The TIFF screening of Giuseppe Tornatore‘s Baarìa on Tuesday night at the Elgin Theatre had all the makings of an incredible film festival premiere: the director was there, and so were his stars; the theatre was packed with excited filmgoers; the popcorn was pretty good—and so, thankfully, was the movie. We’re doing our detailed reviews elsewhere, but suffice it to say that Baarìa gets a recommendation. With all that in mind, you might wonder why the crowd let out a long “BOOOOO!” in unison during the programmer’s introduction, prior to the film.
Yes, booing. They do it sometimes in Cannes, but in Toronto? At the self-avowed “friendly festival”?
It started with one person, way up in the balcony nosebleeds, and within seconds at least a quarter of the crowd, mostly those in the back of the theatre, had joined in. “Ooookay, then,” said the presenter delivering the intro, before carrying on with his prepared spiel.
Confused? Maybe it would be helpful if we told you exactly what the presenter said, before the booing began: he asked the crowd to give a hand to TIFF’s proud presentation partner, Visa. This request is a standard feature of all film introductions at the Elgin during this year’s TIFF.
Visa earned this pre-film show of respect by being one TIFF’s many major sponsors. One of the things Visa gets in return for the (presumably very generous) support they give to the TIFF Group is the right to brand the Elgin Theatre for the duration of the festival. Some of what TIFF lets Visa do with the venue is fairly superficial and expected. For instance, during the festival the theatre is known as the “Visa Screening Room.” But the benefits of sponsorship run a lot deeper than nomenclature. Too deep, in fact, which is why the crowd was so ornery on an otherwise perfect night.
Logos and names are tolerable, but Visa and TIFF’s partnership messes with one of the core tenets of the Byzantine code of honor that governs all moviegoing, which we will express as a mathematical equation, for clarity:
First person in line = first body in seat.
The Elgin is one of the primary venues at TIFF for high-profile premieres. Show up outside for an evening screening of a film (at six or nine o’clock), as we did for Baarìa, and you’ll notice that there are two lines stretching down the block, north of the entrance of the theatre.
One of them is the priority line, only for holders of Visa gold or platinum cards. That’s the line that enters the theatre first. The other line is for everybody else. That line enters the theatre once everyone on the priority line is already inside.
This policy effectively supplants the tacit first-come, first-seated rule of movie lines with a kind of arbitrary class system. Credit card preference is so personal and so random that it would make about as much sense to apportion VIP treatment by hair colour. Brown, black, and red, go ahead. Blondes—back of the line. All it would take, apparently, is for some hair dye conglomerate to cut a big enough cheque.
While waiting for Baarìa, we had the good fortune to be standing, in the non-priority line, next to a friendly, elderly gentleman of British extraction, who said he’d been coming to TIFF for twenty-five years. He said he was planning on seeing thirty films at TIFF this year, which makes him, by all accounts, a pretty good customer. Like us, he’d arrived an hour before showtime. When the Visa line started moving into the theatre, he could barely contain himself. He cupped his hands around his mouth and said to the cardholders, in something a little more audible than a stage whisper: “Hey, don’t you think this is a little UNFAIR?”
We’ll never be able to prove it, but we suspect (and hope) that it was he who started the booing.
As if the lineup situation wasn’t enough, there’s even a special lounge inside the Elgin for cardholders to kill time in before their shows start. Never having seen the inside of this lounge, we can only speculate as to what it might be like. Fountains? Flamingoes? Crystal goblets of bubbly liquids and enough caviar to jeopardize an entire generation of sturgeon? Anything seems possible to a mind wracked with envy.
Inside the the theatre, there are even sections of seats reserved specifically for Visa gold and platinum cardholders. Many of these went unoccupied during Baarìa, and were opened to the non-cardholding public shortly before the movie started, but during a packed screening they’d have been the difference between optimal seating and not-so-good.
This preferential treatment for Visa cardholders has been going on since at least 2001, when Visa issued a press release promising Visa gold and platinum card holders “early access to the best seats at the VISA screening room.”
Despite these minor injustices, there was something a little embarrassing about the booing at Baarìa. TIFF is Toronto’s annual celebration of top-flight international glitz, and crowds at TIFF screenings should comport themselves accordingly, in a dignified manner.
But first, they’ll need to be treated with dignity.