. Due to the cramped, narrow nature of the space upstairs where the theatres are, and fire regulations, the festival has had to be creative. For awhile lines were held outside the building and stretched around the corner. There was one single line for all ticketholders and one rush line. Since the folks waiting in line may have been there for a half dozen different films beginning at staggered times on the many screens dedicated to TIFF (nine this year), staffers would yell out the name of the film and those ticketholders would step out of the line and move forward.

Patrons would then be escorted up several flights of escalators prior to the start of each film. Those attending successive screenings there faced a dilemma. It's a bit frustrating to walk out of a theater knowing your next film starts in just a few minutes in the exact same house and have to leave the building and get back in a line stretching halfway around the block. So some filmgoers found a place to chill in the food court and carefully observed the lines as they headed up the several flights of escalators. The festival instituted various methods of combating this as time went on by trying out different arrangements. One year ticketholders waited inside a vacant store on another floor. The best one had rush line patrons outside the building as before, but those holding tickets could form a line in the lobby outside the theatre entrances in amusement park-like fashion. Only two or, at most, three screenings would be near their start times at any given point so it was relatively easy to lump all filmgoers into one group and separate them out as seating began.

Theatre capacities here vary as well but since one line was used for all screenings it was very deceptive. One might arrive to see a rush line of several hundred people winding its way down the block, and a similarly large group upstairs in the lobby, and yet they may all have been there for another film. It was nearly impossible to tell how good a spot you had and very hard to predict how early to get there. I usually allowed up to an hour but, again, all this varies depending on the popularity of the film, size of the house, time of day, and number of screenings the film may already have had.

In general I've found this venue to be much more popular than Scotiabank but with longer lines. It was not a very pleasant experience and a bit confusing although the volunteers did their best and it didn't take away from the experience. Patrons on the sidewalk also had to contend with college students and workers coming and going throughout the day.

9)The sparkling new TIFF Bell Lightbox opened last year towards the end of the festival. I did manage to make it for several screenings on the last couple of days but the venue was so new that staffers were still trying to determine the logistics of shepherding filmgoers into the theatres. The lines were short, however, and kept inside the building, just outside the theatre entrances. Signage was not yet complete so the building presented itself as a maze of ramps and staircases. It was a challenge navigating my way to the appropriate locations. But I think it's safe to assume that the festival has ironed out the kinks and things should run like clockwork there this year. The seats were stiff and a bit uncomfortable but they were brand new and, I hope, just needed to be broken in. But the acoustics are a marvel. I've never been in any theatre that deadened echoes as much as this one. The sound from the speakers was shockingly pure and unadulterated. Festivalgoers should enjoy this new venue.

10) If only by virtue of the mathematics involved, most people will see the bulk of their films at the above multiplexes. But there are a handful of other venues, proscenium arch theatres with stages and converted auditoriums, which host many festival screenings. These include some of the most high-profile ones in the Galas and Special Presentations sections. The biggest red carpet events take place at Roy Thomson Hall. Many big buzz films are also at the Visa Screening Room (Elgin Theatre). In the past, the above venues were the only ones which hosted "premium" screenings. Last year this arrangement changed. Many first showings are now designated as "premium" at other theatres as well. These include Winter Garden, Isabel Bader, Ryerson, and a new addition to TIFF, the 2000-seat Princess of Wales Theatre. The TIFF Bell Lightbox, which opened during last year's festival, will also host premium screenings.

11) Roy Thomson Hall is used exclusively for films in the Galas section. It's the largest venue at the festival with 2630 seats. Located to the south at King and Simcoe Streets, security is extremely tight here with the presence of VIPs. There are separate entrances for certain festival donors and honored guests. You'll likely pass through several security checkpoints before being directed to whatever line you need to wait in. Lines snake around ropes on the sidewalk and can be quite long. An hour wait is certainly a good bet given the popularity of these films.

12) The Visa Screening Room (Elgin) and Winter Garden Theatre sit double-decker in a building above Queen on Yonge Street. Organizers try to keep patrons standing in single file heading north on Yonge, around the corner to the east and back down south behind the theatre. The 1500-seat Elgin is large enough to accommodate many more people than would appear to be waiting in line. It can be quite deceptive because a line which appears to be interminably long may not even fill half the theatre once you get inside. Still, I'd allow at least a half hour to an hour depending on the popularity of the film, time of day, and whether or not this is a premium or regular screening. Speaking of which -- at times in the past there have been separate lines for those with and without Visa cards. At one point the Visa line was supposed to ensure earlier admission for Gold and/or Platinum card holders but the one I had was "regular" and it didn't matter. Be sure to check and see if there's an advance line for cardholders at your screening. For some reason it seemed to rain the heaviest when waiting in line at this venue but I doubt that was intended.

13) Isabel Bader is an auditorium on the University of Toronto's Victoria Campus at 93 Charles Street West, which is just south of Bloor and east of University Ave. Capacity is 500. Lines wind outside down the sidewalk, which tends to get muddy after a rain. Both the sidewalk and street are quite narrow and it's easy to slip one way into the street or the other way into the grass/dirt/mud. Lines here aren't too long, in most cases, and a half hour should suffice.

14) Which brings us to...Ryerson. Located at 43 Gerrard Street East on the Ryerson University Campus, this auditorium holds 1250 and hosts many high-profile films. The festival has programmed a handful of premium screenings there and "regular" screenings of Galas that have debuted at Roy Thomson Hall. It is also the home of Midnight Madness.

Lines at Ryerson form outside the entrance and wind east down Gerrard, south around the corner down Church, and then west on Gould behind the building. Like the Elgin, this can be quite deceptive as it usually appears there are many more people waiting in line than the theatre can hold when, in reality, I've been almost completely around the block and still entered the auditorium to see it half full. The good news about waiting in line at Ryerson is that it's the one venue where patrons can actually sit. A low brick wall surrounds the building and is just perfect for reading, eating, or conversing with fellow line mates.

My first year at TIFF I actually spent more time at the Ryerson than any other venue, so I grew quite fond of it and it's certainly my favorite non-multiplex theatre. Being a Midnight Madness fan also gives this venue a feel that no other has. MM is the only section which the festival sells dedicated passes for outside the premium screenings, so patrons return every night (and every year) and forge relationships which last long after the festival is over. Even those who only attend a few MM screenings during the week will find camaraderie among attendees which cannot be matched at any other venue for any other screenings. MM programmer Colin Geddes runs a festival-within-a-festival that hosts some of the best films I've ever seen at TIFF. Experience it and you'll understand.

As a rule of thumb I have always allowed the longest amount of waiting time for Ryerson screenings. An hour is usually a good bet although, as I mentioned earlier, the length of the line is so deceptive compared to the size of the hall that no matter how long the line or the wait it's usually not that hard to get a good seat once inside the cavernous auditorium. But again, this depends on the popularity of the film, time of day, and number of screenings the film may already have had.

15) Add it all up and I'd say that you should expect to wait in line up to an hour for many screenings if you want to be assured of a good seat. 45 minutes is probably okay. Anything less than a half hour is chancy. That's usually when ticketholders begin entering the theater. And about ten minutes before the screening they begin filling empty seats with rush line patrons. Even if you have a ticket and show up after the seats are filled you may be out of luck. I've seen it happen. Get there early.

16) So taking all three basic considerations into account when deciding how much time is needed from the moment one film ends until your next screening begins:

Allow ten minutes to a half hour for any Q&A. Average is 15-20 minutes.

Allow ten minutes to a half hour for travel time. Average is 15-20 minutes.

Allow 30 minutes to an hour for waiting in line.

Bottom line: the amount of time to allow between the end of one film (when the credits roll) and start of another is a minimum of 50 minutes to an hour, maximum two hours in the worst case scenario. Average for me is closer to 75 minutes.

Most importantly, keep in mind all the variables I've noted: distance between venues, time of day, number of screenings the film may already have had, popularity of the film, and size of the house, as well as your desire to get the seat(s) you want.

On the other hand, if you're like me and want to see as many films as possible regardless of health concerns, then join me in what I like to call "festival mode." Plan your films carefully. Allow 20 minutes after a film ends and 30 minutes waiting time before the next one. Then just add travel time to that. You'll get better at it as the week goes on, and share your own tips next year.


Larry Richman

Larry Richman

For 20 years I was a professional in the entertainment industry, from commercial broadcast radio in America's fourth largest market to band management to record production. But my passion is independent film, and I spend much of the year traveling to film festivals to see indies and meet the actors, directors, and others responsible for creating them. I'm a writer, photographer, and videographer, currently serving as Senior Vice President for Media & Technology and Public Relations at PROnetworks as well as Editor at

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