Movies are great. They make you laugh, make you cry, and make you feel every feeling in between. They can teach you about people you don’t know, people you do know, and even help you better understand yourself. They are created by some of the most brilliant artistic minds, and often star the most beautiful people, our species has produced. They are glamorous, exciting, and important. For about a million reasons, movies fucking rule.
All of this is what makes the prospect of attending a film festival so alluring. Go to a major film festival, and look on in awe at the nearly unending slate of carefully curated movies that will make you laugh and cry and learn all day every day for something like a week straight! Attend world premiere screenings of a bunch of movies that your friends at home won’t be able to see for a long time, giving you months and months of bragging rights! Sit before famous directors and actors during intimate Q&A sessions, and pick the brains of these geniuses live! And, who knows? Maybe you’ll impress, say, Scarlett Johansson with a funny and penetrating question about her character and the acting process and the next thing you know you two are at a nearby bar talking about movies and life and love late into the night and the next next thing you know you’re on her yacht in the south of France discussing how, when you really think about it, it isn’t all that crazy for two people to elope after only knowing each other for a couple weeks, not when both souls have recognized their perfect match! The point is, there are so many opportunities for unique, unforgettable experiences at a film festival that, if movies and/or extremely implausible (but not totally impossible!) love connections with the rich and famous and beautiful are your thing, make attending one a tantalizing idea.
But can you actually go to one? Is it any fun to attend? And what should you do if you do decide to go about acquiring a pass for one of these festivals? Well, I spent a solid week at New York City’s recent Tribeca Film Festival, and since I would’ve felt very bad about getting an all-access press pass and neglecting my regular blogging duties by running off to the movie theater every afternoon had I not written anything about the experience by the end, and since I thought it would be useless to write detailed reviews of movies none of you will be able to see any time soon (though don’t let that stop you from being incredibly jealous that I know things that you won’t know until maybe like December), I’ve decided to return with something like an instructional blog on some dos and don’ts when going to your first film festival. So let’s get to it, okay?
Get yourself a ticket
You know you can actually go to these things, right? Like, they sell tickets and passes to the public. Granted, the all-access passes are pretty damn pricy. The Tribeca Film Festival is a relative bargain, with this year’s 10-day do-it-all pass available for the low low price of $1,250. If you wanted the rough equivalent for last January’s Sundance it would’ve run you $6,500. (There are also cheaper mini packages with a certain number of tickets you can buy if you only want to spend stupid money on a film festival rather than a truly insane amount.)
But hey, it’s the experience you’re buying here, and if you’re even thinking about shelling out a grand or six on a film festival, you presumably have enough disposable income to where throwing around that kind of cash won’t hurt you too much. Or you might be like me, able to finagle your way into getting a free pass through your place of employment. I noticed people with passes representing companies like Uber, so those kinds of passes aren’t limited just to the press, I don’t think.
On top of that, the entire process is actually quite easy, and at Tribeca was orchestrated by a support staff working the festival who, to a person, were so kind and patient and helpful that I temporarily thought I’d been magically transported out of New York City and into a foreign land (sometimes known as “The Midwest”) where customer service isn’t solely the purview of surly 20-somethings who don’t even try to hide how incredibly put out they feel by you politely asking them to do their jobs. If you get a pass, all you have to do is pick it up at your convenience from the festival’s headquarters and you’re good to go. After that, just check the daily schedule, pick out which movie you want to see, go to the theater it’s showing at, and, when you walk in, flash your pass to the ticket checkers and head on in. An entirely stress-free process.
Plan your day out ahead of time
Since there are generally a truly ridiculous number of movies playing on any given day, it’s a good idea to make yourself a schedule laying out the ones you want to hit before you head out for the day. What I usually did was scan the showings of that day, look for the movie I was most interested in seeing, and, around that screening’s time, pick another movie or two that started before and/or after that one with a running time that would allow me to get from theater to theater without too much hassle. Again, the whole process isn’t complicated at all, but it is much better to have a set plan going into the day so you know what kind of time schedule you’re on rather than just winging it.
Also, if there is a coordination issue—say there are two movies you want to see that start at around the same time—then it’s a good idea to check out the other days and times each movie you’re interested in will be screened. Each movie is shown about three or four times during the length of the festival, so you’re not screwed if you miss any one particular screening. As long as you’re proactive, you should be able to make it to all the movies you want to see.
Show up to the theater 30 minutes early
Showing up early in general is a good idea for these kinds of things. You don’t want to make the long trip to the theater only to find out that all the seats are taken. Getting there right about 30 minutes before the movie starts is especially smart, I found, because that’s usually when they start letting people into their seats. There were a couple times when I strolled past long lines of people waiting to get into the place and, because I got there right as they started letting people into the venue, I was able to bypass the line, cut ahead of everyone, and get seated before anyone else. It also helps to don a facial expression that says, “I know exactly where I’m going and frankly am a little annoyed to not be there already so don’t bother me with talk of ‘lines’ and ‘waiting your turn’ and ‘the theater isn’t open yet, sir.’” A couple times I found myself places I probably should not have been yet because of that trusty face. Hopefully it’ll work just as well for you.
Focus more on quantity than quality
At every festival, there are a handful of Big Important Films that get the hype and headlines. Don’t feel like you absolutely have to go see those. Film festivals are sort of like music festivals in that it’s the glut of things to see that makes them cool, more than any single act or movie. The simple fact that you can gorge yourself on two or three quality independent movies every day for a week and a half is the primary appeal here, not so much the fact that you can see one or two Oscar-bait movies that will make their way to the AMCs and Regals around the country eventually. (Don’t get me wrong—that, too is a really cool aspect of attending a festival, and again you all should be envious that I already know what happens in Love After Love and you don’t.)
I knew very little about the plots of most of the movies I saw at Tribeca, and it was a better experience because of it. All I knew about November before I sat down in my chair to watch it was that it would be weird, and indeed it was, in a delightful way that I did not anticipate. I went to Mr. Long expecting an action-packed shoot-’em-up and instead was treated to what is predominantly a sweet “gruff and taciturn hitman befriends adorable little kid and becomes a dumpling-making softy” flick in which the star’s fingers spend more time kneading dough than pulling triggers. I walked into Tom of Finland knowing absolutely nothing about the story and found a packed theater filled with lots of enthusiastic gay men (at one point during the Q&A with the director that preceded the screening, one audience member noted, in a question about whether this important story about a relatively little known yet iconic artist in the gay erotica scene would cross over to the mainstream, that the theater’s crowd was “mostly men, mostly g—I don’t want to generalize about everyone’s sexuality, but I think it’s safe to say we’re disproportionately gay”) and enjoyed learning about the wild life and influential art of Touku Laaksonen with a crowd that would break out into applause and exclamations of “YAAAAASSS” during the movie’s most triumphant moments.
During my time at the festival, I rarely knew what I was in for when the lights went down and the movie began to play, but it was always something good. Your goal should be to see as much as you can, regardless if you’re all that familiar with the plot or the filmmakers. I promise, you won’t regret it.
Don’t buy snacks at the theater
This tip has nothing to do with film festivals specifically, but will improve your life by saving you money and freeing you from one of the shackles The Man has placed on your mind. I honestly don’t know how people can look themselves in the mirror after willingly paying exorbitant prices for a pop and a candy bar inside a movie theater when the bodega literally a half a block away sells the same shit for half the cost. That hankering for some buttery popcorn that overwhelms you when you step inside a theater isn’t some naturally occurring impulse, it is the product of years of conditioning by The Man to separate you from more of your hard-earned money. Resist.
Don’t stick around for the Q&As
One of the superficially appealing things about going to a film festival, distinguishing it from your regular trip to the movies, is access to the stars and creators of the movies you see. Most of the movies I saw at Tribeca were bookended by Q&A sessions, usually with the director and one or two of the actors. These are tempting: Who wouldn’t like to hear straight from the director what he or she was going for in a movie you just saw and loved? However, they are in my experience almost complete wastes of time and at times actively off-putting.
Movies are a lot like most forms of art. The works themselves are great; people who make them are often smart and interesting; but the people who most like them generally suck. Movie fandom to these people is but another flashy badge worn to advertise their personal sophistication and cultural mastery and intelligence. It becomes more about the identity—cinephile as pretentious aesthete who knows and cares about obscure works that plebes couldn’t even understand if they tried—and what adopting that identity means for the cultural and moral value of the individual than about, say, thinking movies are rad and thus wanting to see lots of them. These are the types of “smart dumb cats” Ghostface has lamented, the over-complicating pseudo-intellectuals Susan Sontag bodied 50 years ago for their inability to let art speak for itself. These are the people who often ask the questions at Q&As, and their presence can ruin the experience.
I’m reminded of the Q&A after the Estonian movie November—a charming, fantastical, darkly funny movie that takes place in a small village in the 19th century. Director Rainer Sarnet called it an “Estonian fairy tale,” and like any good fairy tale it has elements of a parable, speaking on themes like greed, love and longing, and the social and cultural impositions and evolutions and syncretism that came with modernity. Most importantly, it looks cool as hell and is a good watch.
During the Q&A, one mind-reading genius who is no doubt very proud to be the kind of person who’s seen Andrei Rublev and Stalker stated quite assuredly that the director’s use of water in the movie was an obvious allusion to the work of Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky. No analysis, no mention of what “Tarkovsky’s water” itself means or how making this connection added to his understanding of the world depicted in November. He was just fishing for credit for picking up on the alleged extension of some highfalutin symbolism some terrible film studies professor probably gave him an “A” for writing about in an undergrad paper.
Sarnet was not amused. The director evenly, though with an unmistakeable hint of underlying irritation, explained that Tarkovsky had nothing to do with what he was getting at with the water in November, at one point saying “there are other meanings for water than Tarkovsky.” Again, Sarnet was cool; the question guy was an ass.
These kind of useless know-it-all questions, coupled with shameless, over-the-top praise for the filmmakers, regularly plagued these sessions. The only Q&As that I didn’t totally regret sitting through were the ones after The Boy Downstairs and Tom of Finland. The The Boy Downstairs one was fine because the woman tasked with mediating the discussion was totally enamored by the movie and stood up there asking question after question of her own, trying to learn everything she could about the process of making the movie. Nothing particularly revelatory came from it, but the mediator’s enthusiasm was endearing. The Tom of Finland one was fine and funny because it was short, was mostly just the director talking about why he thought Touku Laaksonen’s story was worth telling, and culminated in someone from the aforementioned very sympathetic crowd asking, “Where’s the afterparty?”
As you can glean, while the Q&As sound interesting in theory, at best no one says anything of any real interest and at worst you’ll be overcome with the urge to give some hoity-toity film nerd a swirly. Especially if skipping the Q&A allows you to cram another movie into your day, just leave after the movie is over. You’ll be doing yourself a favor.
Don’t go to the talks
The Tribeca Film Festival, like most festivals, is lousy with talks. This year’s lineup read like it was compiled by surveying an intergenerational segment of lame whites about whom they’d like to invite to their ideal dinner party. For the too-old-to-actually-be-hip-but-still-socioeconomically-powerful-enough-to-pretend-otherwise white guy set, there was Tom Hanks and Bruce Springsteen. For the slightly younger, “Woody Allen just gets it, you know?” contingent, you could listen to Noah Baumbach speak with Dustin Hoffman. For white millennial women who know which of their friend group is the Shosh and which one is the Marnie and thinks of themselves as the Hannah, Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner chatted with America Ferrera. Being neither white nor lame in the same way as the people who’d think any of these conversations would be stimulating, I wasn’t too enthused to hear any of these folks say uninteresting things for an hour or so. Still, I did want to take in as much of the Tribeca experience as I could, so I figured I should go to at least one. And as a person who likes Girls but dislikes Lena Dunham, I figured, if I was lucky, hers would be either the least or most offensive.
By the time I got out of the subway and into the driving rain and saw the line to get into the venue that stretched down the entire block, I realized I’d made a mistake. Turning down a chance to sit in a big comfortable seat in a nice and warm theater and watch another movie and instead opting for the opportunity to stand in the rain for 20 minutes before listening to Dunham and Konner say the same stuff they always do was not a good trade.
The talk itself was fine—at least the opening and closing bits I was awake for. The most eventful part of the evening from my perspective was when a large plastic plant fell over on the lady sitting next to me. (Don’t worry, she was fine and handled it quite gracefully, and the room was too large and enraptured by the just-begun talk to really notice.) My only real takeaway was that America Ferrera could almost certainly become this nation’s president if she ever wants to, and hopefully she’d prove a benevolent ruler, because armed with the force and passion of her speech along with her charm and mesmerizing beauty, she could easily convince the populace to get rid of that pesky democracy thing and crown herself queen. I showed up, sat down, realized how inoffensively bland the whole thing was going to be, marveled at all the superfans in attendance, many literally squirming in their seats in delight with every platitude, took a nap, and realized it was time to go as the Q&A period began with an obligatory male ally from the crowd going into his super supportive “As the father of a daughter …” routine.
I don’t imagine the other talks at the festival were any more enlightening, so I’m comfortable advising you to skip them. Any time spent at one of these star-studded, glorified TED Talks is time not spent with an actual movie, and that’s a waste.
That’s about it in terms of advice. If I’m being honest, there’s no way I can argue that paying some thousand-plus dollars to attend one of these things makes much sense financially. It’s extremely expensive, and while you can see a ton of movies, even the most efficient festival planning will not make this anywhere near cost effective. What I can say, though, is that I had a whole lot of fun, saw lots of really cool movies I probably would’ve missed otherwise, and would, if given the opportunity, definitely attend something like this again.
Movies, like all forms of art, matter. There’s a reason why humans have been telling stories and creating narratives through which we teach and learn and feel the collective experiences of our fellow man since the dawn of our history. More personally, movies have played a critical role in my own life. They were my second true love, with movies like The Godfather and Blade Runner and Breathless doing the same thing for my understanding of just how powerful and moving this form of expression could be at its best as albums like Illmatic and Ready to Die and The Infamous had done a couple years earlier for my first love, rap music. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the majority of my lifetime emotional experiences have been mediated through watching movies. It was a real treat to be able to attend a celebration of movies with a bunch of strangers who probably feel the same way.
There were many moments at Tribeca that reinforced for me the importance of cinema. Some were small, like how feeling the visceral joy of the audience watching Tom of Finland drove home for me how powerful and empowering it can be to represent the underrepresented in art. Some were bigger, like how I sat there watching The Boy Downstairs equal parts enthralled by the story and in awe of how truly and honestly it depicted a relationship that almost frighteningly resembled one of my own. The Boy Downstairs was my favorite movie of the festival, though I can’t say to what degree that opinion is informed by how strongly I identified with the story. It is the best kind of romantic comedy in that its comedic elements are legitimately funny, the underlying relationship feel so emotionally true, and both lead characters come off like complete, coherent, real people. I came out of that theater with a better understanding of my own life and relationships, feeling energized and happy and a little less alone than before.
Moments like that are why people make and watch movies. To feel like they’re not alone, to feel seen, valued, to understand and be understood, to experience life in all its messy, painful, exhilarating glory. (And sometimes just to see cool shit blow up.) Going to the Tribeca Film Festival allowed me to bury myself in movies, a process that has always brought my life so much meaning. Not even the odd film school fuckboy or Lena Dunham could make that anything other than amazing.