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TIFF 2018: Attendees decry ‘money grab’ as festival tickets hit up to $82 a piece

Long-time fans of the Toronto International Film Festival are accusing the organization of a “money grab” amid changes TIFF made to ticketing policies this year, including the imposition of surcharges for reserved seating and an increase in the number of screenings deemed “premium” events, at which top-priced single tickets could fetch up to $82.

The alleged price-gouging is among a series of complaints from veteran TIFF-goers who shared with The Globe and Mail their bumpy experiences in securing tickets this year. It is one that particularly stings TIFF, a registered charity that makes less than half of its annual budget from ticket sales, but sometimes strains to live up to its reputation as “the people’s festival.”

Ticket buyers who spoke with The Globe expressed frustration at the continuing expansion of premium screenings – premieres that feature red carpets or Q&As with the filmmakers – which this year will take place in four theatres, one more than last year. The premium label jolts the price range of seats from $18-$42 (the cost of a regular screening at the four theatres) to $25-$82.

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Last year, premium single tickets fetched up to $59.

Read more: The Globe’s guide to TIFF 2018 movies

Those top prices include a surcharge of up to $7 for what the festival calls “dynamic pricing,” a growing trend in live-events ticketing, introduced at TIFF two years ago, in which prices go up when consumer demand rises.

“They seem to care less and less about the people these days, and more about how much money they can make on each ticket sold,” said Nathalie Trudeau, a Waterloo-area software engineer who, with her partner, contributes $650 annually for an Ambassador-level membership of TIFF and then spends an additional $2,000 to see about 50 movies. “They don’t even pay the volunteers, except in film passes, so it makes you wonder where all this extra money is going for all of these surcharges.”

“It’s getting really tiring, to be honest, to keep going through this every year – new changes and just new ways of TIFF trying to raise their fees,” said Samar Saneinejad, who has been going to the festival for more than 20 years. “This year, they said they haven’t raised the ticket-package prices, but then they’ve incorporated the premium screening options. So, in a way, they have raised their prices, they just haven’t done it at the package level.”

A spokeswoman noted that, while TIFF is a star-studded, glamorous affair, the organization itself does not turn a profit. "We really are trying to make the festival as accessible as possible, while at the same time staying within the market [price range] as a live event," said Andrea Grau, TIFF’s vice-president of public relations and corporate affairs. "We depend on ticket sales, donations, corporate partnerships: all of those things we need in order to do the work and bring the festival to life."

This year, the festival introduced tiered pricing at four venues with assigned seating (the same ones that host premium screenings): Roy Thomson Hall, the Elgin, Winter Garden and Princess of Wales theatres. While that initially seemed a promising advance, because it would enable ticket buyers to arrive only moments before showtime rather than wait in line, some were frustrated that the system didn't let them choose their specific seat. Friends realized that, unless they co-ordinated their ticket-buying, they wouldn’t be able to sit together.

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And some were surprised to learn that, by trying to avoid the $5 top-tier surcharge, they often ended up with seats that might prompt a visit to the chiropractor.

In opting for Tier B, “our seats are maybe four or five rows away from the screen,” noted Earl Aspiras, a Toronto-area motion graphic designer who usually buys about 30 tickets for each festival. “I’m taking my parents, who don’t have the greatest eyesight, or probably shouldn’t be watching a screen that close. I haven’t told them yet, but I’m sure I’m going to have to explain to them why they can’t choose their own seats.”

Ms. Grau acknowledged that there are more premium screenings this year, which she chalked up to fan demand. Screenings for each evening’s first of two gala films, which used to be limited to Roy Thomson Hall – where cast and crew walk the red carpet and introduce the film – will now also be held at the Elgin, where the director and cast will walk an additional red carpet and participate in a Q&A.

“The intention behind it was really [better] access, because that’s what audiences were mostly talking to us about, was having more access to the films and to the talent,” Ms. Grau said. “Many of these films will be shown in theatres later in the fall, so the experience is really the interaction with the director and cast.”

She added that the festival is sensitive to all of the complaints that come in, including frustration with a ticketing system that sometimes crashes.

Erika Wybourn, an IT project manager, told The Globe that when she ran into technical difficulties with her purchases, she called the TIFF telephone help line – and was informed there was a 42-minute wait. “That’s really not acceptable,” she said, noting she was especially worried she would hit the end of her designated ticket-buying window before being able to complete her purchase.

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“We’re trying to build a better back-end system,” Ms. Grau responded. “It’s never perfect. Every year we learn a little bit more about how to make the process smoother. The demand is intense, in small windows of time.”

“In the new strategic plan, audience-first is really our top priority,” she said, referring to TIFF's corporate road-map for the next four years. “So, everything [we’re] hearing is really important and it helps inform us. At the same time, I want to ensure people the organization is listening.”

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