When Words & Music asked me to contribute a few tips on how a screen composer could best navigate the Toronto International Film Festival, I don’t think they realized how much I’d have to say on the topic. The 2016 festivities marked my 10th time around and as a composer agent and former film composer, so I have a lot to talk about. Also, I love the sound of my own voice.
Prepping for TIFF is crucial. As soon as the calendar ticks “August,” start putting in the extra effort into getting yourself onto party lists. First, focus on who you want to meet by researching the films and directors in the Festival. That’s what you’re going to be talking about at all of your meetings and parties, so you better know who the directors are and what they’ve done. Despite my decade of experience, I only started pre-booking my meetings, parties and film screenings a few years ago. That’s like your dentist telling you that she only started flossing last week. But it’s never too late to start!
Naturally, you can’t see everything or meet everyone, so pick a target and go for it. My focus is the Canadian independent feature film scene. I start by booking tickets (either comps or purchases) for films scored by our own Core Music Agency composers. Then I turn my attention to the films we pitched for but didn’t get – I want to know who they hired and why. Finally, I see the Canadian films that totally slipped past us, unnoticed. It happens… rarely, but it happens. Knowing who’s who and what to see will not only give you something to talk about, but will also give you some idea who you might be talking to at these parties. You can’t expect to be a part of the Canadian film industry if you don’t watch Canadian films.
Planning your party schedule requires a little strategy. There are early parties and late parties; if you do it right, you could have two parties every night and possibly a lunch-time barbeque on each of the weekends. But first you have to get on the right lists. That’s not easy if you don’t know who to talk to.
If you have a film in the festival, or have an industry pass, that makes it easier. You can introduce yourself to the party list coordinators by saying, “Hi I’m so-and-so, I’ve got a film in the festival called (insert name of film here).” What you really mean is that you scored a film in the festival, but if they misinterpret that as to mean that you’ve created a film showing in the festival, that’s their problem. Obviously, don’t lie if they ask further questions. Scoring a feature that shows at TIFF is still a pretty noteworthy thing.
Don’t brag about yourself or about the brilliant movie you just scored. Don’t even bring it up, not until they ask about you. This is just good manners, but it works.
Start with the party for the film you scored. Don’t take it for granted that your name will automatically be on the guest list. Nobody remembers the composer. Call the production company and ask for the guest-list co-ordinator for that film. Once you explain who you are, you should have no trouble getting an invitation. And make sure to go to the film before the party. Even though you know the film inside and out, you should really go. If the music was a hit, the director may call your name out to draw attention to you. It would really suck if you weren’t there to raise your hand and blow a kiss. Also, it would really suck if they totally replaced your score and didn’t tell you. If you don’t have a film in the festival, put it out there to your friends who do, to see if you can tag along as their “plus-one” guest. Buy them drinks before the party and be gracious if they can’t get you in. No one likes a plus-one whiner.
Some parties are really tight with their lists, some aren’t. If you’ve done this as many times as I have, you know who, how and when to ask. The more parties you go to, the more parties you’re likely to get invitations for. Chicken, meet egg. Egg, chicken. Failing that, hire a publicist to put your name onto everything. If you can’t afford that and you’re feeling lucky, just get in line early and when they say, “Name?” say, “I totally forgot to RSVP.” Which again, technically isn’t a lie. The gatekeeper may say, “Okay, write your name and e-mail in at the bottom” and you’re in. Or she might just say. “Sorry… next!” Fortune favours the bold.
So now you’re in the party and asking yourself, ‘What do I do?’ Well for starters… have a good time! Talk to people in the bar line, ask them about themselves, what brings them here, and what party they’re going to next. Show genuine interest in what they’re doing. Don’t brag about yourself or about the brilliant movie you just scored. Don’t even bring it up, not until they ask about you. This is just good manners, but it works. “There’s a fine art to knowing how to conduct oneself in any environment,” says my friend Hilary Robinson at Polished Professionals. Whether you’re receiving a business card or brushing off a drunk Hollywood A-lister who wants to fight, there’s a certain grace to everything. Basically, it all boils down to relationships. Partying with your film-mates strengthens bonds (especially if you’re the one posting bail). Meeting new people widens your circle.
Keep the message simple: your name + composer + title they recognize = awesome person. Oh, and don’t hand out your demo CD. Nobody wants to schlep it around all night. Even if they do, odds are it’ll get put on a shelf until the person you’ve given it to breaks up with their current partner and moves out (cut to box of CDs getting crushed in a landfill). You could use some of the cool USB flash drives out there: burn on your logo, load up some of your music and a PDF filmography. People like things they can they can use: USB key chains, USB bottle openers, USB nunchuks. Though I think that’s still too “me-me-me.” Better to subtly drive them to your site and online playlist. It has to feel like their idea to listen, not yours. Facebook ‘em the next day and invite them to follow your artist/professional page. If they’re young, then… Instagram or Snapchat ‘em, or whatever it is “the kids” do these days.
Dancing, drinking top-shelf whiskey and getting free swag is fun, of course, but the films and industry events are really what inspire me. Also, you never know who’ll be sitting next to you when the house lights come up. Be ready to pull out your business card at any moment. Look good, wear classy shoes, and don’t forget to trim your nose hairs.
As primed, preened and prepared as you may be for your TIFF experience, you also have to leave yourself open to the beautiful randomness of the universe. The best times I’ve had were with complete strangers I met through another group of complete strangers. One minute you’re getting into a cab to an unknown location, next thing you know, you’re doing tequila shots and watching Wim Wenders play ping-pong until sunrise.