Monday, October 3, 2011

VIFF 2011: A Survival Guide

So you’ve gotten tickets to the Vancouver International FilmFestival. Or you got one of those super-snazzy all-access passes that allows you to see whatever film you want. And with over 300 films to choose from and a screening happening at almost any given hour, you’ll be tempted to see everything. There is of course the question of whether you can have time to properly eat, hydrate, bathe or even sleep, if you include the after-parties, the Forum, the Q&As and the occasional star sighting.

This is not my first year at VIFF. I’ve seen films in the past, have volunteered with them, seen at least one film every year for over a decade, and am imparting some wisdom to make festival-going a much, much more pleasant experience.

Arrive early. Let’s say you’ve bought tickets or have one of those amazing passes, and you think it’s like a regular film screening where you can wander in late or think you can get seated right away. For newbies or those who haven’t been in awhile, this is not the case. Screenings are seated only 15 to 20 minutes before a film starts. You must wait in line outside the theatre to get in, even if you have tickets, and they are militant about it. Festival-going is not like going to your multiplex, it is taken seriously and film festival fans already know this. Seating is not a free-for-all, they let those in the line ahead go in sooner rather than the ones at the back, and if you’re in a big group, the later you get to the theatre, the less likely you’ll have seating together. Plan to arrive a minimum of 30 minutes before a film starts so that you can have your choice of seating. Passholders are allowed to skip the line and get seated first, and they set aside tickets for passholders to pick up prior to each screening (check your pass for guidelines and usage), but if you don’t get there a minimum of 20 minute before your screening, you take your chances at the will call, and a pass does not guarantee seating.

Vancity Theatre, home of VIFF
Bring an umbrella. Lining up for a screening means being out in the elements, and you should prepare for the weather. If it’s going to rain, for heaven’s sake, bring your umbrella. This is Vancouver, after all, it’s supposed to rain.

Stay hydrated. If you’re skipping from film to film, sometimes the air can get dry in a theatre and concessions stands can get backed up. You should plan to bring a bottle of water from home, so you can stay hydrated throughout the screenings, especially if you have them back to back and have to exit one film and enter another. If you forget to bring water, get bottles at the many Starbucks or 7-11 locations (you can also get them at Subway). If you’re at the Pacific Cinematheque, there are convenience stores and independent coffee bars on Davie Street that are well-equipped with refreshments, and the Vancity Theatre that houses the VIFF head office on Seymour and Davie has a Starbucks next door. (Also, it’s a good idea to get your coffee from these locations.)

Eat something. Each of the theatres mentioned above are in commercial centres, so there are plenty of restaurants about, including all major chains along the Granville Entertainment District. Use Open Table to secure reservations, but watch the timing to ensure your films doesn't run late. If you don’t have time between screenings, it’s a good idea to stock up on snacks (including fruit cups, which will be more satisfying than just popcorn and candy) at any of the 7-11 or other convenience stores scattered along Granville Street. As Vancouver is home to a diaspora of sushi, you will have no problem choosing from the many, many Japanese restaurants located along the strip. If you need something quick and cheap, the city has permitted more and more food trucks serving contemporary West Coast, Mexican, Jamaican, Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese and other foods on the go, which are all littered throughout the downtown core. There’s also the famed Japadog, which has numerous stands and a stand-along restaurant on nearby Robson Street, and it’s a must if you’re from out of town. For the less adventurous stomach or if you just have no time for table service, hit up any of the dollar pizza joints like Numero Uno, major fast-food chains, and there’s also a food court in nearby Pacific Centre Mall.

The Vogue Theatre
Bring your festival guide. Volunteers who work at VIFF are just that: volunteers. They are not expected to memorize film schedules off the bat, especially since they can change at a moment’s notice. You should consult your own screening guide, and hit up the information tent set up at each venue to get copies of the screening charts. Consult the big bulletin boards set up outside each venue and check out the pink sheets, because they list any changes to film screenings. They may also contain information on last-minute additional screenings which may or may not be posted on the VIFF website, so it’s the best way to stay up-to-date on screenings. If you are at Empire Granville theatre, there is a huge whiteboard located in front of two (staffed) directors’ chairs that lists all films, the cinemas they will play in, and the status of the film: is there a line-up, are they seating it, has it started, will it be delayed, etc. (Hint: if you’re like me, build a chart or an Excel sheet – yes, an Excel sheet – and list the films, screenings, locations and times in a handy reference guide all your own.)

Do not bring your children. No, I am not writing that because I or VIFF hate kids. We don’t. But do note that all films at VIFF are unrated. They are screened uncut, and if a film has violent or sexual content, it’s not edited. Because of that, VIFF charges a one-time annual $2 membership fee as consideration, to show that you are a member of the VIFF and consent to seeing films uncut. Membership is not available for minors, which in British Columbia means persons under age 19. Therefore, unless a film has been given a special “G” rating to allow an all-ages audience, you can assume that each film is unofficially rated “R” regardless of content. If you want to take the kids out to a film, VIFF is not the place for it: take them to your local Cineplex instead.

To get there, take public transit. Most the action takes place along Granville Street in the Entertainment District with the nightclubs, so they are central and easy to get to. If you’re coming from the East, take the Skytrain’s Millennium or Expo Lines and stop off at Granville Station. It will naturally flow to the street a block away from the cinemas. If you’re traveling from the south, particularly from Richmond or the airport, take the Canada Line rapid transit train and stop at Vancouver City Centre station, which is a block away from Granville Station and exits onto Granville Street. If you’re seeing a film at either Pacific Cinematheque or the Vancity Theatre, it’s best to take the Canada Line, stop at Yaletown-Roundhouse station, and head west. The theatres are within a ten-minute walk of the station. Check out Translink for more information and to plan your trip.

But if you must take your car… you can park at any number of parkades but the best-kept secret is Robson Square. Head south on Howe Street (it’s a one-way street), cross Smithe at the courthouse, and stay in the right lane. Just before the big clock at Nelson Street, follow the ramp down into the parkade and buy a ticket from the machine. The rates are simply the best in downtown Vancouver: on evenings after 6 pm or all day on weekends, the rate is $2 for two hours or only $4 until 6 am the next morning! These covered lots are patrolled 24/7 and you exit onto Robson Square, not too far away from the Vogue Theatre. To get back into the parkade late at night, there’s a buzzer. The parkade is located beneath the BC Courthouse, so it’s safe and well-lit. If you need someone to escort you, enter the parkade from Smithe Street, at the Provincial Court side, press the buzzer and, ask security to accompany you to your vehicle. Driving out will be intuitive.

Be open to the experience. This may sound flaky or airy-fairy, but you must remember that very often, you’ll be seeing films that have not secured a distribution deal in North America. These are films from around the world that may be popular in their own country but are completely alien here. The aesthetics will be different, and you may see films with no spoken English. Just remember that you are not seeing something made by a major Hollywood studio, and you should expect something different. And if you’re cagey about seeing that 3-D Japanese Samurai action comedy or the German opera documentary or that Iranian lesbian romance, always remember: every film has English subtitles.

Whatever you choose to do, enjoy the Vancouver International Film Festival!