Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) The Scenes behind the Screens

Toronto International Film Festival logo

Toronto International Film Festival logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“My name is Carol

I am an ordinary person who on several days during early September had the privilege of doing an extraordinary job

A job you cannot do anywhere else in the world…….

I was a Volunteer at the Toronto International Film Festival – part of the TIFF volunteer army at what is widely considered to be the largest Public Film Festival on the planet

Forget the glam, the glitz and the galas, this is the grass roots level of the Festival, the crowds, the chaos (organized of course), and the queues; the lost, the confused, the angry and the excited.

We of the orange TShirts are your directions; your answers to questions; we are the “live” version of your Festival Guide.

You can count on us – as you line up to claim your ticket; your seat; your glimpse of Celebrity.

You will find us behind every red carpet “updo” and mega watt smile; at every barrier, theatre or stage door and even on the the corners of streets in the downtown locales of the streets.

Our iconic orange Tshirts are the beacon of sanity amidst the wonderful annual brouhaha that is TIFF.

So what’s a day working at the Festival like?

Read On….

To even get to this day volunteers have submitted an essay on why we should be chosen; attended a selection session; an interview, and attended 2 training sessions. We have had the Customer Service doctrine drummed into us “in the nicest possible way” and we are expected to be totally professional around the myriad celebrities that will walk into our line of vision.

6.30 am wake up call (for a 7.45 start today at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on King Street West). Unfold and fight my way into a freshly pressed “Florida” orange volunteer TShirt – (4 sizes fit all)

7.30am Arrive at The Tiff Bell Lightbox – O&B Canteen shut so no coffee before kick off. Greeted at entrance by the early bird Orange T shirt shift who at this point are marshalling volunteers to the Volunteer Lounge on Floor 4

Arrive at the Volunteer Lounge – All virgin territory for me, so look through the scattered clipboard lists and find I am not on any of them. Can I go home then?

Because I signed up to do an “ACE” go anywhere anytime duty today, I need to report to another Volunteer desk – also on the 4th to receive “transfer” orders.

As it stands I get assigned to Scotiabank which even at 8.30 in the morning is a “bun fight”.

9am – Our volunteer lounge here is a curtained off section of the ticket plaza on the ground floor, already seething with shoals of orange clad volunteers, I slide in unnoticed, stow my rucsac of worldly goods behind a chair, (praying it will still be there 7 hours later) fill my water pouch, don my badge and report to my shift supervisor.

9.15am Travel up the “Matter of Life and Death“ Scotiabank escalator – I digress here -seriously look at it next time you go to this theatre and if you’ve seen this iconic David Niven film, recall the moving staircase to heaven which moved out of the black and white genre to colour ( a technical triumph in its day). The Scotiabank escalator is so long, the movement appears juddery and the building is so futuristic and light filled that it appears to extend into heaven – theatre heaven in this case as this is an enormous multi level multi screened complex with an IMAX and several UltraVox screens.

Anyway, Scotiabank is an enormous multi-level multi screened complex with an IMAX and several UltraVox screens. The bulk of TIFF movies will be shown here because of its sheer capacity. Just trying to get to one’s position can take 15 minutes; manoeuvering around crowd control barriers, dodging line-up dead ends and trying to get through the Volunteer “link up” barriers – where Volunteers link arms to form a human chain to minimise line pollution and confusion of those folk exiting and entering theatres. If you hate crowds and even though this is controlled bedlam, this will blow your mind

9.30 to 2pm – Today is largely Press and Industry screenings so fairly straightforward as most of these know the ropes.

Get assigned as one of the theatre Ushers in two films – “Club Sandwich“ (Mexican) and Yikes a horror film called “The Sacrement”.

Ushers are supposed to ensure that all guests ar seated; no-one is pirating; all cellphones are off and to keep an eye open for any audience issues. This is an easy duty at at press and video screenings as this demographic are allowed “work” on electronic equipment throughout the film and many simply pop in and out to catch bits of a movie before moving onto the next screening.

2.45pm – collect my TIFF reward voucher (for a screening if I can book one) and battle my way out of the theatre.

Day done

Three more fun filled days followed and aside from queue management; general herding and ticket tearing, I was lucky enough to again get to usher in the actual movie theatre ( twice for star studded Q&A screenings) again several times. A real perk of volunteering and in no way guaranteed.

Ushering duties which should have been the “quietest” role, unearthed some unexpected excitement. An issue with an angry reporter in a press and industry screening, and during one film I had to man the second floor gallery of a theatre for the RUSH crowd. These folk are literally “rushed” up during the last minute and inevitably this means that not all are seated whilst the house lights are up meaning that seats have to be found in the pitch dark. – The reality of this: 1 usher (moi) for around 50 guests all arriving at the theatre entrance completely fazed by the pitch black. Although comprising all walks of life many many of “my” RUSH visitors were elderly and unable to walk up and down the steps with ease, their challenge compounded by the dark. Every guest who needs help with seating must be assisted so I had a very up-close and personal interaction with many audience members that day.

Crowd control involves moving large quantities of folk from outside the theatre, into the relevant line-ups in the atrium at any given location, and then moving the lineups to the actual theatre to another lineup outside their movie destination whilst trying quickly and safely “herd” those exiting the theatre out of the – by now – heaving cinema atrium in a manner that doesnt spoil a guests experience. The moveable “crowd control” barriers are indeed a site to behold and those in charge work their magic with controlling the many and varied lineups in a seamless manner remembering that at any one time for instance in TIFF Bell Lightbox – the Mother venue – there are as many as 4 simultaneous screenings, press junkets and events happening within that space.

As an added challenge there are also hordes of TIFF junkies queuing up outside theatres in temperatures of 35% just on the off chance of acquiring a “RUSH” ticket to a potentially under subscribed movie. People are mostly in a good humour – the buzz in the theatres is unbelievable and there is always off chance that a celebrity might be “in the house” and if you are in the general area all TIFF week spotting celebs on the Red Carpet outside one of the theatres; in the theatres, in a movie or simply wandering around the area is virtually a dead cert.

Being a movie-goer at the festival is not for the faint hearted. Guests range from serious TIFF aficionados who research every TIFF contender simply wanting to get a first shot at seeing a movie that will go on general release very soo, to those that want to catch a “never to be publicly released gem”. Others will take vacation after pouring over mind blowing colour coded schedules; trying to decipher the movie pass/members’ pass dynamics. They will queue up to watch back to back films whilst working out how to skew the space/time continuum in order to catch a movie at a theatre 10 minutes away from a screening that ends 5 minutes before the next one starts!!!.

Queuing amongst these are those that merely want to be part of something very special, to catch a little red-carpet reflected glamour. Whatever the reason, as a Volunteer I got to see from the inside the amount of trouble and care taken to maintain TIFF’s standing as the largest public film festival in the world and to maintain its reputation as the “go to” Film Festival for both Movie makers, celebrities, press and public..

In short TIFF has it all sewn up from the inside out

Mainly Press and Industry screenings going on here so most of these know the ropes. Got assigned as one of the theatre Ushers in two films – “Club Sandwich“ (Mexican) and Yikes anhorror film called “The Sacrament” This was an unfortunate assignment for me as I HATE the whole Horror film genre and just stood with my eyes averted the entire time and concentrated entirely on the reaction of the audience. If I’d had a paper bag I would have popped it over my head and added earplugs for complete protection – oh yes that would have been very professional because as the Usher one has to watch out for signs of videoing/texting etc, for audience members with issues.

This is an easy call at press and video screenings as this demographic are allowed “work” on electronic equipment throughout the film and many simply pop in and out to catch bits of a movie before moving onto the next screening. On one of my duties there was an exciting little incident with a journalist taking umbrage at a fellow reporter who texting continuously and overtly at the front of the theatre was assumed to be “pirating” by said journalist. The situation was superbly handled and diffused by TIFF Management and Cineplex staff but the angst and shouting added a certain dimension to the experience and it was unfortunate for me that I was the Usher actually in the theatre and therefore the first recipient of his ire.

Three more fun filled days followed and aside from queue management; general herding and ticket tearing, I was lucky enough to again get to usher in the actual movie theatre ( twice for star studded Q&A screenings) again several times. A real perk of volunteering and in no way guaranteed.

So I experienced (from the inside as it were ) a star-studded screeningof an amazing Newfoundland based film called the “Grand Seduction` with Q&A from actors and Director starring Brendan Gleeson ( Harry Potter, the Guard etc), and again that afternoon manned the theatre in a screening of “The Invisible Woman” with Ralph Fiennes and Kristen Scott Thomas.

Ushering duties which should have been the “quietest” role, unearthed some unexpected excitement. During one film I had to man the second floor gallery of a theatre for the RUSH crowd. These folk are literally “rushed” up during the last minute and inevitably this means that not all are seated whilst the house lights are up meaning that seats have to be found in the pitch dark. – The reality equals 1 usher (moi) and around 50 guests all trying to locate a seat; many of them elderly and unable to walk up and down the steps, their challenge compounded by the dark. One of my “guests” actually momentarily passed out on me at the entrance to the second floor auditorium. With the help of two willing and able members of the audience who came forward to assist we made her comfortable and established her identity and current medical status and then I was able to run out of the auditorium and quickly deploy what is known as a “headset” (a Supervisor with a means of communication to the Mother ship) I had to watch her like a hawk for the duration of the film with regular visits from TIFF “Management for support. The lady was met at the end of the film by TIFF personnel and escorted to her next film.

Crowd control involves moving large quantities of folk from outside the theatre, into the relevant line-ups in the atrium at any given location, and then moving the lineups to the actual theatre to another lineup outside their movie destination whilst trying quickly and safely “herd” those exiting the theatre out of the – by now – heaving cinema atrium in a manner that doesnt spoil a guests experience. The moveable “crowd control” barriers are indeed a site to behold and those in charge work their magic with controlling the many abnd varied lineups in a seamles manner remembering that at any one time for instance in TIFF Bell Lightbox – the Mother venue – there are as many as 4 simlutaneous screenings, press junkets and events happening within that space. As an added challenge there are also hordes of TIFF junkies queuing up outside theatres in temperatures of 35% just on the offchance of acquiring a “RUSH” ticket to a potentially under subscribed movie. By and large most of the guests are there to enjoy themselves and rarely did I hear any complaints. The endless queuing is part of the enigma that is TIFF; and of course there is always the offchance of seeing celebreties either in the theatres, on the red carpet or simply wondering around Toronto.

Just looking from the inside out I can see why the Toronto International Film Festival (the largest public film festival in the wortld) has such a great reputation, their actual staff have it all sewn up.

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