When we compile the 50 Film Festivals Worth the Entry Fee list every year, we start by imagining you: an independent moviemaker, probably English-speaking, heading into post on a short or a feature.

There are a few festivals that you’ve dreamed of getting into since you were a teenager: Cannes, Sundance, Berlin, Venice… You know the risk is high with those top-tier fests, considering the sheer tidal mass of submissions they receive every year. But, what the heck, you’re going to try anyway. The International Federation of Film Producers Associations (or FIAPF) has a comprehensive list of this upper crust: from general competitive festivals like Locarno, Rotterdam, Tokyo, San Sebastian and Karlovy Vary, to “specialized” competitive events like Busan (Asian cinema), Thessaloniki (first or second features) and Sitges (genre). If you’re looking for a big-impact debut stateside, you can’t go wrong with South by Southwest and Tribeca, too.

You also know that niche festivals can be easy wins in terms of impact. Trust us, there’ll be one that applies to your project, whether it’s up-and-coming sci-fi/fantasy stop FilmQuest, or one of the new smartphone film festivals around the globe.

OK, done with the “dream bigs” and the specialty corners? Then it’s time to get down to brass tacks and really flesh your plan out. We asked Jana Dietze of the website FilmFestivalLife for some general considerations to begin with. “Moviemakers should always check to see if they are able to visit the festivals they are applying to,” she says. “Many festivals cover accommodation or travel costs, which helps a lot. Also, look out for industry markets, which are some of the best places to network. It makes sense to take a closer look regionally, as well—a lot of festivals have locally focused competitions for filmmakers from their region.”

Beyond that, what are your priorities on the circuit this year? Your answer draws the lines; the following list will color them in. These are the festivals that will, most likely, form the backbone of your journey on the circuit this year. Careers have been forged in their fires. Your film will find an intelligent, engaged audience who really gets it. Your social media accounts will blow up with future collaborators. You’ll party with crowds you never thought you’d meet, in locales you never thought you’d visit, with drinks you never thought you’d be sipping. And you may well find distribution along the way.

The Festivals

Panelists at the 2016 American Documentary Film Festival in Palm Springs. Courtesy of the American Documentary Film Festival

Tony Robbins, Joe Berlinger and the cast of Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru at the 2016 American Documentary Film Festival in Palm Springs. Photograph by Loretta Vlach


Palm Springs, California / Spring 2017 / american-documentary-film-festival.com

American Documentary Film Festival recently formed an alliance called the North South Doc Network, allowing selected films to screen at three other participating festivals around the world. Stateside, though, U.S. documentarians can also submit to AmDocs’ Film Fund Pitch Competition, which awards up to $50,000 to winners. 2016’s edition of the fest feted doc star Joe Berlinger, whose Tony Robbins: I am Not Your Guru opened the program.


Courtesy of American Film Festival.

Hal Hartley and David Gordon Green in conversation. Courtesy of American Film Festival


Wrocław, Poland / Oct. 25-30, 2016 / americanfilmfestival.pl

American Film Festival plays a tight collection of the year’s best American indie films, as well as the two-day U.S. in Progress event for works-in-progress (winners receive handy post-production packages). And if shooting in Poland appeals to you, AFF should be your favorite resource: Participants enjoy presentations from the Polish Film Institute, Polish production and post-production houses, and a field trip of Poland and Lower Silesia shooting locations.


The stars of “Survivor’s Remorse” walk the red carpet. L-R: Teyonah Parris, Jessie T Usher, Erica Ash and RonReaco Lee.

L-R: Survivor’s Remorse stars Teyonah Parris, Jessie T. Usher, Erica Ash and RonReaco Lee on the red carpet. Courtesy of Atlanta Film Festival


Atlanta, Georgia / April 1-10, 2016 / atlantafilmfestival.com

Not from Atlanta? No worries: Atlanta Film Festival covers travel and lodging with the help of a Kickstarter campaign (2015’s #40Kin40Days campaign raised over $40,000 for the 40th edition). Besides screening world-class indies, the festival holds a five-day Creative Conference of panels, talks and demos, and a screenplay competition whose winners are flown in for a Screenwriters’ Retreat.


Jason Reitman (Juno, Up in the Air) answers a question during his conversation at AFF’s Screenwriters Conference. Photo by Jack Plunkett

Jason Reitman answers a question during his conversation at AFF’s 2015 Screenwriters Conference. Photograph by Jack Plunkett, courtesy of Austin Film Festival


Austin, Texas / Oct. 13-20, 2016 / austinfilmfestival.com

At Austin Film Festival, moviemakers and writers take part in the prestigious Screenplay Competition, and serve alongside industry greats as panelists at the Screenwriters Conference. Expect to make dozens of new friends—it’s a festival mandate, says Film Competition Director Harrison Glaser. Short-makers, take note: Not only is the festival an Academy-qualifier, but AFF short films are later showcased on the Emmy-winning PBS show On Story.


Courtesy of BendFilm Festival.

Eager audiences line up for BendFilm’s opening night in 2015. Courtesy of BendFilm Festival


Bend, Oregon / Oct. 6-9, 2016 / bendfilm.org

No, gorging on craft beer isn’t a priority for everyone... but it doesn’t hurt. Besides the 23 breweries surrounding this fest’s hub, visitors can rent out a 12-seat bar-on-wheels (the “CyclePub”) if they fancy. Just don’t party so hard you miss the intriguing panels, which in 2015 included a second-edition talk from Film Fatales founder Leah Meyerhoff about overcoming female filmmaker obstacles, and another about effective social media usage.


Brooklyn Short Film Festival, Galapagos Art Space, DUMBO  Photograph by Matthew Keff 

A Brooklyn Short Film Festival screening at the Galapagos Art Space, DUMBO. Photograph by Matthew Keff


Brooklyn, New York / June 17-19, 2016 / brooklynshorts.com

BSFF boasts a high rate of feedback even for non-acceptances, often with detailed strength and weakness analysis. Moviemakers who do get accepted will likely also pick up some tips for handling press, from the fest’s template press kits and digital PR bootcamp. And, looking forward, BSFF is working to finance the development of a short into a feature, which Founder Richard Hooban says is “the next logical step in our growth.”


Documentary subject and Japanese country music singer Tomi Fujiyama receives a White Hat following the screening of MADE IN JAPAN at the 2015 Calgary International Film Festival. Photo credit: James Rooke

Documentary subject and Japanese country singer Tomi Fujiyama at a screening of Made in Japan at the 2015 Calgary International Film Festival. Photograph by James Rooke


Calgary, Canada / Sept. 21 – Oct. 2, 2016 / calgaryfilm.com

“Our emphasis is on discovery,” says CIFF’s Marketing and Communications Manager Laura Carlson, referring to the festival’s effort to showcase first-time features (34 percent of 2015’s line-up). This year the 12-day fest becomes an Academy-qualifier for both animated and live-action short categories. CIFF also holds an industry series, to which all attending filmmakers have complete access. Previous series saw debates, masterclasses and a set visit.


Courtesy of Camden International Film Festival

All hands on stage for the Camden International Film Festival 2015. Photograph by Lindsay Heald


Camden, Maine / Sept. 15-18, 2016 / camdenfilmfest.org

Like watching documentaries? You’ll be in heaven at CIFF, which last year played doc heavyweights like Going Clear, In Transit and The Russian Woodpecker. Like pitching documentaries? There are few better places to do so than the Points North Documentary Forum, during which six teams present their works-in-progress to the doc world’s best. (In fact, a number of the festival’s selections each year are Points North alumni.)


Camerimage's grandiose Opera Nova in 2015. Photograph by Waldemar Domagala

Camerimage’s grandiose Opera Nova in 2015. Photograph by Waldemar Domagala


Bydgoszcz, Poland / Nov. 12-18, 2016 / camerimage.pl/en

Cinematography destination Camerimage plays host to the world’s top DPs every year, but the festival has plenty to offer non-elites, too. Aspiring moviemakers are bombarded with chances to learn, with one-on-one advisory sessions at the Talent Demo, a special panel devoted to finding an agent, and 100 other events. The staff provides visitors stellar publicity and press opportunities, too. (Don’t speak Polish? Every guest gets a bilingual guide.)


Courtesy of Chagrin Documentary Film Festival.

Visitors mill around the Chagrin Valley Little Theatre for the 2015 Chagrin Documentary Film Festival. Photograph by Dylvn Lynch


Chagrin Falls, Ohio / Oct. 5-9, 2016 / chagrinfilmfest.org

“The sheer organization of the whole thing is something that bigger festivals can learn from,” says Tony Vainuku, director of In Football We Trust, of CDFF, whose popular homestay program integrates visitors into Chagrin Falls’ community. Alumni submit new work to future editions at no cost. And while a handful of filmmakers have had their airfare covered in previous years, the festival is working to obtain grants to fund more.

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