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Wanna make a great festival even better? Start by overhauling overbooking policy

The Toronto Film Festival's leadership uses "postmortem" as a verb, and after this year's festival they're going to be postmorteming a lot. Movies were good, acquisitions were high, screenings were crowded, and sometimes tempers were elevated.

The press and industry screenings at the Varsity, also open to Gold Patron passholders, were so overbooked that hundreds were turned away from at least a dozen screenings, and lines started forming as long as 90 minutes before show time. Journalists missed key movies because the houses were filled when they arrived.

Harlan Jacobson of USA Today and Todd McCarthy of Variety were both barred from two movies on the same day, and were not happy campers. Critics from the New York Times and Toronto papers were among those refused admission. "If it had been my film," said Toronto director Sturla Gunnarsson, "I would have been furious."

On Saturday fest director Piers Handling and media director Gabrielle Free were analyzing what happened. There were only about 70 more industry passholders this year than last, Free said, and yet some screenings turned away as many as they seated. "All we can figure out is that people were using their passes much more," she said--"maybe because the movies were so strong."

Even using two screens, the festival can handle fewer than 600 passholders at a press/industry screening. Some 2,750 passes exist, plus the Gold Patrons. By lining up so long in advance, passholders with leisure time made things impossible for working journalists, who miss another movie if they have to arrive an hour early.

"By booking big movies in the evenings we may inadvertently have created 'date nights'," Free mused. One possibility: Put big movies in the morning, when the pros will attend but less committed passholders might not.

At Cannes, daily press is guaranteed admission to screenings up to 15 minutes before show time. But the Toronto first-come, first-served policy basically meant the press came last. That may change. "Every important film festival depends on the support of the press and the industry to be successful," Canadian director Norman Jewison wrote in a letter to the editor. "When access to these screenings is denied to important critics and buyers, there is a problem." He argues against first-come screenings:

"These critics have to see four or five films a day. Give me a break! Give the press a break!"

Toward the end of the week, the festival improved the situation by adding a lot of extra "press priority" screenings, but "a lot of industryites called up and complained because they thought they were press-only," Free said. One problem may be that some industry passholders may not really qualify for credentials. "We are going to take a good look at the list," Handling said. Complicating matters: Sale of the industry passes is an important source of revenue.

Bottom line: The Toronto festival, the most important in North America, is still having growing pains. Because its September dates are better-timed than Cannes for the crucial year-end releasing season, its facilities are stretched beyond capacity, and there's no reason to expect smaller crowds next year. Because the festival has always been so smoothly and competently run, situations like the mob scenes at the Varsity cause psychic pain to the organizers. "We're going to be postmorteming like crazy," Handling said.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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