A Comparison of Major International Film Festivals

A few days ago I returned home to Paris (so strange that actually feels true now) from the Venice Film Festival, where I saw a few great films, some decent ones and, inevitably, a couple of that's-two-hours-of-my-life-I'll-never-get-back ones. At the behest of previous editors I've kind of addressed what it's like being at Cannes and TIFF (that's the Toronto International Film Festival for you non film nerds), but instead of doing that for Venice I thought it might be more interesting to compare them based on things they don't tell you before you go. And maybe by the end of this I'll be able to definitively pick a favorite. But first, a little background information.

TIFF: the biggest North American film festival in terms of the number of features (in the hundreds) as well as hordes of press and industry (P&I) people it draws, but still manages to be about the fans thanks to vast public programming taking place in theaters all across downtown. Its mid-September timing makes it a significant launchpad for studios looking to premiere their Oscar bait.

Venice: the oldest international film festival in the world. Taking place slightly before TIFF it's an ideal platform for generating early critical buzz - most notably in recent years for Black Swan and Shame. Less accessible to the public, it's more of a P&I event.

Cannes: taking place in late May, the festival is a bit outside the awards orbit. But who cares? It's by far the most iconic and well-known. And boy do they capitalize upon it. A friend once aptly described the festival as "everything about is really far up its own ass."

Each of these festivals has its own distinct personality, if you will, and serves a slightly different purpose in the big scheme of the movie world. But let's get down to the details. How do they work? And how well do they work? (Bear in mind that as a student journalist I value cheap and free things very highly).

COSTS

TIFF is hands down the most affordable. As a major urban area Toronto offers plenty of options when it comes to accommodation (hostels! hotels! a friend's basement!) and cheap-but-good eats.

There is reasonably priced food to be found in Venice and Cannes if you look hard enough (or are willing to live off of sandwiches from beachside vendors for a week), but it's the accommodation that really breaks the bank. Both are relatively isolated and residential areas, which means that during festival time prices inflate to obscenely high rates.

Venice is possibly worse in that sense, because the festival takes place on the tiny island of Lido. You can ferry in from elsewhere each day, but when it's a matter of getting more sleep between a 10pm screening and a 9am the following morning, time is money.

FREE SWAG

Upon checking in at the accreditation desk, you usually receive a little something extra with your badge. TIFF provided a tote bag filled with mostly promotional stuff, but there was a nice pen and water bottle in there too. Venice went with a simple tote bag (the kind that eco-friendly shoppers take to the grocery store) with the Biennale di Venezia logo. Cannes coughed up a nice messenger bag (big enough for laptop, so I ended up using it for most of the festival) along with a copy of the official festival program, which at the others you would have had to purchase separately.

LANGUAGE

Bilingual signs at the palazzo in Venice

Cannes and Venice are bilingual, meaning that every film not in French or Italian (respectively) is subtitled. If the film is not in English either, it means the dreaded double subtitles. French/Italian subtitles take priority and are displayed in the normal location on the bottom of the screen, while English is projected onto a separate screen slightly below the main one. At best it's distracting. At worst, because I'm short, if I get a bad seat it means I probably won't understand everything that's going on.

SOCIAL SCENE

Fireworks at the Firefox Flicks party at Cannes 2012

Festivals are also known for their parties, but since I am neither high-ranking nor well-known I usually don't hear about them until after the fact. However, I will say that certain Cannes parties are relatively easy to crash. This is because many take place in the tents of the beachfront pavilion, or on yachts. Access to TIFF and Venice parties, I assume, is more restricted.

VOLUNTEERS/STAFF

TIFF recruits an army of volunteers each year, so even if the first person you ask doesn't know the answer to your question, it's okay because there is guaranteed to be at least five others people nearby!

Security on the red carpet at Cannes.

Cannes and Venice prefer to employ bouncer-like men who stand at all major entrances and exits wearing suits and sunglasses. If you ask them a question not in their native language, the default answer will most likely be, "No," or, "It's closed."


VENUES

TIFF's recently-constructed Bell Lightbox is the main hub for press, with large comfortable auditoriums, good wi-fi connectivity and a press lounge that serves free food and coffee all day. Thanks to the press lounge, I spent very little pocket money during the festival.

Theater seating 1300 at Cannes.

Cannes and Venice have relatively similar palazzos that are restricted to the public. The grand architecture is all very nice and beautiful but the bathrooms are terrible. Simply put, there are not enough for the thousands who pass through each day. I'm sure you don't want to read that much detail as much as I don't care to write it, so let's just say that I kept myself intentionally dehydrated to avoid having to go very often.

Main entrance to the Palazzo del Casino

As for press facilities, Venice set aside practically an entire floor of the palazzo for their use, with decent wi-fi connectivity across the entire festival area. No free food, but there were multiple pop-up cafés set up with reasonably priced options.

Cannes' press room was much too small considering the number of journalists and photographers present - at peak hours it was difficult to even find a place to sit on the floor! But it did have a nice view of the water, and the red carpet leading from the photo call area to the press junket room passed right by the window.

Walter Salles, Viggo Mortensen and Kristen Stewart promoting On the Road

No free food at Cannes, but you could drink espresso to your heart's content thanks to sponsor Nespresso. Much to the dismay of the press, wi-fi access was restricted to the press lounge, and in order to connect each time you had to input your individual un-memorizable sequence of letters and numbers.

WHAT YOUR PRESS PASS GETS YOU

In order to facilitate the thousands of journalists that come each year, Cannes has a hierarchy designated by badge color. Certain screening rooms require press to queue according to their badges, with access granted by descending priority. Basically this means that the top three levels are certain to get in, while it's not unheard of for lower level press (namely, me) to wait in line for an hour and be denied access because the theater is full. And this is for press-only screenings.

Venice separates press into Daily, Periodicals and Media Press, with the former taking priority during entry. Although with my Periodicals badge I never had any problem getting turned away from a screening because it was full.

TIFF, thankfully, is egalitarian in its accreditation. All P&I have the same badge, which grants access to all P&I screenings and industry events, as well as five tickets to any public screenings of the badge holder's choice. (Or at least this was the case in 2011. Hopefully they haven't changed anything).

FINAL VERDICT

While I would gladly return to any of these festivals, I think TIFF wins.