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TIFF boot camp puts first-timers through the drill

Actor Hugo Weaving (centre) at the TIFF Premiere Editorial Magazine Party in 2005: Now would not be a good moment to pitch him your film.

Darryl James/Getty Images

You're a filmmaker invited to the Toronto International Film Festival for the first time. Elation!

Then the reality: Film execs breeze by you through hotel and cinema lobbies, greeting everyone but you, deal-making by cellphone with everyone but you, champion air-kissing all but your cheek. You need to get into their world to plug your small, independent film.

But how?

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Early in August, the festival held a one-day boot camp to dole out wisdom for first-time attendees from across Canada - and some of the advice may seem counterintuitive: According to TIFF organizers, directors should never go to the press and industry screening of their own films, even though that's probably the one event most filmmakers would want to attend. Often, this is the first time a film is shown before an actual audience, so naturally a director would want to see what his or her peers and the industry think of the work.

But distributors and agents notoriously attend these screenings with a cultivated jadedness. It's their professional selves talking. Industry people, more often than not, are watching films from the point of view of their company's market niche. Artistry is one thing, but the film business is another. TIFF's suggestion? Let the producer go to the screening instead, to talk business and get a sense of interested buyers.

"You're not wanted there, and you don't want to be there, because a lot of people will stay 15 minutes, and they've seen enough of that film to know whether or not they want to see more," said Karen Bruce, TIFF's director of Canadian Initiatives, who organized the boot camp. "If they want to see more, they're going to reach out for a [DVD]screener. If they don't want to see more, they are moving on to the next one." Directors should go to the always-more-encouraging public screenings.

Another counterintuitive bit of advice: Don't use every opportunity to sell your film. Filmmakers need to attend cocktail receptions, trade business cards, anything to get an "in." But do it with a bit of knowing panache.

"Sometimes networking is really just networking. You really don't want to be that person that everyone avoids at the party, because the only thing you talk about is the film you have there. Sometimes you really just need to be able to meet people and gather business cards," Bruce said.

In short, filmmakers need to go into the festival with a plan about whom to meet, but not to scare everyone away. Bruce recommends, however, writing on the cards where and how you met those people for future reference.

The boot camp, sponsored by Telefilm Canada, was held on Aug. 10 at TIFF's Bell Lightbox headquarters, the day after the festival held its press conference announcing the lineup of Canadian films. This was the second year TIFF has held the boot camp, but the first in which it brought a number of Canadian filmmakers in from outside Toronto.

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The boot camp "came out of speaking to a lot of filmmakers who attend the festival for the first time and who really aren't prepared to sell their films, don't know how to meet the right people or how to network, and don't really know what they should be doing while they are here," Bruce said.

TIFF is like a vast toolbox for filmmakers providing, for instance, mailboxes for all industry people attending, thereby making them all easy to find. Although every filmmaker is likely hoping to have their film sold for lucrative sums, often a far more realistic goal for first-timers is simply to secure a sales agent or a publicist.

"Don't come in and have the goal that you need to meet David Cronenberg and you need to get a U.S. distribution deal by the end of the festival, because those are really high goals to have for anybody," Bruce said.

Perhaps the luckiest thing for the filmmakers at the boot camp is that they have already made connections with each other before TIFF. "So when they arrive at the festival, they feel they have friends," Bruce said. "And now these people have a bit of a network."

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Guy Dixon is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail. More

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