Making the most out of your TIFF experience

I learned a lot at TIFF 23, ending the festival with a more informed strategy for approaching future years. The sheer time on the ground helped; it was my first year as a volunteer and my first as a more devoted attendee, bumping up from three screenings in 2022 to eighteen this year.

You may be reading this and have never been to any film festival, but you’re considering watching a movie or two at TIFF 24. Or you’ve been doing this for many years and will happily pre-pay for thirty-plus films, sight unseen. Regardless of experience or interest, I have advice to make the most of your time at the festival.

Research the basics before you buy

Put your best foot forward on movies to see with some homework before you order tickets or wait hours in a rush line (more on rush lines later.) Focus on local distribution deals and genre or plot synopsis.

Run a quick Google search on the movie’s title. Look for distribution articles on trade sites like Deadline, Variety, or IndieWire. Alternatively, review reference material on sites like Wikipedia or IMDB. Remember you’re looking for local distribution rights. Some international films may have a distributor or are already available to the public in some countries but without a distribution deal for the US or Canada.

I’d recommend prioritizing the movies with uncertain release dates or no distribution. In many cases, a TIFF screening will be the only practical way to watch them in the theater with a packed, receptive audience. They may never come to a local cineplex or streaming service.

Conversely, some movies may have distribution rights and even a release date sewn up before TIFF begins. Examples from this year’s festival include the Nic Cage starring Dream Scenario and the Cannes Palme d’Or winning Anatomy of a Fall. If you know the movie will be available at a local movie theater or streaming service later that year, pause before you buy.

Consider other festival-specific reasons that make the movie a must watch. A star, director, or someone else famous will be there. Or the theater atmosphere will be memorable, like a world premiere or a Midnight Madness screening. Unless the draw for these reasons is incredibly compelling, I rarely prioritize these movies at TIFF, at least at first.

Finally, my advice beyond distribution is to rely less on early reviews or big names in the cast and crew and instead look to the film’s genre and plot synopsis. Google helps here, as does the official TIFF program listing. If this movie wasn’t associated with TIFF, would you consider visiting the theater to see it? Alternatively, could this movie add a bit of diversity to your festival schedule? If the answer to either question is a yes, that’s a good sign.

Rank your movies of interest before tickets go on sale

After some basic research, you’ll likely have a short list of movies to buy or rush. Take a few minutes to rank them by the level of interest. Make the list larger than what you’d practically attend in total. Keep the list handy when tickets go on sale and as a reference mid-festival in consideration of rush lines, additional screenings, and as more tickets free up.

Unless you are a top tier TIFF member, many screenings will go off sale (TIFF’s jargon for “no tickets available”) before you get a chance to buy. Even your first pre-sale day on Ticketmaster tickets can go quickly. A ranked list provides backups and alternatives.

This advice may sound wonkish, especially if you only consider a movie or two for the festival. But I learned the hard way for TIFF 2022, where virtually everything I wanted went off sale immediately. I didn’t have backup options, didn’t try rushing, and spent way too long on Ticketmaster later scanning the resale market. This year, I probably spent an hour ranking everything I was considering in a spreadsheet readily available on my computer and phone. This prep work gave me more space to relax and enjoy the festival.

Rushing is more fun than you might expect

For those new to TIFF, almost any off sale screening will have a rush line outside the theater venue. Minutes before a movie begins, TIFF staff will count empty seats from ticket no-shows or those held back by publicists or studios. Staff will then let in those waiting in the rush line to fill up remaining seats; those fortunate enough to get in buy a ticket at the door.

At face value, waiting outdoors (for most movies, I’d recommend a solid hour or more) to get a potentially poor seat and even miss the first few minutes of a movie sounds unappealing. As a volunteer, I also had the biased perspective of someone who could rush unlimited movies for free when I wasn’t on shift.

However, I was surprised at how enjoyable waiting in line was. People were eager to chat about the festival. We talked about movies we had seen, what was left on everyone’s schedule and the general festival experience. Everyone was friendly, with a wide range of backgrounds and opinions; individuals would happily save your place in line if you had to walk away for a few minutes, and I never encountered line cutters. The staff and volunteers working the rush lines were also kind and professional.

The net result made my time in line mostly fly by. I’d chat with a stranger about a movie we both happened to see earlier in the festival, and the next thing I knew, staff were counting rush line attendees for entry.

So for any off sale movie mid-festival you’re especially interested in, consider rushing if you have the time. It will likely be significantly better than you expect.

Be self aware of your maximum screenings per day

The mix of personal obligations, a fixed TIFF schedule, and some of the most in-demand movies having few public screenings make busy days unavoidable. This can even be the case for those only planning a few films for the festival.

Fatigue from watching is real and vastly underrated. Remember, your time commitment goes well beyond a movie’s runtime. You have to show up at least 15 minutes before start time to guarantee your seat, and for general admission screenings, it often takes 30 to 60 minutes to get decent seats. If you rush off sale screenings, factor in an hour or more of queuing outside.

Consider what your max daily screenings are and if you even want to consider the stress of rushing between venues for back-to-back screenings. TIFF is a marathon, not a sprint. Pace yourself.

Most days at TIFF 2023, I would struggle to handle more than two movies daily. On the first Monday of the festival, I packed in four. When I stumbled into Harmony Korine’s Aggro Dr1ft for Midnight Madness, I was exhausted, and the impact left a sour note for the rest of the festival.

Remember that festival movies are a gamble (and that’s OK)

TIFF movies have limited exposure. With rare exceptions, they tend to be world or regional premieres, unavailable to the general public at a movie theater or streaming service. Press impressions or reactions on social media are meager, if not embargoed entirely. You may get lucky with films that already played at some of the well covered festivals like Cannes, Venice, or Telluride, but even then, coverage trends towards the trades and biggest media sites that may not match your tastes.

TIFF also lacks a consistent identity across its films. This is inevitable and by design when you program well over two hundred films that range from avant-garde selections looking for a niche distributor to broad studio crowdpleasers.

The net effect means your practical results will likely vary. You may roll credits on at least one stinker or, conversely, a film that blows away your initial expectations. Of the eighteen films I saw at TIFF, three were big disappointments, the kind of movies I question in retrospect if I would have even finished on Netflix or Prime Video. Another five were excellent, with the remaining ten falling somewhere in between.

That may not be comforting news when considering the time, energy, and expense of festival tickets. But accept it’s the cost of doing business, temper expectations, and remember sometimes a not so great movie can still be a blast of an experience. At the world premiere of a little Swedish thriller Shame on Dry Land, I had mixed feelings overall, but watching an excited and emotional cast and crew introduce the film live made it worthwhile. Aggro Dr1ft was a mess, but laughing with the Midnight Madness audience (some of whom were clearly high) at the inane dialogue made it go down easier.

Embracing the gamble and chaos of TIFF is the best overarching principle to all my advice here. Ticketmaster is a mess when tickets go on sale, so research and rank your favorites in advance. If some movies go off sale, consider rushing them because it’s more fun than you think. There’s always one more you may want to pack in but know your limits. Take chances. Have fun.