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Patio seat? That'll be $1,500

Downtown Toronto's Skylounge was once a cheap place for celebrities to hawk their movies. But a makeover and a fee hike later, firms are grumbling

Globe and Mail Update

The newly revamped Skylounge at the InterContinental Hotel on Bloor Street West has emerged in recent years as the Toronto International Film Festival's glamour HQ. On a sunny day, the outdoor patio bar is crammed with movie stars, directors, publicists, agents, camera crews, photographers, writers and TV hosts conducting interviews that will be transformed into the following day's entertainment news and celebrity gossip.

In years past, the spot had a haphazard charm. Lured out of their dark upstairs interview suites by the sunshine, celebs and journalists simply ended up there, sipping diet Coke and kicking back in the cheap plastic patio furniture.

But no more.

The lounge has undergone a Hollywood-style makeover. Gone are the pokey lawn chairs and worse-for-wear staff uniforms, replaced by white pleather seating and waitresses in matching sparkly flats and boho-chic gypsy skirts.

And the prices have followed suit. The hotel now charges from $400 to $1,500 per day per table, depending how many seats are required. Publicity firms, which co-ordinate the interviews, have been forced to pick up the bill. The hefty price tags are being billed as "minimum food and beverage requirements," but let's face it: Movie stars and journalists don't have time to eat much during the gruelling festival schedule of back-to-back, 10-20 minute interview slots. The hotel appears to be making a cash grab to justify the cost of the recent renovation, and it's causing much grumbling among the army of normally super-positive film publicists.

"They're being total Nazis about it," one publicist from the American firm BWR was recently overheard griping to his colleagues. "They keep coming around and saying, 'Excuse me, you're out of your area. Could you please return to your area?' I feel like I'm at a dog show."

While the fees may be small change for the bigger U.S. publicity firms, they're nothing to sneeze at for the smaller outfits who are in town promoting low-budget films.

"This hotel makes so much money off the festival it's sick," said one New York-based PR who declined to have her name used. "It makes me so angry, I feel like my head is going to pop off. We're here trying to promote a small independent movie and they're charging us $400 for a few hours to sit at a table and drink water. I mean, what are we supposed to do, conduct interviews standing on the street?"

The hotel says the fees are justified. "[The festival people] just utilized the space for free and we had to turn customers away," says Anna Sampaio, catering co-ordinator. "It was completely disorganized. There was a huge number of people in the space and nobody was able to do their job properly. Now the space is guaranteed."

Christine Mulligan, director of sales and marketing for the hotel, said she's disappointed to hear that people are complaining.

"We're not punishing people," she said. "It's a restaurant, it's not an interview room. We've invested in the space and in order to not have it overrun like in years past, we thought we'd have a minimum fee. I knew that there was push-back [resistance] in the beginning, but usually when people see what we've done, they're very happy with the arrangement."

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