Before we dive into our 25 Coolest Film Festivals in the World, 2023 edition, let’s say a few things.
Travel is cool. Eating and drinking exotic things: so cool. Discovering new films — as you’re well aware — is cooler than cool, and so is seeing them outside, or in a century-old theater, or in a planetarium. But nothing is cooler than meeting new people who become your friends and allies and co-conspirators in the years and decades to come.
In our latest edition of this list, we’re including fests that invite you to do all of the very cool things above. We’re grateful to the very esteemed Panel of Cool who assembled it by sharing their favorite experiences from the countless film festivals on their collective travels. Thanks especially to Festival Formula’s Katie and Ian Bignell, who connected us with several of the panelists. (And who spend their lives traveling from one astonishing fest to the next, not that we’re jealous. Jealousy is uncool.)
A huge thank also to filmmakers and film experts Sylvia Caminer, Hanadi Elyan, Aaron Hillis, Camrus Johnson, Geoff Marslett and Ondi Timoner. You can read about their tremendous achievements here.
Also: You may notice that we’re listing just slightly over 25 festivals, because we had some ties, and no one ever seems to mind being introduced to extra cool places to go. Also, please note from our Strike Do’s and Don’ts article on page 12 that — if the writers strike is still happening as you read this — the Writers Guild of America has no problem with people entering film festivals, so long as they don’t try to sell their films, during the strike, to one of the companies the WGA is striking against.
So with that, we hope you enjoy the list.
Anchorage, Alaska / December 1-9
“This festival gave me the chance to explore all day and watch films all night — and night starts at 3 p.m., so that is a lot of films,” says Geoff Marslett. “I promise you will come back with stories from this adventure. If you’re lucky, you may even get to play bingo with the good people who run this one.”
You’ll have lots of fun if your bingo card includes a strong list of films from all over the world, with an emphasis on independent filmmaking in Alaska. We listed Anchorage as one of our 20 Great Film Festivals for First-Time Filmmakers last year not only because of its coolness, but also because of its supportive ratio of submitted-to-accepted films, which means you have a decent chance of getting in with a strong project.
ATLANTA FILM FESTIVAL
Atlanta, Georgia / 2024
“It’s an exciting time to be in Atlanta witnessing all the major Hollywood studios opening there and lots of crew and producers flowing into the city,” says Hanadi Elyan. “Having our film’s title on the marquee of the historic Plaza Theater was truly a highlight of our festival-circuit journey.”
The Atlanta Film Festival is also on our list of 50 Film Festivals Worth the Entry Fee, and its writing contest is one of our 15 Submission-Worthy Screenwriting Competitions. Also: Have you been to Atlanta lately? The cinematic energy in the city is electric, and the festival harnesses and reflects the creative energy shining through the region.
This year’s festival wrapped in April, but you should start planning now for next year.
AUSTIN FILM FESTIVAL
Austin, Texas / October 26-November 2
“A definite star on the festival circuit where, refreshingly, the script is king,” says Sylvia Caminer. Adds Elyan: “Austin Film Festival represents the essence of a filmmaker community to me. I was fortunate enough to participate in it three times, and each time I go, I feel right at home because of their famous Texas hospitality.
The festival sets up a welcoming, smart, casual vibe that is contagious, which makes all attendees want to work together.” The supportive and collaborative feel is backed by “an inspiring slate of films,” says Caminer, who also loves the plentiful “intimate roundtable discussions and filmmaker get-togethers, which led to meaningful connections.”
The festival is one of our 50 Film Festivals Worth the Entry Fee and its prestigious writing competition is one of our 15 Submission-Worthy Screenwriting Competitions.
CHAMPS-ÉLYSÉES FILM FESTIVAL
Paris, France / 2024
Geoff Marslett’s 2022 Quantum Cowboys is a rotoscoped time-travel Western that featured the final screen performance by Anna Karina, who embodied the spirit of French New Wave. Playing the film at the Champs-Élysées Film Festival felt like a homecoming. “I am not from France. I have not spent much time in Paris.
But getting to show Anna Karina’s final appearance in a film to the town that loved her was pretty important to me. I cannot overstate how great the opportunity to screen here was,” says Marslett.
The location is breathtaking: Participating theaters are located along the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. The festival was established in 2012 and held its latest edition in June, featuring filmmakers Ira Sachs and Eliza Hittman.
CINEQUEST FILM & CREATIVITY FESTIVAL
San Jose and Mountain View, California / August 11-20
“This tech-savvy festival makes the attendees feel like they are part of the future. It was so great. Cinequest’s red carpet events were particularly organized and well-attended by the press. And of course screening at the glorious California Theatre was very special,” says Elyan.
Cinequest is also one of MovieMaker 50 Film Festivals Worth the Entry Fee, and was one of our 20 Great Film Festivals for First-Time Filmmakers because of its fairly favorable ratio of submitted-to-accepted films. It’s also known for star power: Its Maverick Spirit Awards have recognized honorees including Harrison Ford, Spike Lee and Nicolas Cage, among others.
CLERMONT FERRAND INTERNATIONAL SHORT FILM FESTIVAL
Clermont Ferrand, France / 2024
Set in the mountainous Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region, this festival draws a massive audience of more than 200,000 visitors a year. Locals delight in welcoming events like a “pay what you can” screening of animated shorts.
“The whole town comes out in force with locals queuing up midday for sold-out screenings,” says Katie Bignell.
She praises Clermont Ferrand’s “multicultural short film market” that draws guests — and food and drink — from all over the world. “It’s a hive of industry professionals letting their hair down and catching up,” she adds. Keep your ear out for parties, some of which are publicized only through the grapevine.
CLEVELAND INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL
Cleveland, Ohio / 2023
“I know this is a big one, but I’m throwing it in for filmmakers new to the festival world who may be unaware that one of the biggest and baddest festivals happens to be in Cleveland, Ohio,” notes Camrus Johnson.
“This is a top festival, not just for me but in general — there are so many theaters with so much space, incredibly strong programming, and an overall good time to be had. I even brought my mom to this one, because I knew it’d be a blast. Don’t miss a submission to Cleveland.”
We agree wholeheartedly, and the only negative thing we can say about this festival — another of our 50 Film Festivals Worth the Entry Fee — is that you’ll have to wait until 2024 to attend, because this year’s very successful latest edition took place in the spring.
CORDILLERA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL
Reno-Tahoe, Nevada / July 27-31
“I love the people that run this festival and what they’re all about — from the dope pitch competition to the yearly all-star jury to the end-of-the-fest filmmaker boat trip,” says Johnson. “Every year they grow and every year they impress me a little bit more.”
Last year’s films included the gun-violence drama “Triggered,” starring The Wire veteran Isiah Whitlock, Jr. Another highlight was Hisonni Mustafa Johnson winning the $175K Pitchfest for his project “The Beautiful Brain of Billy Bendecido,” which received a $100,000 post-production package from Company 3, a $60,000 camera package grant from Panavision, and a $15,000 production consultation presented by the Film Nevada Initiative.
The 2022 Grand Jury included board chairman Peter Menzies, Benny Boom (All Eyez on Me), Howard Deutsch (Some Kind of Wonderful) and Wes Studi (Dances With Wolves). With the mantra “#FilmForAll, it offers 150 films over five days in the biggest little city in the world. And don’t forget to visit Lake Tahoe.
Wilmington, North Carolina / November 15-19
“I went to Cucalorus for the first time 16 years ago, never stopped coming back, and likely haven’t laughed as much at any other festival,” says Aaron Hillis.
“Artist-driven, no juried competitions, more costumes than panels, freak flags always flying high, with a loving emphasis on communal experiences and collaboration. Come for the best-kept secret in mid-size fest programming (did they really nab the U.S. premiere of Yorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth?), stay for the guest-commissioned interactive happenings inspired by David Lynch’s Blue Velvet — which was famously shot there in Wilmington, N.C.”
Hillis adds: “Last year alone, the fest hosted Isabella Rossellini’s new one-person performance ‘Darwin’s Smile,’ as well as the secret (second-ever) screening of one of last year’s most provocative features… which is still a secret.”
Marslett adds a salute to the festival’s “chief instigator” (yep, that’s his title): “Dan Brawley is a force of nature and this festival is the storm that his force conjures up each year.” Marslett also promises: “No one comes here without a personal story following them home.” Cucalorus, which regularly turns up on our annual list of the 25 Coolest Film Festivals in the World, is also one of our 50 Film Festivals Worth the Entry Fee.
Porto Alegre, Brazil / 2024
Caminer says this “wild and avant garde” festival is “truly unique, with such a warm and caring team behind it” and a “truly discerning program of films.” Another of our 50 Film Festivals Worth the Entry Fee, Fantaspoa is one of South America’s most vital touchpoints for cinema and creativity, set in a city whose name translates to “joyful harbor.”
Caminer attests to the joy: “I left with new projects brewing and a desire to return and shoot a film in Porto Alegre,” she says. “Everyday the filmmakers would start gathering at the festival lunch venue and you never quite knew where the day would take you.”
This year’s edition was held in April, but next year’s will be extra special because it will mark Fantaspoa’s 20th anniversary.
Porto, Portugal / 2024
Established in 1981, this European gem is held in Portugal’s second-largest city, which shares its name with the intoxicating drink. “One of the most beautiful settings for a festival, with an old world screening venue and a classy team behind it,” says Caminer, who recommends “the opportunity to have a European holiday and an exciting festival experience all rolled into one.”
Her favorite parts of the festival include the captivating programming and its wide selection of Asian cinema.
“The pace of the festival was just right, allowing time to make lasting friendships. I had an amazing day exploring the entire city by foot with new friends — we must have walked seven miles even crossing the bridge.” (Porto has several famed bridges, but the most celebrated is the Dom Luis.)
Caminer adds that “every night ended up with compelling conversations at the hotel bar, and you had to force yourself to get to bed so you could start all over again in the morning.”
Provo, Utah / October 26-November 4
We named FilmQuest one of our 50 Film Festivals Worth the Entry Fee because of its welcoming, supportive environment, mountain-town ambience and very scary movies. Points also for its fabulous, atmospheric venue, Velour, and the anything-goes vision of founder and director Jonathan Martin, a skilled moviemaker himself.
“A filmmaker’s festival bar none. Ridiculously fun, great venue, captivating and original programming and run by such a passionate team who are beyond supportive, kind and intelligent,” says Caminer.
“If you want to feel completely welcome at a festival, this is it. I pretty much lived at the theater, which had a total party atmosphere where the film itself was the main event and everyone there was your friend.”
London, England / August 24-28
One of the world’s great genre festivals — as well as one of the coolest film festivals — is known for “must-see films with a staggering amount of filmmakers in attendance,” says Caminer.
“There was a heightened level of excitement at the festival and the screenings themselves were electrifying, especially the premieres in the amazing Leicester Square IMAX theater. The energy reminded me of how I used to feel as a kid going to see films at the magnificent Ziegfeld Theatre in NYC, which is why I make movies.”
Other thrills include late-night gatherings where filmmakers bond over their shared love of cinema, and talks often spill out onto the street. “I have stayed in touch with more filmmaker friends from this festival than any other. I can’t wait to return,” Caminer says.
Past guests have included Dario Argento, Sam Raimi, Clive Barker and many more masters of horror. First established in 2000, FrightFest also hosts a Halloween extravaganza and a regular two-day terror-thon at the Glasgow Film Festival every February.
GROSSMAN FANTASTIC FILM & WINE FESTIVAL
Ljotomer, Slovenia / 2024
“The most unique festival I attended,” says Caminer. “I stayed at the most charming inn, which was also a vineyard, and the food was off the charts, and no matter where you were, the wine poured freely (literally non-stop).”
Also: Films! Established in 2005, this festival says it focuses on “fantastic, frightening, fierce and transgressive movies that reach beyond ordinary genre conventions,” and is named for Dr. Karl Grossman, who made the first significant Slovenian motion pictures.
“Leading the festival was a truly authentic team who were always exceedingly entertaining,” Caminer adds. “One afternoon after a particularly late night they took all the filmmakers rafting down what was supposed to be a lazy river … the party on my raft heightened when someone ended up in the water not once but twice! Such amazing times make me want to hurry up and make another genre film just so I can get back there!”
The latest edition was held in June, so start making that genre film for 2024.
HEARTLAND INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL
Indianapolis, Indiana / October 5-15
“This film festival really cares about the filmmakers,” says Elyan. “The events and parties took place all around Indianapolis in cool and modern places. One of the parties took place at a bowling alley, and it was such a great way to meet and mingle with filmmakers while playing a game.”
That bowling alley is located in Indianapolis’ utterly charming Bottleworks District, built around the site of what was once the world’s largest Coca-Cola bottling plant. The Art Deco designs in the neighborhood feel historic and chic at the same time, especially at the boutique luxury Bottleworks Hotel, where some lucky festival guests stay.
The neighborhood is also home to the stunning Living Room Theaters, site of many Heartland screenings, and a wide range of excellent dining options. But the best part of this 31-year-old festival is a team that defines the word cool. The Midwestern hospitality never stops, and it’s complemented by sublime taste.
Infectiously enthusiastic artistic director Greg Sorvig is very in-demand as a film festival juror and programmer (he’s also a programmer at the Tribeca Festival) and Heartland Film president Michael Ault makes his very complex job look effortless, consistently keeping guests inspired and delighted. All that, and Heartland Film also produces…
INDY SHORTS FILM FESTIVAL
Indianapolis, Indiana / July 18-23
This Academy-qualifying Heartland spinoff was established six years ago to highlight shorts, and has quickly established itself as a shorts destination. “I’ve screened in this festival twice (both virtually when every festival was virtual and in-person years later) and it doesn’t disappoint,” says Johnson.
“Not only do they have some strong programming, but from one filmmaker to another… they have a lot of prizes and a lot of prize money! It’s really incredible to see so many hardworking filmmakers get rewarded for some real cash! Also, the connections I’ve made from Indy Fest have helped my career substantially. Top fav.”
Along with Heartland, it’s one of our 50 Film Festivals Worth the Entry Fee.
HELL’S HALF MILE FILM & MUSIC FESTIVAL
Bay City, Michigan / September 21-24
Why is it called Hell’s Half Mile? “In the late 1800s, a stretch of Bay City’s riverfront was lined with raucous saloons, gambling houses and two-bit hotels where lumbermen (and more than a few town-folk) would partake in debauchery,” the festival’s website helpfully explains.
Today, the area is home to riverfront boutiques, restaurants, theaters, hotels, art galleries, and a planetarium. “Where to start?” says Katie Bignell. “A planetarium as a venue, live music curated each night in warehouses, locally brewed beer — Bay City never felt so jumping. It may be small, but the team behind this festival makes you feel so welcome, even from the personalized email you get after the point of submission.”
The festival places a strong emphasis on making connections and truly independent filmmaking. Sounds like the opposite of hell.
JIHLAVA INTERNATIONAL DOCUMENTARY FILM FESTIVAL
Jihlava, Czech Republic / October 24-29
Conceived in 1997 by a group of high school students, the festival has since become one of Europe’s leading documentary film festivals, dedicated to the idea of “thinking through film.” Its categories include Fascinations, for the best experimental film, and Testimonies, for the best films with political, ecological or scientific themes. The prizes include one for best film essay.
Artistry is everywhere during the festival, even in the directions. “A small town where the festival paints chalk lines on the floor to direct you to each venue,” says Katie Bignell.
“Each year they commission an artist to create pieces of art that are dotted around the venues and town — one year it was fire bins engraved with the skyline of the town, each accompanied by a five foot stack of wood next to it so you could feed the fire throughout the day. Handy, as it was snowing then.”
THE LOFT FILM FEST
Tucson, Arizona / October 11-19
Celebrating its 13th year, the Loft Film Fest, located at the nearly 60-year-old Loft Cinema, celebrates independent, foreign and classic films as well as great filmmakers on the rise. (Recent events included a Mother’s Day screening of Aliens.) The venue and festival are also known for highlighting Indigenous filmmaking.
“I feel like a lot of my colleagues may not yet know about this one, but let me assure you The Loft Film Fest is 100% worth the application,” says Marslett. “The venue itself is one of those few gems left in America that is fighting the good fight, bringing a wild mix of indie cinema onto the big screen every single night of the year. They are open to exciting collaborations (like letting the cast perform music before the show) that keep the night unpredictable and exciting.”
He adds that the chance to visit beautiful Tucson — “one of the most eclectic and artistic towns I know of” — adds to the appeal, and that the festival has one of the nicest teams in the business.
This is a welcome addition to our list of the 25 Coolest Film Festivals in the World.
Mexico City, Mexico / August 17-27
Founded in 2002 by filmmaker Edna Campos, Macabro is one of the world’s premiere venues for new independent horror, buoyed by a love of classic and cult cinema.
“Talk about location — Mexico City is an endlessly walkable and vibrant city,” says Caminer. “Every morning we would get lost exploring and eating street food before heading to one of the beautiful cinemas for multiple films. Crowds were always plentiful and passionate. Q&A’s were rowdy and always spilled out into the lobby as the fans could talk movies all night long.
“They easily had the most dynamic and photographic party locations on the circuit. The festival heads were incredibly gracious and things ran very smoothly.”
NEW YORK INTERNATIONAL CHILDREN’S FILM FESTIVAL
New York City, New York / 2023
“You’d think more people would know about this festival, with it being one of the only Academy Award-qualifying children’s festivals,” says Johnson. “This is one of the best film festivals in the game and I will never be convinced otherwise. It is insane how good the films are that play here — they have impeccable taste and know how to put together a strong program and panel.”
The festival, which recently celebrated its 25th year, is gaining stature thanks in part to positive coverage from outlets like the New York Times, which noted its reputation for helping kids wrestle with difficult issues through age-appropriate films.
The Times also observed: “Even the festival’s more somber films have moments of joy and triumph.” Johnson says he’s “itching to make another children’s or family short just to get back!”
NEVADA CITY FILM FESTIVAL
Nevada City, California / 2024
“If you are hoping to find a tiny arts town to escape to and enjoy celebrating cinema for its own sake — and you feel like the big events may have lost this magic — look no further than the Nevada City Film Festival,” says Marslett.
Magic abounds in this California mountain town festival, nicknamed the Sundance of the Sierra. Marslett praises president Jeff Clark and executive director Jesse Locks for their hands-on, conscientious leadership of an incredible team: “They genuinely care about your work and have been kind and supportive since the very first time I screened here. Lifelong friends at this one.” He also notes the region’s “unbeatable natural beauty,” and we heartily agree.
Though it’s located just 60 miles from Sacramento, 80 miles from Reno and 150 miles from San Francisco, Nevada City has an otherworldly energy that makes your worries back home feel smaller as soon as you take your first deep inhalation of the pine-tinged air. Also refreshing: the festival’s bear-hug embrace of short films.
“I wasn’t around in the first days of Sundance or Telluride,” says Marselett. “But I think the vibe they were cultivating back then found its way to Nevada City.” This year’s festival was held in June, so you have lots of time to plan for next year.
SIDEWALK FILM FESTIVAL
Birmingham, Alabama / August 21-27
This beloved festival, celebrating its 25th year, “really stands by your whole career once you play with them. Consider this a long-term relationship,” says Marslett. He adds that visiting Sidewalk “always feels like coming home.”
That’s certainly been the case for Ondi Timoner, whose cult-deprogramming documentary Join Us won the Special Jury Prize at Sidewalk in 2007, and whose biopic Mapplethorpe won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Narrative Feature in 2018.
Two years later, her opioid epidemic doc Coming Clean won for Best Life & Liberty Film and a Special Jury Prize for Best Editing. She has also hosted a secret screening at Sidewalk for her deeply personal film Last Flight Home, in a rough-cut form to test it, and it will return to Sidewalk this year in its finished form after being shortlisted for an Academy Award.
The prolific filmmaker will also present her new Internet doc The New Americans: Gaming a Revolution.And last but not least, her rock documentary DIG! will play as one of Sidewalk’s 25 favorite films in honor of its anniversary.
Timoner says Sidewalk has “more energy and spunk than any regional festival I’ve attended — and under the artistic direction of Rachel Morgan, they have really become a world-class film festival.” She adds: “It feels unmissable — on screen and off.”
Established in 1998, Sidewalk now welcomes about 15,000 fans to Birmingham each year. It has also opened the two-screen Sidewalk Film Center + Cinema in the heart of the city’s historic theater district, and hosts the SHOUT LGBTQ+ Film Festival.
Sidewalk keeps the sense of community strong year-round with events at the theater that include talks, viewing parties, karaoke and even a free “bad movie night.” It also shows both new films and classics.
Park City, Utah / January 18-28, 2024
“We affectionately call Sundance ‘adult winter camp’ because so many of our peers reunite there annually,” says Timoner. Sundance is one of the most prestigious festivals in the world, and we sometimes leave it off our lists on the assumption that if you’re reading this magazine, you already know how important it is.
But that doesn’t take away from its cool. And Timoner’s career is an example of how much Sundance recognition can mean: She’s enjoyed the stunning achievement of winning the Sundance Grand Jury Prize twice, first for DIG! and again for We Live in Public.
She observes: “My career really took flight here when DIG! won the Grand Jury Prize in 2004, and I had never experienced anything like it. It felt like such a safe and nurturing environment back then… Then I was blown away when We Live in Public also won the Grand Jury Prize five years later.”
But Sundance isn’t just a festival — it works tirelessly year round to help filmmakers achieve their artistic goals. “The greatest contribution to my career came from the Sundance Institute, when I attended the Director’s and Writer’s Labs with Mapplethorpe,” Timoner says. “I learned so much there about how to put truth on screen in a scripted film, and made connections with my mentors that have influenced my work over all the years since.”
Austin, Texas / March 8-16, 2024
SXSW, or South by Southwest, is another pinnacle-of-cool festival with overlapping celebrations of tech, film, music, education and culture.
“I love this festival because of its populist spirit, great weather, and especially fantastic mix of humans from all walks of life,” says Timoner, whose SXSW premieres have included her Russell Brand documentary Brand: A Second Coming, which opened the festival in 2015,and this year’s The New Americans, as well as the shorts “Obey the Artist,” “Library of Dust” and “The Last Mile.”
We don’t have to tell you how much Austin, a film hub for decades, has grown massively as a creative force in recent years — thanks in large part to SXSW.
“I have filmed many of my films here too, because of the mix of visionaries it draws, and also filmed my talk show BYOD (Bring Your Own Doc) here and at Sundance over five years. It is so much fun, and the down-home vibe is the best for making friends for life while sharing your films with passionate, energetic audiences,” Timoner adds.
TALLGRASS FILM FESTIVAL
Wichita, Kansas / October 5-8
“I can guarantee if you have not been to this one, you really are missing out,” says Marslett. “The community really rallies for this event. Some festivals are just other filmmakers enjoying your work — which is fine — but when the town really gets excited and everyday people come out to your science-fiction-Western-hybrid-animation musical and stick around to ask questions, it really warms the heart.”
Tallgrass, which just celebrated its 20th anniversary, is also one of our 50 Film Festivals Worth the Entry Fee, in large part thanks to the year-round commitment of executive director Melanie Addington and her team. Notable venues include the century-old Orpheum Theater and the Boeing Dome Theater and Planetarium.
“I won an award here, so of course that makes me extra love the festival,” says Marslett. “But even if I had not, Melanie Addington runs an incredible event, and the people of Wichita really make you feel appreciated. I got to watch my film on a planetarium screen, for crying out loud!”
WOODSTOCK FILM FESTIVAL
Woodstock, New York / September 27-October 1
“The quintessential location for a festival, spread across several quaint Hudson Valley towns that roll out the red carpet,” says Caminer.
“I have to applaud the team behind the festival for putting together such a stirring group of films, panels and roundtable discussions, which springboarded into fascinating and enlightening conversations on the current state of film. Packed houses were the norm and we had one of our very best screenings at the fabulous Tinker Street Cinema.”
She adds that Woodstock has “some of the most impassioned and thoughtful Q&As overall. The Maverick Awards take the prize for the best presentation of festival awards. A festival not to be missed.” Woodstock is also one of our 50 Film Festivals Worth the Entry Fee, and its profile has only increased as the Hudson Valley has grown as a destination for prestige film and TV.
(L-R) Follow Her actor Justin Wilson, writer-star Dani Barker, director Sylvia Caminer, executive producers Mike Hassan and Rich Hassan, and drummers Macky Abbe Aronson and Jason Bowman. Courtesy of Sylvia Caminer.