The TIFF 2021 Experience – The Year of The Masked & Vaxxed Film Festival

After a week of hard sleep and after a pretty irritating plane back home, I have been reflecting on one very strange year at the 2021 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival. The fact that a major world film festival even went on as it did this year is somewhat of a miracle, and even more so that it followed all the way through until the end. It isn’t normal to attend a festival where at any moment it could just instantly be cancelled while you are attending, but I survived 10 days and 60 movies in the largest city in Canada. 

This was my sixth TIFF. I attended as a Film Fan in 2013 and 2014, spending thousands of dollars on hotels, expensive tickets to public screenings, consumed way too much food and trying to find a quick time to nap in between a screening, which of course never happened. I didn’t attend for a few years due to costs, but I started once again in 2017 as an Industry pass holder. From there I did a combination of both public along with press and industry screenings which really opened up the festival experience for this film buff. This year TIFF was kind enough to supply me with press credentials, however I still purchased an industry badge just to give me a bit more flexibility, plus I also love attending public screenings. 

So what was it like attending shows at TIFF this year? 

I attended both Press & Industry along with public screenings just like I have done from 2017 to 2019. For this year, all screenings required you to wear a mask at all times. I wore a comfortable black cloth mask from one of my other jobs and I initially thought, like with my many theatrical screenings back home, that I could lower my mask as soon as I was seated and the movie began. I did this, then a lovely staff member walked up to me and did the “mask back on” gesture. I saw staff do this many, MANY times in the first day or so, to the point where they had to introduce screenings to remind you of this. All seats were legit assigned seating too, and this was also enforced because even TIFF industry delegates thought that reserved seating was a “suggestion” even if the screening was not busy. I also knew if one were to violate the rules too many times, it could result in having your credentials revoked. 

So for every show in every venue, everyone was fully masked at all times. You could NOT remove your mask for any reason. Since no concessions were being sold AND no food or drink were allowed in any venues, this made for a somewhat cold and distant screening experience that really took some time getting used to. This made for some VERY quiet screenings, however, though at some public screenings people STILL talked to each other thinking no one around them could hear. So that whole “talking during movies” thing, one of my biggest pet peeves at ANY type of theatrical screening, was still very much there. 

At all venues as well, you had to show proof of vaccination. I have no problem sharing publicly that I am fully vaccinated as of July this year and had to have a setup with my vaccine proof and ID. Thankfully this process was very quick and efficiently performed by hired security, and since this was clearly stated many many times before the festival kicked off there were no issues that I saw and entry was very quick (bonus points for figuring out a way to make a shortcut on my new iPhone just to bring it up in a few clicks). Bag checks were also in place at some venues, and at Roy Thomson Hall it was the MOST intense with THREE security checkpoints. You were checked for vaccination, then wanded down by a metal detector, then having your bags fully checked. Don’t even think of bringing a water bottle in with you either! 

Sure, there were movie stars in attendance. I saw Jessica Chastain a few rows away from me, weeping after her premiere of THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE. Benedict Cumberbatch came out onto the Roy Thomson Hall stage to present THE ELECTRICAL LIFE OF LOUIS WAIN. I saw a slightly nervous Vicky Krieps on the same stage after her screening of BERGMAN ISLAND. Steven Soderbergh seemed pretty chill walking onto the stage at the Princess of Wales theatre. Filmmakers attending with their movies were FAR more chill, accessible and right in there with the audiences watching the movies. Red carpet and press areas (which I don’t cover at TIFF) were private this year and required a PCR test just to work.

With this as well, there were far less movies and as such, far fewer showtimes. Many shows were spaced apart to ensure entry was more staggered, but everyone still arrived moments before showtime. The festival also ended a day earlier on Saturday rather than Sunday, which was a bit sad as I loved to finish out the festival on Sunday night and rounding out the weekend. Midnight Madness, which I also ended the day with throughout, was also more limited so my evenings would sometimes end after the 9pm showtime. More sleep, sure, but I usually sleep when I get home. Sleep can take a holiday when TIFF is around.

I mention all of this in detail because this truly was a different experience in 2021, but necessary due to the change in the world. I had the option to just stay at home, turn on my Apple TV box and stream a majority of the film titles from the comfort of my own home, and knowing me I would be easily distracted and not being able to focus on the films. When you are AT the festival and doing moviegoing, you are on their schedule and you can fully focus on the movies themselves, and I also wanted that festival experience back that I simply couldn’t have in 2020. 

The major distributor titles were theatrical only, but for the most part there was an online, virtual festival just like when I covered SxSW from my couch back in March. 

But did I want to do that? While I was somewhat fine and didn’t have a choice with the Austin based SxSW earlier this year, since TIFF was a hybrid event? I was not taking two weeks off and sitting on my couch. I wanted my TIFF experience back. I was fine with getting on a plane, masking up, having vaccine status ready and doing my usual moviegoing bump and grind at the festival. There really just is something about not just the moviegoing experience, but the Toronto experience of it all too. It’s worth it all just to see world-class projection & sound, run into fellow film-fans even if I didn’t recognize some of them with masks on (and this happened. I still don’t know who tapped me on my shoulder mid-festival, said my name and waved, then hurried off to his next screening).

Earlier I mentioned that the screenings were far less frequent and spread out. This was very noticeable this year with a lot of public screening slots very limited and not much scheduling catered to someone like me who was doing 6-8 movies a day. I don’t do parties or, as mentioned before, cover red carpets or even do any in-person interviews. TIFF is 100% watching movies for this writer. So it was sad to be sold out of a lot of things, or stuck waiting 2-3 hours some days in between shows, which is also tricky because a lot of Toronto is shut down so you can’t always just go somewhere and sit down. There was a time I found a small food court on Toronto’s mammoth PATH system, and I did finally find a unique lounge in the Bell Lightbox where I could sit down with my iPad and catch up on work before the next show starts, but that was few and far between. I miss the usual days of constantly running between shows like in 2019 where I saw 76 movies in 11 days. Yes, I typically see that many. 

And the following is SLIGHT sarcasm, but I have to bring up the annual issue that of the dreadful experience of dealing with Toronto citizens who have absolutely no clue on how to walk on a sidewalk. Seriously. It took me days to figure out the non-busy streets of downtown Toronto and even if it was an extra block just to avoid PEOPLE, it was worth it. Toronto’s sidewalks are pretty narrow in areas, but that doesn’t stop from others just walking right into your path cutting you off, walking and talking within feet behind you and not slowing down or moving to another place, no concept of anyone behind them, walking slowly all spread out blocking traffic, delivery people biking on sidewalks and pedestrians having to move out of the way, or even just completely blocking a sidewalk and refusing to move when you are trying to walk past (this also extends to escalator use, in particular Scotiabank Toronto’s famous escalator, where people just spread out and block you from getting past, even when you ask them to move). I always walk fast and observe my surroundings, and it isn’t that difficult. Bonus points for smoking and blowing their smoke or vape cloud right in your path against your will. A few years ago I asked someone politely to move on a sidewalk and the Toronto citizen responded “That seems like a YOU problem, not a ME problem!” And just remained standing there, forcing me to get on the street and almost getting hit by a car. I walk pretty fast by default, so it’s one of the biggest challenges in getting around the city. Toronto side walkers…you stay classy. 

It also must be said that I was beyond amazed by all of the theatre management, venue management, security and volunteers at every single venue. Out of all of the festivals I attend, TIFF is by far the best managed and staffed and you never feel lost or felt like you are being slowed down by everyone. Everyone there knows that TIFF moves fast and furious.

With all of this said, would I return in 2022? 

That entirely depends on the process of TIFF next year. If we are past the pandemic and things go to full capacity, masks are off and the festival goes more or less back to TIFF 2019 with more frequent showtimes AND the world is healthy enough to deal with it all, then I’ll be back. If the festival repeats nearly any of the 2021 edition where masks are required and most movies don’t have enough P&I or public shows, then I may have to just sit it out and hoping the festival is back to normal in 2023 (Though even just typing that year out made me worry about the world). I was fine with it NOW, but this can’t continue as is. I put up with a lot of it this year, but it’s not something I want to make a major trip for. I seriously don’t think it will, but it’s something to also be open about for the 2022 TIFF.

Now if you could just walk faster on the sidewalks, Toronto people, we can all get along. 

Watch next for my TIFF Top 10 along with some new contests for movies! I admit I am quite a bit behind on coverage, but that’s the festival life I’m afraid. Also check out and the YouTube channel for festival Q&As! Many thanks to TIFF PR along with the awesome TIFF team for assistance with the festival this year. 

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