50 Film Festivals Worth the Entry Fee in 2017

Are film festivals getting better?

That is, are they providing you—independent moviemakers—more of the things you want and need? I think they are. After all, it makes sense: With so much information continually on tap thanks to social media, Film Freeway reviews and magazines like this one, it’s getting easier and easier for indie moviemakers to study up, and harder and harder for festivals to skate by with lackluster effort. Transparency, communication, razor-sharp efficiency, a commitment to inclusion and innovation—these factors used to be a bonus in a festival. Now they’re a given. And long gone are the times when festivals just screened films and called it a day—the top fests of this era start with exhibition, of course, but from there they develop their own ecosystems. This auxiliary support—markets, forums, town halls, speed pitches, live reads, scholarships, roadshows, parties (oh the parties!)— functions essentially, as cinema’s circle of life. It nurtures your next project even as your current one is consumed, getting your art and business that much closer to “sustainable.”

Compiling the list this year, we stuck to much of our tried-and-tested methodology (elements we continue to look for include press opportunities, networking occasions, industry attendance, high-quality workshops and panels, strong alumni services, etc.), but with a couple of twists. For one, we dug a little deeper into acceptance statistics this year, looking at how many programmed films came from submissions (as opposed to special invitation or other means). We found that the percentages fluctuate drastically across the board, no matter the size of a line-up, and we’ve looked for festivals that prioritize submissions.

Why does that matter? As Clint Bowie, director of programming for New Orleans Film Festival, puts it, “This is the area that most desperately needs increased transparency among film festivals. Filmmakers should know what kind of emphasis the festival places on discovering new voices.” NOFF has a mandate that at least 90 percent of its line-up must come from submissions—last year, it was 93 percent. “We post these percentages on our website and on printed materials, and feel that other festivals should be equally transparent.”

We also conducted an online reader survey this year to hear more about what you want in your festival experience. The lesson? That more than anything—more than free plane tickets and booze!—you want your films to forge a genuine connection with audiences who are truly engaged. Well, we can confidently say that that will happen at these festivals. (We also learned that you are overwhelmingly interested in festivals in the U.S. and Canada, which is why this year’s list is just 10 percent international.)

I’ll let a reader—Adam Stilwell, director of 2016 feature The Triangle—sum it all up. “Do the people running the festival give a shit about indie film?” he wrote to us. “Do they ‘get it?’ Do they love it? Or are they just trying to make money off artists? Luckily, the latter [type] is becoming easier to spot as the years go on. Festivals that really care about acquiring thought-provoking films—and creating a place for filmmakers, producers, champions and fans to join forces for good—are on the rise. This is a really, really great thing for film and the future.”

We couldn’t agree more. – Kelly Leow

Key

A: Academy-qualifying

S: Screenwriting contest or competition

V: VR showcase or category

P: Pitch competition or facilitated sessions

U.S. and Canadian Festivals

Aspen Shortsfest

Aspen, Colorado / April 2018 / aspenfilm.org / A, P

The short “(le) Rebound” played at Aspen Shortsfest 2017. Courtesy of Aspen Shortsfest

This year saw the 26th edition of Aspen Shortsfest, put on by premier Colorado film and film education organization Aspen Film. The festival gets a lot of submissions, but for those lucky enough to be accepted, lodging and ground transportation is covered. Winners receive cash prizes of up to $2,500, though a better prize may be the chance of an Oscar nomination—the festival is Academy-qualifying in five categories.

 

Austin Film Festival

Austin, Texas / October 26 – November 2, 2017 / austinfilmfestival.com / A, S, P

Brave New Jersey actors Tony Hale and Anna Camp at Austin Film Festival 2016. Photograph by Jack Plunkett

Austin Film Festival has a mild obsession with moviemaker mingling. With its concurrent Screenwriters Conference (billed as the largest in the world), the eight-day festival routinely hosts upwards of 200 panels with heavyweight writers and directors, who “come with the same networking intentions as the filmmakers,” assures Film Competition Director Harrison Glaser. You may well make a lifelong friend here—even if it’s just your local filmmaker liaison, the personal host each film is assigned.

 

Big Sky Documentary Film Festival

Missoula, Montana / February 2018 / bigskyfilmfest.org / A, S, P

BSDFF Executive Director Rachel Gregg in February 2017. Courtesy of Big Sky Documentary Film Festival

A highlight of BSDFF is its five-day DocShop conference: workshops and panels on a focus within documentary. (This year’s theme was short films.) It culminates with the Big Sky Pitch, which presents in-progress films to the likes of HBO, ESPN Films and ITVS. In 2017, the fest accepted almost 10 percent of submissions, including Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis’ searing Ferguson doc Whose Streets? It also hosted a Listen Lounge, where visitors enjoyed seven locally produced audio documentaries.

 

Calgary International Film Festival

Calgary, Alberta, Canada / September 20 – October 1, 2017 / calgaryfilm.com / A, P

A cavernous full house at Calgary International Film Festival. Courtesy of Calgary International Film Festival

2016 was a landmark year for Calgary International Film Festival: It obtained Academy-qualifying status, upped its cash prize pool by 53 percent, doubled its press coverage and set new attendance records, and bestowed CAD$50,000 worth of short-film funding to its pitch contest winners. It also launched a series of events called Behind the Screen, including field trips to the Calgary Film Centre studio and other Alberta filming locations, masterclasses, panels, and demos on F/X and animal training. Can 2017 top that?

 

Camden International Film Festival

Camden, Maine / September 14 – 17, 2017 / pointsnorthinstitute.org/ciff / A, V, P

After Dark parties are a highlight at CIFF. Courtesy of Camden International Film Festival

CIFF’s reputation for top documentary programming means representatives from major doc distributors and funders flock to this tiny seaside town. You’ll get acquainted with them via receptions, surprise “After Dark” parties (“notorious and one of a kind,” says Operations Manager Shannon Herring) and one-on-one meetings staff help to set up. We’d be remiss not to mention the industry-leading Points North Forum, which puts participants in touch with delegates like Oscar-winner Ezra Edelman (O.J.: Made in America).

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12 Comments

  1. Blackbird Film Fest

    July 22, 2017 at 5:02 pm

    Check out the Blackbird Film Festival in Cortland, NY! We’re entering our 5th season now and it just keeps getting better!

  2. Susan Weiss

    April 21, 2017 at 10:07 am

    In International Film festivals youmissed Guanajuato International Film Festival. #GIFF !!!!

  3. Jim Parker

    April 19, 2017 at 4:02 pm

    Surprised you didn’t include two very good U.S. festivals: Anchorage (Alaska) International Film Festival in December and the Full Frame Documentary Festival that takes place in Durham, North Carolina.

    • Terry

      June 9, 2017 at 12:43 pm

      You missed Dances with Films Festival in Hollywoood, CA which is all about independent Film Makers and showcases hard hitting subject matter from up and coming Film Makers.

  4. Jim Parker

    April 19, 2017 at 3:59 pm

    Surprised you did not include the Full Frame Festival in Durham, North Carolina in April and the Anchorage (Alaska) International Film Festival in December

  5. Frank Casanova

    April 17, 2017 at 3:19 pm

    Consider the Sacramento International Film Festival (Marty Anaya, Director). Sacramento has been under the radar for over a decade with it vibrant filmmaking community. On any given day there are probably 2 or 3 indie films in production on the streets. Also, there must be over 10 or 12 other film festivals throughout the year with various themes. Our newest… The Food Film Festival, celebrating Sacramento as a Farm-to-Fork capital. This are ramping up in Sacramento!

  6. Melanie Addington

    April 17, 2017 at 1:28 pm

    Thank you so much for considering us again this year MovieMaker! Added value is our dedicated goal to increasing the number of female directors that play our festival this year so we are providing a 50% discount to submit to female directed projects. Use BlacheOXFF on Film Freeway to get this discount!

    • Kristyn Shelley Olson

      May 31, 2017 at 9:42 am

      Thanks!! I am a female director. Actress and filmmaker. This is helpful.

  7. Michael Shewell

    April 17, 2017 at 12:53 pm

    I’m a bit surprised that Michael Moore’s baby, the Traverse City Film Festival, is not on this list. I’ve been to the last three and each has offered stellar full length as well as short feature films with a very diverse array of subject matter. “Er, I think ya missed one here.”

    • Nat

      April 17, 2017 at 11:53 pm

      The Traverse City Film Festival does not take submissions, so they cannot be worth the entry fee.

  8. Bob Cook

    April 17, 2017 at 12:46 pm

    The questioned asked was “Do Film Festivals give a shit about the films or are they just out to make money?”

    As the Executive Director of the Central Florida Film Festival I can say to you that it’s on the filmmaker to research the festivals they are entering. We made the MovieMaker “Top 25 Film Festivals….” in 2012, and continue to do more for the filmmaker in 2017, but somehow dropped off their list which is now the “Top 50”. There are more than 5000 film festivals worth the effort. They all have reviews and they all have a process. Take a look for what festival is good for your film.

    I believe the larger the festival the less personal care is given. The larger festivals have benefactors and large sponsors and an enormous payroll. Many of the smaller festivals are 501c-3 Charities and do not take salaries. All of that research is public domain. If you blindly send in your entry fee it is possible that your film might fall through the cracks.

    For example when a filmmaker sends in copies of their film without entry numbers, titles or even packaging (just a disc) it’s easier to toss them in the trash and move on to the next (it happens…a lot).

    I like to contact the filmmaker and let them know but we have barely three hundred entries. If I had 500 or more entries it would be impossible. Find a niche’ for your film and a festival that might appreciate your film. What’s a good festival fit is on you.

    At the Central Florida Film Festival we give a shit! That might become our new catch phrase (lol). I hope this helped.

    • Michael Shewell

      April 17, 2017 at 12:59 pm

      “The Central Florida Film Festival: we are the shit because we gave a shit. Come and immerse yourself in the art of film making. No shit.”

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