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.
S: Screenwriting contest or competition
V: VR showcase or category
P: Pitch competition or facilitated sessions
U.S. and Canadian Festivals
Aspen, Colorado / April 2018 / aspenfilm.org / A, P
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
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
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
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
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).