My annual, ridiculously long rant about the recent Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). If you’re not somehow connected to, or involved with, TIFF then it might be better to skip this post. I’m just trying to reach a certain audience. The reason is that each year, TIFF sends out a survey asking for journalists’ thoughts about the film festival but there are no questions for photographers. The film festival seemingly has no regard for photographers because it treats photography as an afterthought.
1) Someone must have read this blog because this year TIFF finally sent out a directory of publicists. In the past, photographers weren’t allowed to have this list. The directory is important if you have to arrange a photo shoot with a director, actor, producer, etc.
2) Someone did not read this blog because TIFF, yet again, failed to email the list of red carpet events even though this information was available almost two weeks prior to the festival. Thank goodness publicists sent out much of this information ahead of time.
The film festival also sent out a list of press conferences ahead of time, thank you very much.
3) Someone probably read this blog as TIFF this year (partially) abandoned its Home Depot colour scheme:
4) Someone definitely read this blog because photographers this year were allowed to leave red carpet events as soon as they were over. This made a big difference. In the past, photographers had to stand around in a photo pit for an additional 15 to 30 minutes after the guests had past by. Why? Just because.
5) Over the past few years, press conferences have been okay to shoot and somewhat predictable in terms of staging, lighting and access. I suspect someone read this blog :-) But this year, everything changed for the worse.
6) As always, some big events were held at the smaller venues and tiny events were held at the biggest venue.
7) There are far too many TIFF photographers and TIFF-related photographers getting in the way at events.
8) The annual four-day “street festival” which closed a few downtown streets, including a major artery and transit route, is still a waste of time. As it stands, there’s no reason for this unless the purpose of the street festival is to inflate TIFF attendance numbers. But surely the film festival wouldn’t count everyone who walks along the street as an audience member, would they?
9) The film festival is still a confusing mess of an event. This year, it scaled back by about 15% but it really needs to cut 40% to 50%. Less is more.
At least ten of this year’s red carpet events could’ve been cancelled. In fact, the last three or four days of the festival could’ve been cancelled. It wasn’t always like this but TIFF has essentially become a five-day event padded out to last ten days.
10) Publicists sent out hundreds of emails during the week leading up to the festival and during the festival. Some PR folks sent out the same email a few times per day, several days in a row. These often had a title of – and I quote – ***MEDIA ALERT***MEDIA ALERT***MEDIA ALERT***MEDIA ALERT***MEDIA ALERT***MEDIA ALERT***.
One large US PR agency sent out wrong information about its events just like it did last year. Who doesn’t love getting a series of emails with subject titles “Correction”, “New Correction” and “Correction Final”.
Someone should inform a few PR agencies about Canada’s anti-spam law.
If you read the remaining long post, remember the saying, “those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.”
I didn’t do any because the photo call area is too small and, in the past, most photo call pictures were lousy. The former may have had something to do with the latter.
Some photographers complained that some photo calls were too short (120 seconds) to get the pictures they needed. Compared to other film festivals, TIFF photo calls are the smallest and shortest.
There were few conferences this year which is both good and bad. Fewer conferences means less work but it would have been nice to have a presser with the likes of directors Angelina Jolie and Louis C.K. and actors Halle Berry and Javier Bardem to name just a few. But pressers are tough to schedule and happen at the mercy of movie studios.
Back-to-back-to-back pressers make it almost impossible to edit and send images during the short break between them. If photographers had work space in the room, like there used to be, it could be done. But TIFF has forgotten history.
For some reason, TIFF this year tried to make press conferences look like, I’m guessing, a TV talk show. In the past, actors sat onstage at a table with a white table cloth. The white table cloth reflected light into their face and eyes. Using a table meant people had to sit reasonably upright. There were small, discreet microphones on the table. A boring setup perhaps but practical and functional.
This year, TIFF got rid of the table and used a sofa and casual chairs. Everyone onstage had their own handheld microphone. This meant having people (mostly men) slouched in their seats and microphones frequently blocking mouths. Remember that your mouth communicates (link to PDF) half of your facial expression.
Handholding a microphone means a person isn’t as animated when they talk. They can’t gesture as much. It was no surprise that musicians Lady Gaga and Eric Clapton knew hold to properly hold a microphone. But many actors and directors didn’t.
Microphone photos get much less play and have limited reusability.
But the best part of this year’s press conferences was the background:
TIFF has in the past used some wacky backgrounds: plastic trees, white plastic Greek columns, a large pair of hands (see below), and backgrounds totally plastered with logos. But it finally settled on a solid blue background with only a few sponsor logos. This background was low key, the blue brought out people’s faces nicely and the logos weren’t intrusive. This year, TIFF forgot history and used a horribly distracting video screen with swirling coloured shapes.
In the press conference room this year, TIFF cut the number of photo spots in half and . . . wait for it . . . doubled the number of photographers.
Officially TIFF allows only five international wire service photographers (AP, Reuters, Getty, EPA and AFP) plus The Canadian Press and TIFF’s own photographer into the press conferences. The reasons for this are:
• Lack of space. The press conference room is really small.
• To minimize camera-clicking noise. Years ago, when 30 to 50 photographers were allowed in, the clicking noise was so loud and continuous, actors couldn’t hear questions, reporters couldn’t hear answers and TV cameras couldn’t hear anything. Some conferences were stopped by either the moderator or an actor asking photographers to stop clicking so much.
• Every newspaper, magazine and news web site subscribes to at least one of these wire services or they can get photos for free from TIFF. So having more photographers in the room is redundant.
But this year, TIFF forgot history and allowed up to 11 photographers into the conferences (with only four photo spots). One photographer was shooting for a newspaper that subscribes to four of the six wire services. Yet for some reason, it felt it still had to have their own photographer in the room.
After two days, two of those four spots were claimed by TIFF/Getty photographers (yes, two photographers standing side-by-side shooting the same thing). At first, the film festival refused to do anything. But after another day, they slightly moved one of the film festival’s own video cameras which created two more photo spots.
Photographers don’t necessarily need to be close to the stage but they do need the right angle. Since the conference room is so small and narrow, the best photo angle is off to the side, not at the back of the room where TV needs to be. So why was one side of the room this year made off-limits to still photographers?
And speaking of the room being so narrow, why was one-third of the room curtained off? Why is it necessary for someone to have a such a large work space in the press conference room? It blocked out seats for incoming publicists, reduced shooting space for photographers and prevented photographers from having space to edit.
This year’s new stage jutted out into the audience area which meant at least two fewer rows of seats for reporters.
At a couple of press conferences, the “journalists” in the room had no questions whatsoever. So why were they even there? They could’ve watched the pressers online or on the closed-circuit TV in the building. I suspect that many “journalists” packed the George Clooney presser just to see Clooney in person.
Only one journalist, Bruce Kirkland, consistently asked smart questions at each presser. It was obvious the actors and directors appreciated this. The rest of the audience asked meaningless, fluff questions. Why not have the public submit questions ahead of time and, if the occasion arises, these questions get used? (Although most of the public won’t have seen the film being discussed).
TIFF forgot history and did a press conference (The Shape of Water) with two rows of people onstage. This setup has never worked in the past, it did not work this time and it will never work in the future. So why keep doing it? (Although this year’s setup was better than some previous years.)
Tell the movie studios to limit who comes to the pressers. Bringing a dozen people serves no purpose. Producers, assistant producers, authors and secondary actors are important to a film but at a presser, they will, at best, be asked only a charity question (an easy question lobbed at them so they have a chance to speak). Less is more.
Fewer people => more focused discussion => better TV and better photos => more news coverage. This is the same reason why group photos don’t work.
The press conferences had half as much light as last year, exactly one stop less. The lighting created wonderful microphone shadows:
TIFF seems to hate “working journalists”. When it finally created a media lounge in which to file stories, that room had only silly, circular cocktail tables. It took a couple years for them to finally bring in normal tables and chairs. But this year TIFF forgot history.
On the very first day this year, numerous reporters were complaining about the “high chairs” in the media work room. Sitting in one such chair, my feet couldn’t reach the floor. But these high chairs matched the high tables that were used. The tables were high enough that you had to reach up to type on your laptop.
If you sat properly in the deep-seated high chairs, you couldn’t reach the table because you were too far back. So everyone had to perch on the front edge of their chair. The chairs were so large and the aisles so small, it was virtually impossible to get to, or leave, your seat without having the people seated around you stand up and move aside.
The WiFi didn’t really work unless you enjoyed dial-up speeds. (WiFi at Roy Thomson worked most of the time, thank you very much. It never worked at Princess of Wales).
TIFF did make the media lounge a bit bigger this year by opening a movable wall into the next-door room. But it still refused to let people walk directly into the room via the shortest, most direct route from the nearby stairs. Instead, folks had to walk around a block of rooms (no big deal but an inconvenience especially if you had to use the washroom and then you had to walk around the block of rooms rather than a direct eleven steps).
Roy Thomson Hall
This is the main venue, the largest event space. Roy Thomson and the Princess of Wales Theatre are the only two theatres that should be used for red carpets. (Although, if need be and if possible, the Sony Centre and the Ed Mirvish Theatre would be nice).
On opening night, for some unknown reason, TIFF installed a narrow red carpet. It was replaced the following night with a slightly more appropriate piece of carpeting.
For yet another unknown reason, TIFF put a small stage on the carpet near the photographers which blocked their view. The following night, the stage was moved about 20m further away. This small stage was used by TIFF to interview arriving guests. But it mostly just slowed things down a lot.
Lights were again installed along the red carpet which makes a huge difference. The tungsten lights were aimed incorrectly (directly into the photo pit) and were very uneven (24 back lights and 10 front lights). I spoke with a lighting tech who adjusted the aim of the lights. She said she knew the lighting was uneven but there was nothing she could do about it.
The TIFF people running the red carpet at Roy Thomson did a good job keeping things moving and trying to keep people out of the photographers’ way.
Thank goodness it didn’t rain during the film festival because, unlike TV, the photo pit isn’t fully covered.
Princess of Wales Theatre
TIFF still fills this photo pit backwards. The first photographers enter from the front and, of course, fill the front row of the pit. The second batch of photographers enter from the front and have to squeeze past the full first row. The third batch enter from the front and have to squeeze past two full rows. The fourth batch enter from the front and they have to squeeze past three full rows. And so on and so on. It makes no sense whatsoever.
For some unknown reason, photographers aren’t allowed to enter from the back of the photo pit which would fix the access and crowding issues.
This venue desperately needs lights, some red carpeting and risers for the fans. Yes, being on a sidewalk and on a city street makes it tricky. But it can be done.
Why bother using it for red carpets unless it’s a tiny event? It’s too small and too ugly – the theatre itself is beautiful but as it’s set up by TIFF, the arrival area could just as well be a parking lot or someone’s driveway. TIFF obviously has no interest in doing anything with this venue which is on a city sidewalk right next to a busy road.
TIFF red carpet people at the Elgin were very helpful in trying to keep people out of the photographers’ way. But it’s a losing battle since the venue is so small.
No. Ugly, dirty and no space for fans. Although it does have much more space for photographers than the Elgin.
Is it possible to use the Sony Centre on Front Street? This theatre has the perfect large, covered entranceway with lots of space for fans and the street can be closed without disrupting vehicle traffic too much or affecting public transit whatsoever.
What about the Ed Mirvish Theatre just up the street from the Elgin? You would use the Victoria Street entrance since closing that street wouldn’t affect transit or traffic.
More Red Carpet Thoughts
• At all theatres, as in previous years, a police bomb sniffer dog was used. But new this year, outside the Princess of Wales Theatre, a more obvious anti-terrorism precaution was employed by police.
Large concrete blocks were placed along the street to prevent any vehicle from driving into the crowds of people lining the road. Not sure why this wasn’t also done at other theatres especially the Elgin.
• Why does one photo agency (Getty) send two, three or even four photographers to the same event? Why do these photographers stand side-by-side and shoot the same pictures? What happened to the one-photographer-per-outlet rule?
• Almost no more advertising on the red carpets. It looks much better.
• Most fan areas at Roy Thomson and Princess of Wales do not allow people with “big” cameras. Why not? Why does TIFF discriminate against people who have a photography hobby?
I spoke with two tourists who came from Germany just for the Toronto Film Festival. The husband is a photography hobbyist and he happens to have a “big” camera along with a cheap amateur lens. He was refused entry to the fan areas at Roy Thomson and Princess of Wales. Great way to treat tourists.
• TIFF and TIFF-related photographers were constantly in the way. During Lady Gaga’s arrival, two photographers tried to block all the other photographers as Gaga walked down the middle of a city street.
• TIFF cellphone operators were in the way despite the frequent, “Hey iPhone! Get out of the way!” These oblivious folks seemed to work for TIFF’s “Digital Engagement.”
• TIFF’s “Digital Studio” people were also in the way as they mindlessly blocked other photographers as they ran around a red carpet, swarming and swirling about each celebrity.
• Why is there a cellphone operator in this picture (below)? Why was it necessary for him to walk alongside Halle Berry?
This same cellphone user tagged along with, and swirled around, Lady Gaga and Angelina Jolie for their entire street arrivals at Princess of Wales:
Is this person working for TIFF or Huawei Mobile? What did Huawei Mobile pay for access? Really, how much? I bet a lot of agencies would gladly pay the same amount to also get access onto the red carpet to swarm the arriving guests.
Why didn’t TIFF learn from all the problems with last year’s cellphone operators?
• There was one photographer on the red carpet who was very aware of the photographers in the photo pit. This one photographer always shot his pictures quickly and then moved entirely out of the way. He was careful not to block any longer than absolutely necessary. There were no problems whatsoever with this one guy. If this one photographer can do it, then there’s no excuse for any other TIFF photographer.
• Why are TV reporters with no photo credentials in a front-row photo position waving their cellphones about?
Since TIFF has difficulty remembering history, let’s do a refresher:
There’s a reason why photo pits at the film festival were created – for crowd control and to allow space for arriving guests.
In the early days of the film festival and up until the early 90s, there were no photo pits. When an actor arrived, everyone, including photographers and fans, rushed forward and swarmed the celebrity. I know this because I was there.
After some early years of red carpet chaos, photographers agreed amongst themselves to form a row, or two, at each premiere. This more organized approach gave actors an easier time arriving at a theatre and everyone could get a picture. A couple years later, TIFF set up formal photo pits.
Now TIFF is going backwards by adding more and more people onto the red carpet. These folks add no value and do nothing but get in the way. What other event allows this?
If TIFF insists on having these folks run around on every red carpet, then restrict them to a small area right at the carpet entrance. Remember that TIFF used to do this a few years ago with an on-carpet TV crew which was allowed only on a certain section of carpet away from the photographers.
“Social media” is not Latin for “crappy photos” or “fast and cheap.” Most companies get “social media engagement” wrong as they shovel garbage onto the Internet. They think more is better and anything is better than nothing. But the only thing they accomplish is adding more noise to an already loud and noisy conversation.
You don’t “engage” through volume nor can you engage simply by showing up (that was possible in the early days of social media but we’re long past that). You earn engagement through message.
While Marshall McLuhan was correct, the medium can be the message, that doesn’t mean you should reduce the message to fit the medium. Does anyone at TIFF even bother to look at its own Twitter and Instagram? What exactly is the message?
If TIFF wants to do “digital engagement” (and the use of that meaningless phrase is telling), why not put in some effort and planning. Respect your viewers’ time and produce something worthwhile for them.
A month ago, TIFF announced a five-year “exciting and bold new strategic plan” and it’s called . . . wait for it . . . “Audience First”. How bold is that to put the customer first? Outright daring, I’d say.
The fact that putting the customer first is new and “bold” for 42-year-old TIFF should tell you a lot about the organization.
If you know history, you’ll remember that the “Festival of Festivals” (aka. the Toronto Film Festival) was originally referred to as the “people’s festival.”
Much of the film festival’s problems started when it opened its new building. Certainly that building cost a huge amount of money and someday it may even be paid off. When it opened the new building, TIFF decided to go in multiple vague directions at once: film festivals, art gallery, museum, movie screenings, retail store, library, workshops, education camps, venue rentals, building landlord, being a charity, and who knows what else. Less is more.
But a major problem seems to be the attitude of TIFF. It stopped being the people’s festival and became a rule-choked corporate event. (And speaking of attitude, why does TIFF seem to have a relatively high employee turnover?)
Fan access at Roy Thomson Hall is terrible. Sponsor RBC and TIFF have decided that a plywood wall with logos is better than seats for the public. Sponsor L’Oreal and TIFF have agreed that a makeup studio is better than seats for the public.
Why haven’t (temporary) risers been installed at Roy Thomson? There’s tons of space. It’s also possible to install risers and lights at Princess of Wales, especially if they keep closing the road. Elgin and Ryerson are lost causes that TIFF will keep resurrecting each year.
And speaking of “digital engagement,” why won’t TIFF invite the public to take part? Let’s see, the number one sponsor is the country’s largest cellphone company and everyone takes cellphone snaps at the film festival. If only there was a way to take advantage of this.
Perhaps if Samsung had followed through on its sponsorship rather than producing the exploding Galaxy Note 7, things might have been different. Perhaps if TIFF hadn’t neglected two large camera manufacturers that were waiting in the wings, things might be different.
Toronto International Film Festival Inc., just like its flagship product, the annual Toronto International Film Festival, lost its focus several years ago.
But thank goodness photographers show up each year and produce pictures that show how (momentarily) wonderful the film festival is. Pictures that are published around the world for months after the festival has ended. Pictures that reach an audience larger than TV and larger than any “digital engagement”. Pictures that TIFF depends on to attract attention and corporate sponsorships.
If only TIFF paid more attention to these photographers.