Toronto fest nixes crix

Overbooked screenings prevents critics from seeing pix

TORONTO — For many years now, the Toronto Film Festival has been a can’t-miss stop on the international fest schedule for most U.S. critics due to its numerous high-profile premieres and the sheer number of entries it shows.

But quite a few of those critics are beginning to change their minds about the usefulness of this fest for the simple reason that, this year more than ever, they have been finding it difficult to do their jobs. Several of the press and industry screenings for the most in-demand titles have been so overbooked that critics arriving even a half-hour before showtimes have been locked out.

Getting into public screenings on the spur of the moment is even worse, what with vast rush lines and lack of clarity as to whether or not one can get in.

Overflows of 150 or more people for the press screenings of such highly anticipated titles as Pedro Almodovar’s “Talk to Her” and Paul Schrader’s “Auto Focus” prevented many critics from getting in, but things reached a boiling point at the Saturday evening showings of Todd Haynes’ “Far From Heaven,” when Roger Ebert and reps from such other U.S. publications as the New York Times, USA Today, New York magazine and Variety were prevented from seeing the film despite having arrived up to a half-hour early. Another who couldn’t get in was one of the festival’s biggest boosters of long-standing, director Norman Jewison.

Barred at the door

The officious festival guardians of the doors are under strict instructions to let people in only on a first-come/first-served basis and, unlike at other festivals, publicists and producers are powerless to slip certain critics in on their own. Indeed, publicists are even barred from entering the auditoriums to monitor screenings, and one of the producers of “Far from Heaven” was similarly prevented from entering even to stand in back to check the projection.

It would be one thing if everyone inside these screenings was a legitimate member of the press. But the press is vastly outnumbered by those with industry passes, by a count of 2,000 to 750, per the festival press office. This means 2,750 people are credentialed for the P&I screenings, clearly far too many where hot-ticket titles are concerned.

Furthermore, a Rogers Industry Center Web site offers an industry pass for $850 Canadian, which theoretically gives access to P&I screenings to anyone willing to pay for one. The fest insists that such applicants are screened to make sure they actually work in the industry, but suspicions persist since never before have there been such repeated jam-ups for popular films.

Yankee, go home

When it became apparent after a long wait that he and his American colleagues were not going to get into the “Far From Heaven” screenings, Ebert spoke up loudly to explain to anyone who cared to listen that critics come here to do a job and not to be prevented from seeing films by non-journalists. This prompted a whine from one Canadian member of the crowd, who said, “If you don’t like it, why don’t you go back to your country and have your own film festival.”

Fest officials did add a latenight showing of “Heaven” in a small screening room for those who were available, but critics were appalled again Sunday morning to find a line more than an hour long at the industry office for those trying to get tickets to public shows for the rest of the festival.

In light of this mess, the pecking order of different badges long established at the Cannes Film Festival begins to make more sense: If you’re a legitimate member of the press, you know you can get into designated press screenings. Perhaps more sensible for Toronto, if the fest insists upon continuing to combine press and industry at the same screenings, would be to follow Sundance’s example and guarantee seating to press members at any screening provided they arrive 15 minutes early; after that you take your chances.

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