Film festivals require a strategy. It’s accepted as gospel among independents that a feature film is the result of dogged commitment to a singular vision. And it should be. Yet, once a finished project is ready to hit the festival circuit, many moviemakers discard the patient focus that enabled them to finish it in the first place, and submit to any and every film festival without much thought.
The problem is, desperation isn’t a strategy, and submitting to film festivals is not the same as buying up the most scratch-offs at your local 7-Eleven. Sure, some good luck can be a tipping point in your creative career—it almost always is—but the same careful deliberation that went into your artistic and financial decisions during production still needs to guide each of your fest applications. You owe yourself, and your work, at least that much.
So, if you’re not playing to win Wonka’s Golden Ticket, what are you playing for, exactly? When we at MovieMaker compile our yearly list of the 50 Film Festivals Worth the Entry Fee, we’re not spoon-feeding you a catch-all answer to that perennial question, but setting the table for you to find the answer yourself. For one submitter sitting at that proverbial table, an ideal film festival audience consists of a few industry decision-makers; others are seeking film festivals made up of thoughtful, engaged cinephiles; and for some, the perfect fest includes a group of professional peers with whom you can bounce ideas.
Already know which film festival audience is yours? Great, dive into this list. Don’t? Figure it out first and come back later—we’re not going anywhere. On the day you do get an invite to fest with the best of ’em, the door will open to a wealth of benefits—networking summits, intimate retreats, high-stakes pitch sessions, competition (both fierce and friendly), and last but never least, comped travel and lodging. As ever, we score each of the selected film festivals that follow based on how well they deliver those things and much more. While some we’ve chosen don’t include all of the above, the overall experiences they offer have earned our vote of confidence. We believe they’ll earn yours, too. —MM Editors
S: Screenwriting contest or competition
V: VR showcase or category
P: Pitch competition or facilitated sessions
U.S. and Canadian Film Festivals
Ann Arbor Film Festival
Ann Arbor, Michigan / March 24-29, 2020 / aafilmfest.org
The venerable Ann Arbor festival leans heavily on submissions for its programming. Last year’s program included 141 films (out of 2,766 submissions) and only two by other means. The oldest avant-garde and experimental film festival in North America, Ann Arbor excels in attracting appreciative audiences and connecting filmmakers with one another. Each year the festival introduces new works to such filmmaker as Lawrence Kasdan and Ken Burns, who funds the festival’s top award ($3,000). Centered at the historic Michigan Theater, the festival features intriguing intermedia salons, workshops, performances, installations, and panel discussions. Ann Arbor creates filmmaker video interviews that are shared on Vimeo and via the city’s online and social media channels. Recent distributors in attendance included sixpackfilm, Carte Blanche and Kino Lorber. The 2019 festival included the world premiere of Loretta Fahrenholz’s Two A.M.
Ashland Independent Film Festival
Ashland, Oregon / April 16-20, 2020 / ashlandfilm.org
Spread over five days, Ashland Independent Film Festival screens more than 70 documentaries, features and shorts (out of 964 submissions) to local audiences. Recent highlights included the world premiere of Dan Habib’s Intelligent Lives, co-produced and narrated by Chris Cooper. When requested, the festival provides feedback for submissions. The small-town setting and friendliness contribute to filmmaker mingling. Industry talk-back panels and workshops provide venues for attendees wishing to learn more.
Atlanta Film Festival
Atlanta, Georgia / April 30-May 10, 2020 / atlantafilmfestival.com / A, S, V, P
With more than 8,000 submissions received, the Atlanta Film Festival is a heavy hitter in the Southeast. High-visibility distributors include Turner Films, Focus Features, Bleecker Street, Magnolia Pictures, Showtime, AMC Networks, Sundance TV, and HBO. Showtime recently picked up Weldon Wong Powers’ It’s A Party at the festival. With Georgia at the forefront of tax-incentive-friendly deals for filmmakers and a major center for filmmaking, there are industry events such as panels, workshops, masterclasses, seminars, and demos. At the most recent festival, half of the programming was directed by women, and 40 percent of programmed films were directed by people of color. Award-winning narrative, documentary, and Georgia-based films receive $1,000. A creative conference includes masterclasses, which have featured such people as Jason Reitman, Romany Malco, Chris Tucker, and Amber Nash. The Screenplay Competition and Screenwriter’s Retreat provides winners the chance to work with mentors on polishing scripts.
Austin Film Festival
Austin, Texas / October 24-31, 2019 / austinfilmfestival.com / A, S, P
Set in one of the most welcoming cities in the U.S., Austin Film Festival is a terrific showcase for any moviemaker looking to maximize their work’s commercial potential and kickstart a career. AFF is a networking juggernaut. Major distributors come not just to make deals, but to sit on festival juries with successful directors, screenwriters, and actors. Having your film selected by AFF means you’ll have PR firm Sunshine Sachs to bring attention to your work. AFF’s focus on screenwriting also makes it a perennial hotspot: Their Writers Conference is the largest convergence of screenwriters and media storytellers in the world, which, as Film Competition Director Rob Gonzalez explains, “consists of more than 175 panels, workshops, and roundtable sessions, all designed to help and inspire moviemakers at every stage of their careers.”
Bend, Oregon / October 10-13, 2019 / bendfilm.org
Bend’s unofficial motto of, “Be Nice. You’re in Bend,” captures the laid-back vibe of BendFilm, where the festival’s small size makes it easier for first-time filmmakers to hang out with more established veterans at a level that is impossible at larger festivals. BendFilm’s best-of-show prizes are awarded $5,000. Panel discussions get into the details of filmmaking. Past topics have included the art of the pitch, first features, and navigating the unknowns of documentary storytelling. Bend is known for its craft beer, and said beer plays a role—at the filmmakers’ lounge and elsewhere. In the 2018 competition program, 50 percent of the films were directed by women. Reps fromFox Searchlight Pictures, Factory 25, and Amazon Studios attended. Highlights included Skye Borgman’s Abducted in Plain Sight (Forever “B”) which has garnered attention on Netflix and got strong reviews.