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What Were They Doing Booing at the Viewing?

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.
17Sep09_VisaScreeningRoom.jpg 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.


  • http://undefined spacejack

    That guy is almost like a modern-day Viola Desmond.

  • http://undefined Brendan

    The VISA screening room “class system” is one of the many reasons I decided not to attend TIFF this year. I used to take time off work and buy a 25 or 50 film festival pass.
    Any chance TIFF can be about celebrating film and filmgoers again instead of this red carpet / paparazzi / VIP nonsense?

  • http://undefined metabaron

    They in addition only allow payments on visa. Too many branding this year at the festival. I used to really enjoy it, but the tickets are expensive, there is 15 minutes of sponsors and so on. I’ve been to only 3 movies so far and gotta say it was not that crowded.

  • Andrew Pulsifer

    Didn’t Capitalism: A Love Story play at the Elgin? Please tell me that they had the VISA priority line for that. That would be delicious.

  • http://undefined TOgal

    Forgive my ignorance, but I don’t really understand what the big deal is. Don’t these events needs sponsors? And isn’t it expected that the sponsors are going to want something in return? Given that you have to pay $120 a year just to have a Visa Gold card, the least they can do is let them stand in their own little line. It’s kind of laughable, but really, again, is it such a big deal? (And I ask that in all sincerity)

  • http://undefined David Toronto

    How does the VISA situation differ from the American Express Front of the Line service?
    If you pay for a seat, you shouldn’t have to put up with commercials and blatant marketing spiels.

  • http://undefined jen_in_toronto

    So this is news NOW because there was some booing? Gimme a break. I actually got a cheap RBC Visa Gold card (definitely not $120) for this and insurance purposes. Really, I think giving ticketing priority to donors is way more offensive. The lounge is nothing fancy.

  • smasharts

    I thought the Priority Line entrance was for those with Priority tickets – the patrons, the people who actually purchase that level of pass for the festival – are you sure it’s only for people with VISA cards?

  • http://undefined heys

    Now the tiff is totally mainstream and the corporations are dying to sponsor its time for the tiff to learn how to say “no”. The official budding-in by donors and Visa card holders is very annoying for what every one says is the people’s festival.
    (In some program book or something I noticed that Visa was grouped with sponsors who gave $3M or more.)

  • http://undefined Ben

    True enough. Even though this seems like a little thing, it’s a little thing standing between what we have now and a truly equitable society.
    There’s a difference between having products and services that only wealthy people can afford, and having opportunities that are only available to the wealthy. IMO the first is fine, while the second is not.

  • http://undefined toronto_llb

    Wow – talk about your first world problems. How silly!
    Newsflash: Membership occasionally has its privileges. This is not an “injustice.”
    A few notes for the author:
    1) The word “tacit” means silent or unspoken. In this case, you’re talking about the conventional rules of moviegoing (i.e. first-come first-served). TIFF is not a conventional moviegoing experience. It’s a highly exclusive event that includes direct access to movie-makers, first-run features, world premieres, and first class venues. In other words, all bets are off and you’re not in the Cineplex anymore. Tacit systems only apply until the rules are spoken. Visa sponsored the show and bought the right to set the rules. I’m also quite positive they didn’t keep it a secret. Ergo, the tacit expectations of those in the non-priority line were naive and incorrect.
    2) The Visa priority line is not “arbitrary.” Visa didn’t set up their own priority line on a whim, they did it to enhance the benefits for their members. People without a Visa might feel left out (in fact, they were), but it isn’t as though they didn’t know why. And it isn’t as though they were excluded on the basis of some immutable personal characteristic (skin colour, religion, gender, sex etc.). They were excluded for the perhaps the same reason I don’t own a Lexus: I haven’t purchased one for reasons personal to me. That’s not unfair, that’s the way things are.
    You’re right about one thing though, the booing was embarrassing. But not so much for the intersection of art and commerce outside the venue, more for the petulant display of sour grapes from the upper balcony inside the Elgin.
    This incident isn’t the result of classes clashing, it’s the product of a few childish whiners who are still getting more attention than they deserve.

  • http://undefined cprincipe

    Indignant class warriors unite! You have nothing to lose but your iPhones.

  • http://undefined Astin

    Welcome to 8 years late.
    I encountered this in 2003, when I had only a normal Visa. I was in the front of the line for a John Sayles film (which had its own irony with the Visa line, much like Capitalism did this year – and yes, Michael Moore called them out on it before the screening). At the time, it was a relatively new feature, and uncoordinated.
    I watched dozens of people get in to the lounge as I sat for 2 hours in the line. I didn’t have a problem with this. I DID have a problem with the fact there were no limits to how many guests you could bring in with your card (so I’d see one gold card and 6 people go in), and that the staff wasn’t really checking. People with grey Visas (not platinum) were getting in. A gold Mastercard seemed just as good. I complained to the volunteer in front of me and they got indignant that they’d been very careful. I pointed out that I’d been watching like a hawk because there wasn’t much else for me to do at the front of the line, and that they were sloppy. He walked away.
    I wrote TIFF and complained. The following year, limits were put on who you could bring in. A gold card was good for you and a guest, a platinum could bring 2 guests. This was a big improvement. By this time, I’d gotten my own platinum card, almost solely for this purpose.
    The lounge is nothing fantastic – free drinks and snacks, and a bunch of people crammed into an area, looking for a stool to sit on, but it does get you into the theatre first.
    This program has only grown in popularity. Especially since some banks will give you an Infinite Visa (top of the line) for free with the right account. The line you see for Visa cardholders? That’s the overflow line because the lounge is already full. So they too are suffering a minor inconvenience.
    What annoys me now is that the Elgin movies are no longer covered under the standard passes. They’re mini-galas that cost more and are separated from the popular ticket choices. Since I tend to go with the 10-book pass, I haven’t bothered with a Visa Screening for a few years now.

  • http://undefined spacejack

    Hmm… actually, I was being sarcastic :(

  • http://undefined mpag

    Actually the reserved seats are usually for talent and those that are part of the movie (i.e. producers, directors, etc.). It’s not for the VISA cardholders. The theatre sits over 1400 people so it’s quite easy to get good seats. Not that many actually get to the lounge.