I just arrived in in Canada and I’m in the airport taxi line, waiting for a car back to my hotel. I strike up a conversation with the guy in front of me.Wearing a trucker hat, this is Elliot Kotek, the current Editor-in-Chief of both Beyond Cinema magazine and Celebs.com, as well as an Entertainment Correspondent for ABC Radio.
Elliot recently produced a film called Queen Mimi – A documentary detailing how Zach Galifianakis saved a woman from homelessness. We start chatting. We realize we know people in common. So we decide to share a cab. During our ride, Elliot gives me some tips on how to navigate the Toronto Film Festival.
Being my first time in Toronto, I’m grateful for any advice. I have no idea where I am, or where to go. All the buildings look familiar, like a city. But nothing makes sense until the cab whips past King Street.
King Street is the hub of the festival. You know you’ve arrived because the entrance is marked by a giant, inflatable tunnel with the words TIFF written at the entrance.
Outside the window of my cab, I see scantly clad women in designer dresses, arm in arm with men wearing sports jackets. It’s the hyper idealized version of Hollywood. Or somewhere awesome.
Back at my Hotel, I quickly exchange texts with my buddy Peter Gerard. You might know Peter from his days at Dystrify. Now he’s the Director of Audience Development and Content Operations at Vimeo. Vimeo is a HUGE sponsor of the Toronto Film Festival.
Anyway, he’s at the opening night party at the TIFF Bell Lightbox Festival Tower. The Bell Tower is the primary Hub of the Toronto Film Festival. And by the time I walk over, King street is jammed with the people I described earlier. I am filled with with a vibrant energy similar to Times Square.
I notice onlookers with cameras, trying to spot somebody. A local drunk yells: “If I don’t see Bill Murray tonight, I’m going to go home!”
It’s that kind of festival…
By this time, it’s late. And the office that presently holds my festival credentials is closed. As a result, I am met at the velvet ropes of the Bell Tower by several TIFF volunteers, marked by hunter orange t-shirts, incredulously questioning my legitimacy.
Them: You don’t have a pass.
Me: I just got here. Where do I get my pass?
Them: The office is closed. You’ll have to come back tomorrow.
My lesson? Arrive early. If you arrive late, you can’t get your pass. And if you don’t get your pass, you can’t pass.
It’s around this time I meet up with Peter. He’s with this guy Paul Sturtz. Paul runs the True/False Film Festival which takes place every year in Columbia, Missouri. Paul’s festival focuses on documentaries.
We sit down at a local pub. And for the next hour or so, the three of us talk festivals, filmmaking and distribution. By this time, it’s pretty late. So we shake hands, say our goodbyes and I take the quiet side streets of Toronto back to my Hotel.
At this point, I’m hungry. The only place open is this Chinese restaurant. So I order something with veggies, and end up with this.
DAY 2 – Waking Up Early
The next day, I wake up early and make my way back to the festival. The sky is overcast, which is a welcomed relief to the Los Angeles drought I’ve tolerated for years.
Today the volunteers at the Bell Tower are much more friendly. A quick conversation, and I’m finally pointed towards my pass. All industry passes are at the Hyatt.
When you attend the Toronto Film Festival, you immediately realize the festival is huge. Movies are shown all around town. As a result, I suggest you plan your screening schedule in advance – Or grab an industry pass.
Having an industry pass will garner you access to the large Scotiabank Theatre cinemas. Once there, you’ll go up a ginormous escalator, where you’ll be able to conveniently screen most films without leaving the multiplex.
The Scotiabank Theatre is also a great place to network and meet people like me. The upstairs is swarming with distributors and industry types. I take a seat in the food court and spend the rest of the day chatting with filmmakers and other industry professionals.
Talking makes my day fly by. As I exit the theater, my pockets are full of business cards. And I immediately focus on nightlife.
Toronto Film Festival Nightlife
It is no secret that the top film festivals also have the best parties. And in my experience, most business is conducted at night. The challenge is – I am new to TIFF and I don’t really know where the parties are.
Luckily many people post this info online. A quick glance at Twitter provides most everything I need to keep busy. So I quickly RSVP to a secret email address and hop in a cab. Fifteen minutes later, I’m in the lobby of some random hotel. I notice two dudes in sports jackets (with industry passes) entering the elevator. So I follow.
Off the elevator, there is a whole row of party workers with computers, asking questions. I approach the most friendly looking of the bunch.
Him: “What’s your name?”
Me: “Jason Brubaker.”
There is a long pause as the guy types my name.
Him: “What company are you with?”
Me: “I’m a distributor.”
Another long pause. He types a few more things. And suddenly I’m feeling like that scene in Return of the Jedi when Luke thinks he’s compromised the mission. Then this guy is like:
“No worries. You’re on the list.”
Inside the party is packed. And the acoustics echo so loud you have to yell to be heard – which just adds to the noise. Among the many people wearing sports jackets, I notice quite a few trucker hats.
About this time, a woman shakes my hand. I move in close to hear her. She hands me a postcard, promoting her documentary. She’s produced a few movies. She is looking for distribution.
After her, I bounce from person to person. Chatting. Talking film. Exchanging business cards. There is lots of questions about the current state of film distribution.
For example, you might say something like this: “I’m seeking distribution.”
But what does that does that even mean? Does it mean you’re looking for someone else to put your movie on iTunes? Or are you willing to do it yourself?
As I leave the party, a guy approaches and introduces himself. He’s a subscriber of my filmmaking newsletter. We chat for a bit.
Indie film is a small world.
Outside, the rain is torrential. People stand around asking each other where to go next. Some sports jacket guy in the lobby is talking loud enough so we all hear. He’s too-cool-for-school, bragging about something movie related. I feel annoyed.
One guy introduces himself and offers to help me crash the next party. But I opt instead for a cab ride back to King street.
It’s still pouring. So I run into a pub. This time, I’m seated next to Bill Proctor. He’s the publicity manager for the San Francisco Film Society. And he is in town, helping out with publicity for the Toronto Film Festival.
We chat movies, the festival and people we know in common.
I head back to my hotel, invigorated for tomorrow.
DAY 3 – Meeting Filmmakers At The Festival
I forgot to eat. That’s the thought running through my mind as I put on my sports jacket.
This is my last day in town, and I want to make sure I meet as many filmmakers as possible.
I decide to start my morning at the Hyatt. For the past two days, I’ve been handing out business cards to friendly looking people. And in my opinion the Hyatt is not the most inviting place to meet people. The upstairs is full of tables and booths. And most people look preoccupied with their new TIFF gift bags.
Explaining this to volunteer, it’s suggested that my best bet is to hang around the filmmaker lounge. In addition to screening movies, the Toronto Film Festival offers educational filmmaking workshops throughout the week. These take place at the Glenn Gould Studio at CBC.
So that’s where I go.
I spend the next six hours talking to most every person who walks through the lounge. I meet filmmakers, writers, producers and other distributors. Some are newbies. Most are seasoned professionals.
Grabbing a drink of water, I run into the guy who produced the Jackie Robinson biopic, 42. He shares a quick story about Jackie’s stolen home base.
After that, some film finance guy asks me what I do. I tell him I’m a distributor.
“Not with those shoes.”
He’s presently pointing to my Converse.
Him: “Sports jacket and Converse. You’re a director.”
Me: “I specialize in video on demand and internet distribution.”
Him: “Oh. That case, I guess you’re dressed okay for VOD.”
A filmmaker breaks up this conversation. He’s raving about the Oculus Rift demo in the next room. Originally designed for gaming, Oculus Rift is virtual reality technology. And as I quickly learn, the system is far beyond anything I have imagined.
I put on the headset, and for five minutes, I am transported to another world.
While my experience with Oculus Rift is not directly related to the Toronto Film Festival – Mark my words: Virtual reality will change every aspect of the world as we know it.
As I take off the headset, dozens of TIFF volunteers and caterers set up drinks for a happy hour. And over the next hour, I am shoulder to shoulder, jammed with people.
Once again, I bump into Peter from Vimeo and then I meet this dude Jason from Imax. Then later, a Filmmaking Stuff subscriber shakes my hand. Then an actor, and then a writer, and then a director join us.
Here is our group picture:
After the happy hour, I join Peter for an evening screening of “Don’t Breathe (La Faille),” directed by Nino Kirtadze.
It’s nice to watch a film. And what makes “Don’t Breathe” interesting is the fact I can’t tell if it’s a documentary or a narrative. I later learn, it’s both.
After the screening, I spend the rest of the evening bouncing from restaurants, to nightclubs to private parties. Each venue is packed with people wearing trucker hats or sports jackets.
By this point, it’s midnight. And I’m once again walking back to my hotel in preparation for my early AM flight. The truth is, I should have stayed longer.
You should stay longer.
The Toronto Film Festival is more than an event. You can’t possibly take it all in, in two days.