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Filmmaker Leah Mallen.

"Vancouver has a film festival?"

This question in the run-up to film festival season came from a worldly recent transplant from Toronto.

Yes, Vancouver has a film festival. But despite its highly regarded programming and huge slate of films (about 375 this year), on the national scene it resides quietly in the shadows of the Toronto International Film Festival.

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TIFF is one of the most important in the world, a launching pad to the Oscars, a who's who of A-list celebrities and Hollywood power brokers. In fancy restaurants and private backrooms, important distribution deals are made. Outside, it's paparazzi heaven. There's Ed Norton at the Hyatt hotel; there's Hilary Swank picking up leather goods at Roots. The international press turns out too, and the event gets worldwide coverage.

The Vancouver International Film Festival, not so much. This is a festival that plays to the cinephile more than the autograph hound, that values auteur cinema more than the Hollywood blockbuster. Many of the high-profile VIFF films have already been at TIFF - and maybe elsewhere by now (Sudbury, Calgary). The chances of glimpsing a Mary Hart type are slim. And as for the red carpet, in Vancouver, you're lucky if a city councillor shows.

Me? I'm laughing all the way to my plum aisle seat.

As a civilian in Toronto, I gave up on TIFF: I couldn't handle the line-ups, the frantic fight for tickets or the crazed, screaming fans. In Vancouver, there are line-ups, sure, and some films sell out, but it's a long festival (16 days!) with many screenings and ample opportunity to score a ticket.

"Toronto very early on embraced an identity as a public festival, but has increasingly gone behind a bit of a velvet rope," says Diane Burgess, who teaches film studies at the University of British Columbia and wrote her dissertation in 2008 comparing the two festivals.

"TIFF is, like, fanatical. There are people who line up overnight for tickets," adds Leah Mallen, an independent producer who has shown films at both TIFF and VIFF. "I was just there this past year and had a couple of friends with films and I couldn't even go because they were sold out already. In Vancouver, there's easier access."

Case in point: Just one week before VIFF started, Mallen was able to go online and buy tickets for Denis Villeneuve's Incendies. "It was sold out at TIFF," she said. "Here, I can actually buy a ticket."

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Mallen, who is also an instructor at Vancouver Film School, was at TIFF this year to participate in its Talent Lab - a fantastic experience, she says. But when it came to premiering her film The Score in 2005, she says VIFF was the better venue. "Would it have played in Toronto very well? I don't think so. It was kind of a quirky subject matter. Could we have competed with all the Hollywood glitz and glamour that shows up at Toronto? Probably not."

For some, that glitz and glamour, the sold-out screenings, and the fans elbowing each other for a better glimpse of James Franco or Nicole Kidman are part of the sport. "It's a big, buzzing marketplace," says Ernest Mathijs, an associate professor of film studies at UBC. "It's all about the circus of cinema… and the fact that it appears to be unmanageable I would say appears to be part of the excitement."

It's a different story at VIFF, says festival director Alan Franey. In Toronto, "Being turned away is part of the hunt," he says. "I think that's less true here. If we have a certain percentage of people that are turned away because screenings are sold out, we pay the price, because people say 'Oh, that wasn't worth the trouble. I came all the way down here, I found parking and I couldn't get in.'"

Big Hollywood films, Franey says, aren't the biggest draws at VIFF. "A lot of the passholders and the keeners don't bother seeing those films because they know they're coming out anyway."

More exciting for his core audience are documentaries, Canadian films, and international films that might never get a commercial theatrical release here. VIFF's Asian program is particularly strong.

The Vancouver festival begins Sept. 30, three weeks after TIFF launches with much hoopla. But Franey has no concerns about film festival fatigue. The opposite, in fact.

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"The media attention that Toronto gets, I think, just gets people in the festival mood."

Offers Mathijs: "It cuts both ways. For some people that means the films aren't as fresh… but the more information people get in advance about the films, the more enriched their experience will be."

Burgess, a former Canadian Images programmer at VIFF, wrote her dissertation inspired by the fact that in that role she was constantly asked to compare the two festivals - and was generally stumped for an answer.

"I've come to the realization [that]it's kind of like comparing apples and oranges," she says. "A lot of times when Vancouver gets compared to Toronto, it's using a particular hierarchy of value that places theatrical launching of films or visibility of celebrities as the marker of the upper echelon of festivals."

She says the festivals, both important and respected, are different in ways that can be traced back to their origins. "Toronto began as the effort of a producer looking to grow industry opportunities in Toronto. Vancouver began as the initiative of a theatre owner looking to present an expanded slate of films for the community. And each has kind of retained that core kernel of their identity."

The Vancouver International Film Festival runs from Sept. 30 to Oct. 15.

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