Hunting for TIFF's Autograph Hunters
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Hunting for TIFF’s Autograph Hunters

We talk to celebrity-signature wranglers and get some "no's" and "piss off's"—and also a few tips.

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How much is your signature worth? If you’re the average schmuck, it’s probably not even worth the price of the piece of paper it’s written on.

But if you’re Robert Downey Jr., just signing the 15 letters of your name (15 if the period at the end of “Jr.” counts as a letter) creates a collectible that can fetch hundreds of dollars on sites like eBay—more if it’s needlessly matted and framed. At TIFF, collecting these autographs can be serious business, with the barriers around red carpets regularly lined by professional or semi-professional collectors—“dealers,” they’re called—flapping their glossy 8 ½ x 11” photos and flattened-out DVD case sleeves.

In my attempts to speak with these guys (and they seem to be mostly guys), I’ve been met with what might generously be called ambivalence. There have been lots of “no’s,” some “piss off’s,” a “fuck off” or two, and mostly a lot of blank stares—as if I’d go away and stop asking questions if they looked through me as if I were a ghost. (Though, to be fair, I mostly did.) That said, my lurking over the past week has helped me shake out a few tips.

Like anything, a TIFF red carpet is a social contract. You behave well, and you’ll be rewarded. You’ll maybe even get an autograph. Last Friday, at the red carpet premiere of the lousy Tom Hardy crime caper The Drop at the Princess of Wales, a TIFF-appointed red carpet rep named Shannon briefed the crowd in advance of the celeb-holding Cadillacs rolling up at the door. “As long as you guys agree not to push and shove and elbow, we’re fine,” she said. “But if you’re not nice, I’m not nice.”

Glen Humenik at From Hockey to Hollywood, a memorabilia store adjacent to the Princess of Wales Theatre on King West, stocks plenty of movie star autographs. But he doesn’t bother sourcing stuff from on-the-ground collectors at TIFF, preferring to collect his stock from private auction houses stateside. He also says that TIFF tries to crack down on the pro dealers. “They don’t like them.”

Out in the red carpet trenches, pro dealers have to keep themselves concealed, passing as “regular” fans in order to increase their chances of getting something signed. (Their preference for anonymity may also explain why they have no interest in talking to a reporter.) One guy I tried to talk to had half a dozen flattened-out DVD sleeves fastened under a clipboard. I asked if he was a dealer, but he swore he was a private collector. Later in the loose mosh-pit that surges against the red carpet barriers, dealers and private autograph hunters swapped tips for getting their prized signatures.

Some stars will cut back and forth across carpets, in order to find the “real” fans, while eluding the dealers who turn up early to get the best spots. Others, like Scarlett Johansson, use their security detail to identify the true believers. (Do hardened autograph dealers pretend to wail and cry and scream like they’re total fanboys? Couldn’t hurt.)

And, of course, there are some celebrities who are notoriously stingy about handing out their autographs, weary about their name being marked up and resold online or about the sycophancy of celebrity culture in general (or both). Paul Newman was well known for never singing autographs. Ditto Greta Garbo. As for celebrities in town for TIFF 2014, actor Morgan Freeman, in town to promote the film Alex and Ruth, is, according to one guy on the red carpet, not in the business of giving out autographs.

“Freeman?” he said to his friend. “I heard he’s a miserable old fuck. Don’t even bother.”

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