Writing about Festival Street – TIFF's pedestrian-only stretch of King West between University and Blue Jays Way – in 2015, in these very pages, I was uncharitable. Looking back, I called it a "public relations ghost town" defined by and large by "five-foot posters advertising various films playing at TIFF 2015 (and posters advertising TIFF 2015 itself), and guys riding around willy-nilly on cruiser bikes bumming cigarettes." Maybe Festival Street has changed. Maybe I've changed. But all I know for sure, reader, is that I sort of like Festival Street.
Now, of course, a pedestrian concourse mapped out with corporate branding courtesy Bell, Visa, king of hipster mattresses Casper, McDonald's, etc., will always be inherently tacky. And there's the effect on public transit, which is also a horrible inconvenience, and probably very annoying for people who can't square that annoyance with TIFF's benefit (be it financial, cultural, or otherwise) on the City of Toronto. I get that. But nevertheless: within that tackiness, and that ostensible obnoxiousness, Festival Street has come into its own.
TIFF's placement smack in the downtown of a major metropolitan city distinguishes it from other large film festivals. In Berlin, the annual Berlinale fest draws a perimetre around a cluster of cinemas in Potsdamer Platz, a glossy public square in a tourist-dense part of town. For Sundance, the skiing destination Park City, Utah, is essentially shutdown, so Hollywood types can saunter around in cowboy boots and puffy winter jackets (disclosure: I've never actually been to Sundance; I'm basing this entirely on the Entourage episode where they go there). Cannes has la Croisette, its seaside promenade.
These are spaces that were pretty much developed around their film festivals. TIFF is something different. It impresses itself on King and John.
Before the street shutdown, things were wildly hectic. People would cluster to gawk at celebrities outside of the Princess of Wales Theatre, while streetcars dinged and cars honked, all irate-like. Now there's some breathing room. And picnic tables. And a Casper nap zone. And food trucks where you can get a half-decent arepa. Within the course of half an hour on Festival Street on Saturday, I petted three beautiful dogs and laughed out loud while another micturated on the fake grass undergirding the fake Eiffel Tower at the Air France display. It's also very amusing to watch people plugged into VR sets, craning their necks about, smiling, immersed in one-or-another simulation.
And then there's the food! And the thumping music! And the lineups to get grilled cheese sandwiches provided by the Dairy Farmers of Canada, who are the real celebrities here, with respect to Clooney, Chastain, et al. And the virtual photo booth, whatever that even is!
Lest my hyperbole and excessive punctuation be mistaken for sarcasm or contempt, I assure you: I'm being serious. There's something like genuine buzz in the air, ambling down Festival Street, drinking deep the corporate branding and noshing on a free Reese's cup or six. It makes TIFF feel like the event it often seems like it's straining to be. And in any event, it's certainly a lot more fun and energizing than riding the sluggish, rerouted 504 streetcar home for 90 minutes while the driver compulsively apologizes and blames TIFF, as if he's contractually obligated to do so.