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How to Survive a Film Festival, According to the Internet

A self-aware listicle featuring 21 life-changing tips.

Walker Evans. Movie theatre on Saint Charles Street. Liberty Theater, New Orleans, Louisiana. Library of Congress.

Walker Evans. Movie theatre on Saint Charles Street. Liberty Theater, New Orleans, Louisiana. Library of Congress.

So you’re going to a film festival. What do you do? Better ask the Internet.

In preparation for the (51st!) Chicago International Film Festival, I’m rooting through the online schedule trying to figure out which of the 130+ films to see. This is hard work.

Meanwhile, I’m trying to figure out in a more general sense how to “do” a film festival. I’ve seen a few films at festivals before, but it’s time to level up. I’m ready for my lanyard, Mr. DeMille. (Is that the kind of joke film festival people make? I don’t even know. See why I need help?)

So I Googled.

Turns out, a lot of film festival advice is targeted at filmmakers. I found strategies for getting films accepted, tips on schmoozing, promoting, budgeting — and astonishingly little help regarding the step-and-repeat wall. In any event, not what I needed. There’s not much help for people just wanting to go and enjoy some movies — as if going and enjoying movies were somehow self-evident and easy? No no no. I expect clever tricks! Life-changing hacks! Come on, Internet.

It took some doing, but eventually I found enough free advice to compile the following cheatsheet:

  1. Buy Tickets In Advance. This is not an especially clever tip, but it may be the most important. If there’s a film you know you want to see, get a ticket for it well ahead of time. Hot screenings will sell out, especially if a director or other special guest is expected to make an appearance.
  2. Sold Out Film? Don’t Despair. If you can’t get a ticket, hope is not lost. Or so I keep telling myself. Show up anyway. There’s likely to be a wait list or a rush line where you can queue up to buy seats that are still empty a few minutes before a show starts. This is good news if you’re trying to get into an ostensibly sold out film, but can be unpleasant news if you’re holding tickets and running late (see tip #5). Bonus Tip: the rush ticket line at Chicago is cash only.
  3. It’s Not All Or Nothing. This is something I think people who never go to films at festivals don’t necessarily get. Yes, you can “do the festival,” and buy a pass and go to a ton of movies. But at plenty of festivals, the screenings are public. You can just saunter up the box office, buy a ticket, and go to a movie as you do any other Friday night. It doesn’t have to be a big old complicated thing. Unless that’s what you’re going for. In which case…
  4. Consider A Pass. If you’ll be going to more than a few movies, it may save you money to buy a pass. Pay attention to the details — different festivals have different protocols for translating your pass into actual tickets for particular screenings, and some events (the opening night feature, for example) might not be included in your pass at all.
  5. Get There Early. Line Up Early. It can take a little time to get into the venue, pick up tickets, and find the right auditorium. If you’re heading to a popular screening, a line may form you should probably get in it. If you’re very picky about where you sit, or if you’re hoping to find seven seats together for all your cinephile besties, line up as early as possible. Like, now. Go.
  6. Talk To Strangers. So all this getting there early and getting in line early sounds like a drag, right? No! It’s a festival. Get festive. The Internet’sHeather Cross offers this tip for Tribeca attendees, and I can only assume it holds true everywhere else: “Make the most of the time you’ll be spending queuing up to see movies — ask fellow festival-goers if they’ve seen anything good (or bad). Early in the festival, this can be a great chance to discover some other films you may not have considered that you don’t want to miss.” A writer at Cinemanerdz (with a z) echoes the sentiment: “Audience members at film festivals are traditionally more invested than casual viewers, so the opportunity for good conversation is there. Plus, you never know who you may end up talking to.” If you get tired of talking about movies, note that it’s also acceptable, at least at Sundance, to ask people about nearby places to eat.
  7. Get #Social. Keep an eye on the online conversations happening around the festival, especially if you’re not so into the “talking to strangers” thing in real life. Check out the festival’s own feeds — the Chicago International Film Festival is active on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram. Also search for any post tagged with the festival hashtag, and use the tag in your own tweets and whatnot. For Chicago, the preferred hashtag is#chifilmfest. Avoid #ciff, which may turn up posts about international film festivals in Cleveland and Calgary. (Seriously.) We can’t have that.
  8. Wear Shoes. If you’re going to Cannes, the Internet advises that you should wear comfortable walking shoes. If you’re going to Sundance, you should wear comfortable boots. In Chicago, I’d just suggest that you, you know, wear some shoes that you like.
  9. Vote. When they hand out ballots after a movie, take one. Fill it out. Return it. Voting is cool. Dane Jackson says so.
  10. Go Skiing. Ok, I stole this tip from an article about how to get the most out of attending Sundance. Chicago is actually a terrible place for skiing. Don’t plan to ski while you’re here. Definitely not in October. But as with all Internet tips, I like to assume the author intended this as a sort of metaphor, pointing us toward some larger life truth. Here we’re being reminded to take a break from the movies to get outside and see what else is nearby. Smell the proverbial roses. If you’re at Cannes, Sonia Laszlo says you should try “watching local French men playing Pétanque in the park.” I don’t know what that means, but I’ve just added it to my bucket list. Chi Film Fest is close to Navy Pier, which is a thing people go to. Or grab a Divvy bike and explore the Lakefront Trail (Bonus tip: keep to the right and watch where you’re going; it can get crazy on the trail.) Go for an architecture boat tour on the river. The first weekend of the festival happens to coincide with Open House Chicago, which is a fantastic way to check out the city for free, and is thematically appropriate given this year’s Chi Film Festival spotlight on architecture.
  11. Bring Snacks. I’m probably not supposed to tell you to sneak food into a movie theater, but all the advice-offerers are agreed on the importance of snacking. Do what you must.
  12. Go To Panels. It’s not just about the screenings. Check out the discussion panels. And while you’re there, “Don’t be shy; ask questions,” advises the Internet.
  13. Phone A Friend When Planning Your Look. This bit of advice about surviving Sundance comes from “cool, self-deprecating” actor and icon Adam Scott. More specifically, he recommends phoning Jason Schwartzman for your daily outfit consultation.
  14. Try New Things. Like Shorts. The best part of finding out that the screening you wanted to attend is sold out? Realizing that you’re now at the theater and willing to see just about anything. So do it. Go to whatever happens to be available, giving priority to the option you’d have been least likely to choose in advance. Druthers be damned. Still can’t pick? Check out the shorts. They don’t get enough love, and you can see six of them for the price of one. Nothing says “next level filmgoer” quite like attending the shorts.
  15. Go To Some Films You Can’t See Anywhere Else. There will be some amazing independent and international films screened that you will never get a chance to see again. Go to those. When torn between some quirky unknown that’s calling to you, and some high profile shiny thing, choose quirky. Millions of years of evolution has left our brain hardwired to choose big name films getting lots of buzz over lesser-known films that might be poisonous, so remind your caveman brain that many of those big films will be getting wider distribution soon and you can see them later. (Obviously I’m making up the thing about evolution — but this is the Internet, where science is whatever anyone says.)
  16. Go To Some Films You’ll Be Seeing Everywhere Else. Ignore the above advice, at least a little bit. Yes, some of the big name films will be returning to a Theater Near You after the festival, but there’s nothing quite like seeing those in a room full of other film geeks, and more importantly, seeing them before all your friends do.
  17. Turn Off Your Damn Phone During The Movie. Ok, this tip I came up with on my own. Don’t be that guy. Not even for a quick peek at your texts. No. Film festival audiences may allegedly be “more invested than casual viewers,” but they still sometimes think it’s ok to use their phone during the movie. This is also because of evolution or brains or something. Even if it’s Schwartzman texting you back about your cool t-shirt, it’s going to have to wait.
  18. Hit The Party Circuit. This is another tip from Adam Scott. He also reminds us, self-deprecatingly, to “have a caffeine strategy,” “learn to love the matinee,” and “beware the gifting lounge.” Obviously these nuggets of sagacity will have varying degrees of relevance to your own festival experience. The bigger takeaway: everyone at the festival, even Adam Scott, is trying hard to look cool and famous while not passing out or running out of phone battery. With a little effort, and maybe a quick consult with a Coppola cousin, you too can succeed.
  19. Watch Your Mouth. I cherish my right to be open and honest about the fact that many movies are terrible. But by going to a festival, I’m choosing to see films that will (hopefully) take more risks than the big blockbusters, and I’m choosing to be around people who might have helped make them. So the festival is not the place to bash things I don’t happen to like. As Thumper reminds us in Bambi, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.” This turns out to be quite effective — in an environment where buzz is the greatest currency, the worst thing you can say is nothing at all.
  20. Volunteer. Volunteering is a great way to up your festival experience. You can earn free tickets, it gives you a reason to wear a lanyard, and thanks to the official t-shirt, it partly solves the “what to wear” problem. It’ll also get you over the “talk to strangers” hump, since that t-shirt will compel strangers to talk to you, whether you like it or not. I suspect you may end up discussing bathroom locations more frequently than you discuss great cinema, but… free tickets. And lanyards!
  21. “Have Fun!” I put this tip “in quotes” because I can’t quite stomach it as a piece of advice, though I appreciate the sentiment. For some reason, the conventions of the tips-for-going-to-a-film-fest genre require all such posts to end with something like “and don’t stress!” or “and have a blast!” So, yeah. Don’t forget to do that.

This post originally appeared on Medium

Michael Lawrencefilm, how to, Chicago