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
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.”
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.
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.”