TIFF 15: 15 years covering the film festival

by W. Andrew Powell
Russell Crowe at TIFF 2006

For as long as I’ve been running The GATE, I’ve been covering the Toronto International Film Festival. It’s a highlight of my year, a struggle, a challenge, and one of the best events I have the honour of attending and covering.

The 40th anniversary of TIFF also represents 15 years that I’ve been covering the film festival, and boy, have things changed.

Last week I had a great interview with TIFF director and CEO Piers Handling, to discuss his memories of the festival, and at the end we started talking about the days of the festival in Yorkville. Naturally, if you’re talking about TIFF, it’s hard to talk about that history without talking about Yorkville.

When I first started covering TIFF in 2001 (and, for the record, I still am very thankful to the publicist who took a chance on me back then), the home base for TIFF was scattered around Cumberland Terrace and in the nearby hotels, including the Four Seasons, the InterContinental, and the now defunct Sutton Place. When you went to a film during TIFF, you were likely at the Cumberland Cinema, or the Varsity Theatre.

And if you went to a press conference, chances were good that the room was a shoebox that got you very close to the stars, with perhaps 100 people crammed in to two-thirds of the room. I especially have fond memories of the press conferences because, back then, it was the one time of year when I got at least somewhat close to big stars like Nick Nolte, Salma Hayek, John Cusack, and Melanie Griffith.

Hold your breath, but this was also so long ago that I shot the festival on film, if you can believe it. After each press conference I shot, I would run over to a little hole-in-the-wall camera place and some time later that day my photos would be ready. I then had to run home, scan the photos, fix them up, and post them on the site.

It took ages, but back then TIFF felt like everything was accessible–a complaint many have against it today. The exclusive parties were just a notch easier to get into for many people, and you could probably find a way in to most things if you really wanted to, but best of all, Yorkville was alive with activity. It felt like a little community of film lovers that popped up once a year, and some of us had the equivalent of “backstage passes” to hang out and interview the stars. It was busy, but it felt manageable.

Today, the festival is non-stop. It’s packed. It’s a battle to schedule. And to extend the metaphor, that “backstage pass” feels a lot more like a meet-and-greet now.

As much as I miss the early days of the festival, when I cut my proverbial teeth at the festival, I am still thrilled with what TIFF has accomplished since it started, and with the whole ecosystem that has evolved around the festival now that it has its own headquarters.

I’m also always amazed to see how the publicists manage to survive it, manage to schedule everything, and I always have to say a huge thank-you for the opportunities that they give me.

I also love being as busy as I am, and each year seems to get better than the last in terms of interviews and opportunities. Last year alone I chatted with Benedict Cumberbatch, Laura Dern, Jean-Marc Vallée, Jon Stewart, Priyanka Chopra, and Tom Hardy, just to name a few people.

The old days of TIFF will always seem brighter for the sheer fact that they feel quaint compared to today. And, really, compared to the power of TIFF today, the word quaint does seem to be the right word, if you ask me. I’m just excited to see what comes next for TIFF each and every year, and I’m proud to say I’ve covered it for this long.

It’s also hard not to be excited about the films that have been announced already for TIFF 15: Sicario, Demolition, Where To Invade Next, Freeheld, Legend, The Martian, and Trumbo, to name a few.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg for this year’s festival, and I also can’t wait to see what TIFF announces for their new television programme, Primetime.

Stay tuned from now until the film festival kicks off on September 10 for ongoing announcement coverage, plus a look back at the last 14 years of TIFF, since I started covering TIFF. Follow The GATE’s festival adventures on our new TIFF 15 section.

Read more of The GATE’s TIFF coverage.

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