TIFF 2023: No Empty Seats

Few actor and writers, but tons of enthusiastic audience members in Toronto

At the 22 screenings I attended at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival (September 7-17), it was almost impossible to find an empty seat anywhere besides the front row. Instead, the only empty seats were those of many films’ actors and writers.

TIFF is much more public-facing compared to most film festivals. It boasts a staggeringly large lineup, hosts multiple screenings of each movie and offers various opportunities for the public to see filmmakers and stars in person, usually during screening introductions or Q&A sessions. While the festival has red carpets, specifically at theaters where they screen world premieres or high-profile films, they aren’t as important as the ones at Venice or Cannes, which focus more on the glitz and glamor of the film industry.

The absences of the actors and writers were most noticeable before and after the physical premieres of the higher-billed films. Because there were so many international films premiering at the festival, whose principal casts and crews could potentially introduce the film and stay for a Q&A session, it was easy to spot the difference between SAG/WGA compliant films and non-compliant ones. The amount of creatives in attendance was so significantly different.

TIFF also benefited from its position as the third film festival of the fall season, taking place after Venice and Telluride. In the days leading up to those festivals, as well as in the gap between them and TIFF, many independent productions secured interim agreements from SAG, allowing their actors to attend screenings and promote their films. So, while screenings for the major studios’ films may have been actor-less, most of the other screenings were not.

Among the screenings that I attended–mainly independent and international features–there was no shortage of major talent, including everyone from Finn Wolfhard and Billy Byrk (representing their directorial debut, Hell of a Summer) to Patricia Arquette and Willem Dafoe (representing Arquette’s directorial debut, Gonzo Girl). Every screening, except one, hosted a Q&A session after the film, in true TIFF fashion. Depending on the movies you put on your schedule, it was nearly possible to forget about the state of the industry. But, when you did encounter a screening where actors were missing, the loss felt even greater. While so many actors got to represent their films, it was frustrating to see that others could not, simply because the studios were, and still are, unwilling to meet their reasonable requests.

Because of the current state of the film industry, with major releases being delayed or underwhelming box office returns, I was almost surprised to attend a festival where everything operated on a somewhat normal level. In fact, at this year’s festival, tickets were harder to get than usual, with major screenings selling out long before they released tickets to the public. Tickets for high-level premieres were reselling for hundreds of dollars, regardless of the talent that was scheduled to be, or not be, in attendance.

It was difficult to read conversation about the strike’s connectivity to the festival online, because absences from film screenings are much more unnoticeable than empty red carpets. The festival’s artificial façade of normalcy didn’t feel forced, since TIFF centers around its giant lineup of movies rather than star appearances. But, it could feel uncomfortable at times, like there was an unspoken agreement to avoid talking, or thinking, about anything other than the movies themselves.

Regardless of the complications surrounding this year’s edition, or some of the festival’s glaring flaws (such as the $88 ticket price for some premium screenings), the sense of community that anchors the festival was still present. TIFF is so fun because everyone is clearly there for the same reason: their love of film. Waiting in line for a screening or walking from one theater to another, it was almost impossible to hear discussions about anything other than movies. You could feel genuine excitement in the audience as screenings were about to begin–a refreshing feat at a time when filmgoers don’t seem as excited by most of the movies coming out these days. In a time where the industry is so uncertain and ever-changing, this sense of spirit didn’t just come as a relief. It came as a triumph.


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Kaveh Jalinous

Kaveh Jalinous is a New York City-based freelance journalist specializing in the world of film and television, as well as a working filmmaker and screenwriter. He is currently pursuing a degree in Film and Media Studies at Columbia University, and in his free time, he enjoys playing guitar.

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