Buying advance tickets at the Toronto International Film Festival has always been a saga worthy of the most complex, multi-generational European drama.

The process has involved enduring long lineups to pick up the catalogue, hurriedly selecting your films and then submitting those carefully chosen picks to a lottery system.

"I’ve contemplated giving up," says Toronto resident and film enthusiast Ian Roth, a dedicated TIFF-goer for a dozen years.

This year, TIFF is trying something new: a special online ticketing system.

In the past several years, film fans have had to buy blocks of tickets. They then had to get hold of TIFF’s special programming booklet, which is released in late August and has bar codes corresponding to each film and the times it is screening.

You then had a few days to scan through short synopses of the movies in the 400-page book to make your selections, being sure to indicate which were your first picks and which were your second picks.

Next, you had to make your way to the TIFF box office and personally submit your booklet and surrender your choices to chance. Your booklet was then placed in one of many numbered boxes in TIFF’s lottery system.

If TIFF drew box number 15, for example, it would start doling out movie choices to the people in Box 15, then continue up to the last box before going back to Box 1. If you were unlucky enough to be in Box 14, you would be almost guaranteed not to get any of the popular picks, and possibly not even your alternate choices.

A new system

The new system, called the My Choice Ticketing Selection Process, is designed to make the procedure easier.

You can still get the physical booklet, though all descriptions are online as well, but after you’ve paid for your tickets, you’re assigned a code, login details and a set time between Aug. 23 and Aug. 29 in which you can access TIFF’s online Ticket Wizard system to select your films.

TIFF even has a YouTube video showing people how it works.

As to why the general public could not be provided a "First Come First Served" time allotment – that’s a mystery. Several calls to the festival’s administrative office went unanswered.

A query to a TIFF customer relations email address garnered this response: "Our system has always been a lottery system. This year anyone who purchased a package was put into the lottery system and dates/times were randomly selected through our computer system. This is how we keep things as fair as possible as opposed to having a first come first serve basis or alphabetically etc."

There is a much simpler system for getting single tickets, which are available to the general public starting Sept. 2. You can purchase them online, over the phone or in person. No lottery system is used.

Other festivals have a more streamlined system for advanced tickets. Roth points to Toronto’s other big film festival, Hot Docs.

"You go directly to their ticket office or order by phone and miraculously, somehow, someone always answers and they’re always polite and take your order. Stuff never sells out, even up until the first day of the festival."

Competing with TIFF donors

Roth has become something of an expert in ordering tickets at TIFF, having navigated both the old and new system. He’s not impressed with the treatment of long-time TIFF customers.

"In the last couple years though, it didn’t matter if you were in the first box — you weren’t getting first pick anyways," Roth notes.

"They decided to give advanced selection to people who’d given charitable donations, which is completely obscene."

That will continue under the new online system. Donor members — i.e. people who have made a minimum $400 donation to TIFF — get to choose their films between Aug. 23 and 26. Others, like Roth, are given times between Aug. 26 and Aug. 29. You can pick up your tickets starting Sept. 4.

The Ticket Wizard system – at least for the general public – provides random online selection times. 

"They give people a one-hour time slot – they didn’t ask us when we were available. They give us, arbitrarily, this one hour!" Roth said in a tone mixed with exasperation and disbelief.

Roth bought his block of tickets in late July, but was given a time slot for his selections on the last day: Aug. 29th at 4 p.m. ET.

"One small benefit of being last is that they’ll have worked out the kinks by then," he says optimistically.

If you do not possess a computer, you can call or visit TIFF’s Box Office, but only during your allotted time slot.

If you manage to select only some of your movies during the time slot given, you will be provided vouchers for the remaining tickets and you will have to wait until Sept. 4 to redeem them in person at the box office.

"TicketMaster has a website and it works all the time. I can access it at any point," said Roth. "I just don’t think the TIFF system needs to be so crazy."