How to Festival in Person: A TIFF Tip Refresher – 2023 Edition

We're back to movies on the big screen!

This post is an updated version of a 2022 TIFF guide.

We couldn’t be happier that TIFF is back on the big screen, but navigating a return to IRL requires a TIFF tip or two. Seeing movies is fun, but gabbing about them with friends, colleagues, and like-minded film nuts makes the experience.

We’re not going to make too much of the strike here since TIFF is still TIFF. Yes, the trades might say there will be fewer “names” at the festival, but if you can’t get excited about Spike Lee, Pedro Almodóvar, Sylvester Stallone, and the Talking Heads…well, you probably weren’t going to TIFF in the first place.

To help readers return to the fun experience of TIFF in person, here are our handy TIFF survival tips to immerse you in the magic of movies. And if you need some recommendations, catch our TIFF picks here.



TIFF Tip 1: Learn the Ticketing Lingo

Public ticketing at TIFF has a highly calibrated vernacular. “On sale,” “off sale,” “same day,” rush,” – what’s that? Well, the festival really means it when it says that TIFF screenings aren’t sold out. In short, every public screening has a public allotment and a press and industry allotment. Once ticket package redemption starts, “the public” fills its slate from the bounty of the public field. When that runs out for a screening, TIFF labels it “off sale.” That doesn’t mean all the tickets are claimed—just the ones set aside for that group. Press then get 10 tickets for public screenings (down from 20 in 2022) that they can pull beginning Sept. 3. These are valid for the duration of the festival and work for anything except Roy Thomson Hall galas. But what that means is that there’s inevitably a secret reserve of unused tickets that may become available. More will become available in the back-half of the festival since international press usually clear out mid-festival, or when critics mentally check out and free up their tickets. Use TIFFR to play schedule Tetris and consult their crowd-sourced list of off-sale screenings. (The numbers beside the hearts are a good indicator of a film’s popularity.)

On the day of the screening beginning Sept. 7, anything from the P&I allotment that was not redeemed then becomes available to the public. These are “same day” tickets. They refresh every morning. In the event that the full P&I allotment for a screening has been redeemed, the film will not be available. Press can pull these same day tickets that become available as well, so act quickly because folks who want to review some premieres will be pretty aggressive if they didn’t get the earlybird tickets. Once these tickets are all used up, the screening goes “rush.” These rush tickets designate the time-honoured process in which you queue for hours in hopes of getting a ticket from whatever is left in the final reserve set aside for sponsors, buyers, and high-level rollers. Your odds of getting in correspond to the size of venue. I.e. a lot of people may get into Roy Thomson Hall, but few will successfully rush Lightbox Cinema 4. Godspeed!

Then there is “premium.” A premium tickets means what it says: it’s more expensive. These tickets are usually for top-tier premieres with A-list stars. TIFF’s being a bit liberal with the designation this year, though. No shade, and I love Toni Erdmann, but Sandra Hüller is not a premium ticket.

TIFF’s 2023 venues

TIFF Tip 2: Know Your Theatres

TIFF advertises a “walkable festival” this year, but who found it a far walk from the beloved Elgin to the Lightbox? Sigh. You probably won’t get your steps in during TIFF 2023. This year, TIFF has all its ducks in a row. Screenings happen at Roy Thomson Hall, the Princess of Wales, the Royal Alexandra, the Lightbox, and Cineplex Scotiabank with a few at Cinesphere. Generally, avoid Festival Street if you’re in a rush and walk on Pearl St., especially during red carpet hours, although–silver lining–that’s less of an issue this year.


My favourite places to see films during the festival are Cinema 2 at TIFF Bell Lightbox and the Princess of Wales. Lightbox 2 is the best venue in terms of a/v with its Dolby Atmos sound. It also has a nice seat-to-screen proximity. I abhor Lightbox 3 (not a good seat in the house!) and find Cinema 1 a respectable place for a show. Cinema 4 is small, but I saw Drive My Car there during a COVID fest and didn’t test positive, so it’s probably fine. This theatre is your friend for intimate, artsy films.

For premium screenings, I love the PoW. It has great sightlines and a huge screen. The Dress Circle is best to maximize views for both the stars and the film. Plus, you can sneak a decent peek at the stars while they arrive. The relatively new location in the older Royal Alexandra Theatre, though, is pretty cramped. It’s not the worst and not the best: I just wouldn’t pick it for an auteur film. You’re fine if optimal A/V and butt comfort are less important than star power and getting one for the ‘gram. For me, films play cold in Roy Thomson Hall, but if you line-up early enough, you can usually get your ticket upgraded from the knee-crunch nosebleed seats of the balcony to the main floor, which actually offers a decent experience. Just know that RTH has intense security that won’t even let you bring water inside. Their staff can also be seen in the Festival selection Zone of Interest.

Scotiabank is fine, but can be chaotic with the sheer volume of people. Choose your battles accordingly. Everyone complains about the escalator, but they walk up it when it’s working, anyway, so make of that what you will.

TIFF Tip 3: Stock Your TIFF Tote

A good soldier should always be prepared for battle. In-person TIFF means a sharp supply of provisions. Essential items in my TIFF bag begin with hand sanitizer. Even before COVID, I always carried at least one bottle of sanitizer in my TIFF tote. Back in “before times,” there was a lot of hand shaking, door touching, and finger food, so you’ll need to de-germ accordingly. And you can have a lot of fun with it, like when I lathered up with peach-scented hand sanitizer before interviewing Armie Hammer. An extra mask wouldn’t hurt in case you drop one or need to double-layer it amid mouth-breathing cinephiles.


Additionally, a portable phone charger is a lifesaver. This is the most important tool I recommend for a pro covering the fest. You’ll be on your phone more than you expect during the festival, especially if you’re media. That battery loses juice quickly. Do you really want to pony up 80 bucks to see Sandra Hüller and not be able to snap a pic? Moreover, with ticketing shifting to digital, your goose can really get cooked if a battery dies before a screening. It happened to me once during TIFF 2019 and I was like Shirley MacLaine in Terms of Endearment trying to get the box office to issue a hard ticket. (Always thank the volunteers.)

Some other TIFF bag items are givens, like a water bottle, mints, a Starbucks card, snacks, a notebook, and no less than three pens. However, any good TIFF tote should really be a travelling pharmacy. Stock up on Vitamin C because you’ll be run ragged, and fruits and vegetables are too expensive these days. Tylenol/ibuprofen are lifesavers if you’re also doing the TIFF party circuit (a must for every festival food budget), and I whole-heartedly endorse carrying some caffeine pills in case fatigue sets in mid-screening because then you’re alert but pee less.

TIFF Tip 4: Coffee Gives You Life

Speaking of pee, we’ve hit the make-or-break aspect of festival planning: coffee. Accredited press should take advantage of the free coffee in the media lounge whenever they can. There are hot shots at the Industry Centre at the Hyatt as well, for anyone who needs a quick fix.

For general festivalgoers, though, the coffee access in the TIFF hub has changed since 2019. The Starbucks in the PATH near Roy Thomson Hall is gone. There are still plenty Starbii with locations at Adelaide/Peter, Queen/John, King St (south side, west of Peter), and Front/John. There’s also Second Cup directly across from the Lightbox, but for international visitors, please disregard all you’ve heard about Tim Horton’s: it’s swill.


Caffeinate smartly, though, if you’re lining up for screenings early. Generally, buy your coffee early, let it cool, and guzzle it before going in. (Scotiabank and the Lightbox are coffee-friendly, but PoW and RTH are not.) You don’t want to be that person who scooches over everybody mid-screening. Rule of thumb: a grande can make it through a screening, but a venti is too much.

TIFF Tip 5: The Festival Diet

“Sitting down to eat during TIFF, now I’ve heard everything!” I wrote in the group Slack once. There was a very generous breakfast invite to the crew, but between eggs and The Fabelmans, one must make tough choices. Eating well is prohibitively expensive these days, so plan your festival diet accordingly. Have quick eats ready in the morning to save the expense of an over-priced Starbucks McMuffin. A fellow festival goer advised me in line once that she makes two-dozen sandwiches on TIFF Eve and freezes them, then brings two with her each day. It can be a bit bland, but that strategy is a budget-saver, time-saver, and great for snacking in a seat or on the go. Chicken fingers are also great for this, especially since you can share them with celebs.

Parties and junkets are also great, but in my experience, no junket at Coffee Oysters Champagne has ever served coffee, oysters, or champagne. Manage your expectations, but you can go through most of the festival without paying for food if you learn to adapt your definition of a balanced meal (i.e. wine and cheese covers two food groups).

For eating out, the shift away from Yonge Street admittedly reduces budget-friendly options. Moreover, the eateries in the Entertainment District were hit hard during COVID: a lot of old haunts and cheap eats have closed. Quick, decently priced options are available at the CityMarket at Richmond and Peter if you’re in the Cineplex Scotiabank/Lightbox hub. (You can get some sandwiches and salads for under $10.) For eats near the King Street strip, what remains of the food court in the underground PATH/Metro Hall concourse offers decent grub and bathroom access. Plan carefully, though, since this food court is closed on weekends.


New this year, TIFF Bell Lightbox welcomes cinephiles to the Varda lounge, which offers my two favourite food groups: coffee and cocktails.

And remember this most essential of pro tips for keeping a balanced festival diet: popcorn is a vegetable.