Screening a hundred movies, mostly premieres, Hot Docs is the biggest doc fest in North America and the second largest in the world, after Amsterdam’s IDFA. You find the same big-name commissioning editors at Hot Docs as at IDFA and even a live-action replica of the IDFA Pitching Forum. In fact, there are so many parallels that I am offering you a handy checklist for distinguishing between the two festivals – in case you ever find yourself stumbling into a cinema after a hard night of festival partying and wonder whether you’re in Amsterdam or Toronto.
If you don’t see any canals and the coffee shops only sell coffee, you’re in Toronto.If the moderator at the Forum is wearing a Canadian Mountie’s hat, you’re not in Amsterdam. The food is a lot better in Toronto but the parties are less fun – there are more business-related networking opportunities than there are chances for party animals to let their hair down (unless I just went to the wrong parties or left too early).
If you find yourself watching a great Canadian film, that’s no guarantee you’re at Hot Docs. Canadian films get picked for festivals everywhere. I’ll even stick my neck out and make a terrible, sweeping generalization: Canadian documentary films are on the whole more polished, stylish and sophisticated than, say, their US equivalents. I’m not arguing that Canadians are genetically more talented; but Canada’s policy of supporting filmmakers financially and creatively has paid off by giving Canadian talent more of a chance to shine on screen.
Perhaps it’s a North American speciality, but one area where I felt Hot Docs comes out on top is marketing. With banners and posters all over Toronto, the festival makes a slick hard-sell to the general film-going public for the whole concept of non-fiction cinema. Special trailers were screened before every film – Canada’s Documentary Channel trailer runs:
«Tonight, if you feel scared, angry, or emotional… remember, it’s just a movie.» Then the payoff: «Yeah, right.»
Hot Docs’ own cinema ad is a witty, spoof production number, Hollywood-musical-style, featuring a prom queen amid a chorus of gutter life. You can enjoy it yourself online at ( http://www.hotdocs.ca/festival_trailers.cfm ).
Judging by the sell-out shows and queues round the block for stand-by tickets, Hot Docs marketing to the general public is effective. Talking to my neighbours in the cinema seats (not industry people, but innocent members of the public), I got heart-warming responses like
«The thing is, it’s better than the movies because you know it’s true. I guess it is a bit voyeuristic, but the way they edit it to cut out the boring bits, it’s more exciting than real life.»
«I’m watching four films a day.»
«I never watched a documentary at the cinema before, but I’m so glad I came. Who needs fiction when you have this?»
«Now I’ve discovered this festival, I’ve decided to take the week off work next year so I can come to more films.»
One of the festival’s smartest marketing ploys was to offer free, late-night screenings of films about sex, in a strand they called Show Me Yours.
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