50 Film Festivals Worth the Entry Fee, 2015

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Was it worth it?

Indie film, by definition, resides on the margins. It’s a medium of miracles, of squeezing so much from so little, of maximizing returns on even the smallest of investments… like film festivals’ entry fees, for instance.

MovieMaker is here to help make that call. Once again, we’ve assembled a list of 50 festivals whose attendees get more fest than the rest. This list isn’t about the big names—you already know about Sundance, Berlin, Cannes, Tribeca—the fests that always seem to be in the spotlight. Instead, we’re highlighted the rising stars that you might be overlooking.

Festivals are adapting to a shifting industry by evolving beyond their traditional platforms, adding even more potential rewards to sending your film off into the ether. Case in point: the ever-evolving Slamdance. Co-founder Peter Baxter says, “The physical event that we have in Park City is the highlight of our year, but increasingly we are doing more and more year-round events.” Instead of sacrificing Slamdance’s intimacy by accepting more films than it can handle, Baxter says the additional programs are “ways in which we can support other films that didn’t get into the festival—to assist [artists] in sustaining their careers and get their films out to much larger audiences.”

In whittling the roster down to our final 50, we explored all facets of that oft-touted, not-always-accomplished mission statement: “to serve the filmmaker.” With a set of criteria that included odds of acceptance, screener feedback, networking and press opportunities, quality of programming, value of prizes, acquisition potential, alumni interaction, quality of extracurricular events, and financial support for travel and accommodation, we evaluated hundreds of festivals this winter.

As always, we acknowledge that the sheer diversity of festivals out there makes comparison nigh impossible. Not all fests emphasize premieres, for example, and some aren’t even structured as competitions. It can be tricky pinpointing the festival showing that was the tipping point for an acquisitions deal. And while some amount of financial compensation is always welcome, the quality of a festival isn’t all about the depth of its pockets.

The result of our effort? As scientific an answer as possible to the question that sparked the whole endeavor.   —Kerry O’Conor

50 Worth Illos

The Festivals

AMERICAN FILM FESTIVAL

Wroclaw, Poland / Oct. 20-25, 2015 / americanfilmfestival.pl

With generous prizes, excellent programming, a very favorable rate of acceptance (last year a whopping third of submissions got in), free lodging and transportation, and field trips around Poland—all that for no entry fee—submitting to the American Film Festival may as well be a no-brainer.

 

ASHLAND INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL

Ashland, Oregon / April 9-13, 2015 / ashlandfilm.org

“One of those regional gems that gives me faith and hope for the future of independent cinema,” says Michael Tully (Ping Pong Summer) of AIFF. The festival’s passionate audiences are cultivated at nightly AfterLounge parties, open to all. And its strong student film component expands this year with the high-school PridePrize for a LGBT-themed film.

 

ATLANTA FILM FESTIVAL

Atlanta, Georgia / Spring 2016 / atlantafilmfestival.com

Atlanta Film Festival holds an annual Creative Conference and a multiple-day retreat for screenplay competition winners in addition to its main festival. Distributor turn-out is solid, with films like Metalhead and Bad Turn Worse acquired in 2014. To provide filmmakers with travel compensation, the festival runs an annual Kickstarter campaign; donor rewards include a spot on an audience award jury.

 

AUSTIN FILM FESTIVAL

Austin, Texas / Oct. 29-Nov. 5, 2015 / austinfilmfestival.com

Austin Film Festival attendees experience an open forum with panels and workshops (over 170 of them) featuring guests like Paul Thomas Anderson and Vince Gilligan. The environment assures that “every filmmaker, registrant, panelist and awardee goes to the same parties, eats at the same restaurants, drinks at the same bars,” says festival staffer Harrison Glaser, which means the festival is “all about networking.”

 

BENDFILM FESTIVAL

Bend, Oregon / Oct. 8-11, 2015 / bendfilm.org

Eighteen percent of submissions were accepted to BendFilm in 2014, which aren’t bad odds at all. Throw in a mountain range backdrop, cash and camera package prizes, a newly established filmmaker residency program and work-in-progress workshop series, and “more craft beer, wine and spirits than our 125 visiting filmmakers could drink” (Todd Looby, festival director).

 

BIG ISLAND FILM FESTIVAL

Waimea, Hawaii / May 21-25, 2015 / bigislandfilmfestival.com

Big Island Film Festival’s spirit of ‘ohana (or family) provides for an extremely welcoming festival experience, so much so that alumni keep in touch long after the fest. The comfortable island setting and Fairmont Orchid venue means informal networking from the shores of the beach to the local eateries.

 

BLACK NIGHTS FILM FESTIVAL

Tallinn, Estonia / Nov. 13-29, 2015 / poff.ee                                                

Set in the Nordic-Baltic region, Black Nights presents the best of international cinema; last year’s edition featured the Oscar-nominated The Theory of Everything and local favorite Tangerines. In addition to the comprehensive “Industry @ Tallinn,” a week-long film summit attended by 40 distributors, the festival will launch a corresponding sales summit this year.

A concert of cinematic music at the 2014 Black Nights Film Festival. Photograph by Vladislava Snurnikova

A concert of cinematic music at the 2014 Black Nights Film Festival. Photograph by Vladislava Snurnikova

BROOKLYN FILM FESTIVAL

Brooklyn, New York / May 29 – June 7, 2015 / brooklynfilmfestival.org

Strong distributor attendance, abundant networking opportunities, great alumni support and interaction—Brooklyn Film Festival impresses all around. Committed to championing underdogs, BFF “is willing to take risks on unknown filmmakers making their first or second film,” says executive director Marco Ursino.

 

CAMDEN INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL

Camden, Maine / Sept. 17-20, 2015 / camdenfilmfest.org

Along with Ben Fowlie and Sean Flynn, CIFF’s Caroline von Kuhn uses her years as a publicist to bring a who’s who of documentary distributors, funders and programmers to the fest, and to its excellent Points North Documentary Forum and Pitch conference. Amongst other opportunities that coalesced in 2014, three filmmakers were commissioned to make shorts for AJ+ (Al Jazeera America’s digital platform), receiving upwards of $10,000 each.

 

CHAGRIN DOCUMENTARY FILM FESTIVAL

Chagrin Falls, Ohio / Oct. 7-11, 2015 / chagrinfilmfest.org

Founded in memory of local documentarian David Ponce, the whole community of Chagrin Falls turns out for this fest, many families hosting participating filmmakers in home stays (alternatively, hotel lodging is complimentary). Last year saw the U.S. premiere of Academy Award-nominated short “Nasza Klatwa/Our Curse.”

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10 Comments

  1. Viki

    April 15, 2015 at 9:08 pm

    I recently returned from the 21st Sedona International Film Festival in Sedona, AZ. Reading your list, I’m quite shocked that it’s not on your list. This is a stellar film festival. Fabulous venues that are near 100% FULL because of how the community rallies behind their festival. As a filmmaker that is supremely important to me because my film is being SEEN by a HUGE audience. Great awards. Great volunteers and warmth from the whole community of film lovers. Free accommodations donated by all the wonderful hotels in Sedona for SIX nights. Two VIP all access passes and a VIP lounge to hang out in all day if you don’t want to go watch films. (Though not sure why you’d do that as the films are fabulous!) But perhaps one of the most surprising parts of this festival is the amount of food that you are fed. Fully catered lunches and dinner (provided by local restaurants) and a VIP party every single night to network with more free food and alcohol. This festival blew me away. I’ve never had this much offered to me at a festival. It is so well organized like a perfectly oiled machine. I can’t say enough about it. Truly set the bar a little too high for all other festivals to come. Definitely deserves to be on your list.

  2. Thomas

    April 10, 2015 at 11:50 pm

    Traverse City Film Festival now in it’s 10th year. This is the brainchild of Michael Moore and set in a gorgeous waterfront town of Traverse City. Tons of fun and JUST GREAT MOVIES!

  3. Alberto

    April 10, 2015 at 8:42 am

    No mention Arlington InternTional Film Festival (AIFF) in Cambridge in Massachusetts from October 15 to 22, at Kendall Square Cinema

  4. Yvette

    April 9, 2015 at 10:15 pm

    The ITSA Film Festival in California’s gold country is a great festival where filmmakers and attendees can meet other notable industry professionals. Love their workshops and quality film selections. You also can’t go wrong in checking out the historic downtown where the festival is held.

  5. Mark Walters

    April 9, 2015 at 5:07 pm

    No mention of Dallas International Film Festival? Fantastic Fest?

  6. Annette Villarreal

    April 9, 2015 at 1:30 pm

    I’m traveling back to South Carolina for the Indie Grits Film Festival and beyond excited. This is the best festival experience I’ve ever had as a filmmaker. They celebrate southern filmmakers, provide unique entertainment (puppet show, hello), and genuinely care for their filmmakers. 95% of their filmmakers attend from all over the country and by the end, everyone is friend’s with each other. Not to mention, they have a filmmaker travel fund that is paying for us to travel cross country and putting us up in a host house. Amazing people running this festival and so happy to keep coming back with more films.

  7. Greg

    April 9, 2015 at 9:50 am

    I had the pleasure of attending several of these festivals as a filmmaker, and I can honestly say the young and rising Napa Valley Film Festival deserves to be included among them. The mix of Hollywood fare (“The Imitation Game”, Kevin Costner with “Black Or White”) and little self-financed shorts from guys like me is inspiring. Q & A’s are delightful, hosted by moderators with a glass of Cabernet in hand. Films get multiple screenings in varied venues in different idyllic towns. The nightly DJ’d parties with their farm to table preparations are incredible. Oh – did I say “Freemark Abbey Station”? Enough said!

  8. Zak Forsman

    April 8, 2015 at 1:32 pm

    When I think of a festival that offers a tremendous amount of value for the money you’ll spend attending, it’s the Phoenix Film Festival. All competition features get three screenings over the Fri, Sat, Sun weekend. We sold out two of the three without lifting a finger because the festival attracts well over 20,000 people hungry for independent movies. After 15 years, it’s one of the few festivals that get every aspect right. I’m kinda dumbfounded that its not represented here.

  9. DR Fraley

    April 8, 2015 at 11:54 am

    What about the Broad Street Film Festival(BSFF)?

    BSFF is a regional, educational film festival that seeks to provide a venue for collegiate filmmakers in the Chattanooga area so that they may present their work to their peers and the community at large. A not-for-profit organization, the BSFF exists under the umbrella of the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga with it’s own Board of Directors. The mission of the BSFF is to enhance the film community in the Chattanooga area by hosting annual film festivals which provide educational and networking opportunities for student filmmakers. This is the 10th festival. BSFF has always been open to the general public.

  10. Chuck

    April 8, 2015 at 10:30 am

    You left off an amazing, emerging film festival in the Eastern Oregon Film Festival. For a small area, this festival has accomplished mountainous goals.

    From the indie music, films, and atmosphere, there is no reason to leave this fest off the list.

    http://eofilmfest.com/