How Film Festivals Work

Celebrities walking the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival.
Photo courtesy Cannes - A Festival Virgin's Guide

Fledgling filmmakers practice their craft far from the glitter of Hollywood. In backyards, in small studios or on local sets they transform their vision into a film that they hope will one day be seen by thousands or even millions of people around the world. What they may lack in budget and star power they more than make up for in raw ambition.

Independent filmmakers might remain forever in obscurity were it not for film festivals. These annual events, where films are screened and professionally judged, are held around the world. At film festivals, cinema fans can see the new -- and sometimes daring -- films they would never be able to find in their local movie theaters.


Film festivals give new talent an opportunity to shine, while also showcasing the work of already well-known and respected filmmakers. Festivals can range from huge, star-studded events, such as the Cannes festival in France or the Sundance Film Festival in the United States, to small, independent, local awards that garner just a few hundred attendees. But all festivals have something in common: They celebrate the art of film and they champion the artists who produce it.

In this article, we'll visit some of the world's biggest, smallest and quirkiest film festivals. We'll describe how you can attend an event, how you can enter a film in a festival, how the films are judged and what the rewards are for those filmmakers who win.


What are Film Festivals?

Film festivals are events staged by universities, private organizations, local governments, arts associations and/or film societies. They provide an opportunity for unknown filmmakers to get their movies in front of a real live audience and to have their films reviewed by professional critics. Filmmakers whose movies get accepted into a festival also get valuable press attention and exposure to prospective agents and buyers, not to mention a sometimes sizeable cash award if they win.

Some festivals are broad in scope -- they welcome a wide range of subject matter and film lengths. But other festivals are far more specialized: They may accept only comedies, only Jewish films or only films made by female directors, for example. Some festivals are specific to one film genre, such as documentaries, or to one length, such as shorts.


What differentiates a film festival from, say, the Academy Awards, is the open submission policy. Most festivals accept submissions from any filmmaker, regardless of his or her past experience or budget. A number of festivals even invite students to enter and may have a special award category for student films.

As technology races forward, film festivals are evolving to keep pace. Many new filmmakers are starting to produce and edit their films on computers rather than on celluloid. And many film buffs are looking to the Internet for the latest independent releases. Following this trend, a number of festivals have expanded into the online arena. Toronto and Sundance are just two of the film festivals that have an online branch. Although they may lack the budget of their real-world cousins, online film festivals can reach far larger audiences. In 2003, the Sundance Online Film Festival site hosted more than 600,000 visitors.


How Can I Submit a Film?

Each film festival has its own set of rules. Generally, filmmakers are given a deadline by which they need to submit their film(s). Some festivals accept films that have already been screened elsewhere; others require that films have not been broadcast anywhere prior to the festival.

Movies entered may range from shorts that are just a few minutes in length to full-length features that run 1.5 hours or more. Festivals accept one or more formats, including 35mm, 16mm, Super 8, VHS, Beta and/or DVD. Filmmakers pay an entry fee (anywhere from $5 for a five-minute short to $100 for a feature film) and fill out a form describing their project. They may also be asked to submit a director bio, a film still, a synopsis and a list of production credits. Click here to take a look at the Call for Entries for Sundance 2006.


Not every film is right for every festival. Submitting a film to the wrong festival is likely to end in rejection. Before submitting a film for consideration, filmmakers need to research which festivals are most appropriate for their subject. The biggest and most prestigious festivals (Cannes and Sundance) are usually the hardest to break into because there is so much competition for a limited number of slots. In 2004, the Sundance festival received nearly 6,000 submissions; it accepted 255 of those films. New filmmakers have a better chance of getting into a smaller festival and then working their way up to the big-name festivals once they have achieved a few successes.

Film festivals are typically divided into categories. Categories may include:

  • Drama
  • Documentary
  • Animation
  • Short film
  • Experimental
  • Music video

If a movie is accepted, the festival organizers notify the filmmaker. At the festival, the movie is screened for the jury as well as for the audience. The jury is usually made up of film critics, professors and/or filmmakers who will judge each film for its artistic merit, production value, creativity and overall impression. Judging differs from festival to festival; but usually, each member of the jury votes by secret ballot, and the film that receives the majority of votes wins.

Most film festivals also give the audience an opportunity to judge. Its choice is reflected in a special audience award.

Often, while the screenings are underway in one part of a film festival, there are simultaneous workshops on screenwriting, film production, finding an agent and other subjects related to the art and business of filmmaking. They are usually open to filmmakers and anyone else interested in film.


Notable North American Festivals

The United States and Canada are home to dozens of festivals, both big and small. Here are just a few:

  • Ann Arbor Film Festival Web site: History: Established in 1963, the Ann Arbor Film Festival is the longest-running independent film festival in North America. Where: Ann Arbor, Michigan When: March Length of festival: One week Awards: The festival awards about 30 prizes in categories such as experimental, animation, documentary and narrative. Submissions: Tickets:
  • Miami International Film Festival Web site: History: For more than two decades, the Miami International Film Festival has showcased international and American films, with a special emphasis on Ibero-American cinema (from Spain, Portugal and all of Latin America). The festival has launched the careers of such directors as Pedro Almodóvar ("Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown") and Atom Egoyan ("The Sweet Hereafter"). Where: Miami, Florida When: February Length of festival: 10 days Awards: Three grand jury prizes are awarded by three different juries, one for each competition category (World Dramatic Competition, Ibero-American Dramatic Competition, World Documentary Competition). There are also two audience awards in the dramatic and documentary categories. Submissions: Tickets:
  • Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) Web site: History: The biggest film festival in the United States, the SIFF was started in 1976 by two Canadian film fans, Dan Ireland and Darryl Macdonald. Where: Seattle, Washington When: May/June Length of festival: Four weeks Awards: The SIFF awards about $20,000 in prizes each year. Audience-decided Golden Space Needle Awards include Best Film, Best Documentary, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Short Film. Juried award categories include the New American Cinema Award, the New Director's Showcase Award, the Refracting Reality Documentary Award, Short Film: Animated, and Short Film: Live Action. Submissions: Tickets:
  • South by Southwest (SXSW) Web site: History:Since 1987, SXSW has produced the internationally recognized Music and Media Conference and Festival. In 1994, SXSW added conferences and festivals for the film industry. The festival screens 150-200 independent films produced during the past year, as well as works from established directors. Where: Austin, Texas When: March Length of festival: 10 days Awards: Reel Shorts, Animated Shorts, Experimental Shorts, Music Videos, Texas High School Competition, Documentary Feature, Narrative Feature, 24 Beats per Second, Emerging Visions, Lone Star States, Documentary Feature, Narrative Feature Submissions: Tickets:
  • Sundance Film Festival Web site: History: Originally dubbed the U.S. Film Festival, Sundance was renamed in 1991 when it became part of actor Robert Redford's Sundance Institute in Park City, Utah. Today, Sundance is considered one of the premiere independent film festivals in the world. Each year, it screens more than 125 feature-length films and about 90 short films. Where: Park City, Utah When: January Length of festival: 10 days Awards: Dramatic Grand Jury Prize, Documentary Grand Jury Prize, Dramatic Audience Award, Documentary Audience Award, World Cinema Dramatic Audience Award, World Cinema Documentary Audience Award, Dramatic Directing Award, Documentary Directing Award, Excellence in Cinematography Award, Freedom of Expression Award, Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award, Special Jury Prizes, Jury Prize in Short Filmmaking, Jury Prize in International Short Filmmaking, Online Film Festival Jury Awards Submissions: Tickets:
  • Telluride Film Festival Web site: History: Telluride was launched in 1974 by James Card, who was then in charge of a motion-picture collection at the George Eastman House. Card founded the festival as a place to spotlight obscure and hard-to-find films. Where: Telluride, Colorado When September Length of festival: Four days Awards: There are none. Filmmakers receive recognition and attention if their film is chosen among the 15 shorts and 30 features screened each year. Submissions: Tickets:
  • Toronto International Film Festival Web site: History: Although it began in 1976 as a forum to screen films from other festivals, the Toronto International Film Festival has become one of the most prestigious film festivals in North America. Where: Toronto, Ontario, Canada When: September Length of festival: 10 days Awards: Peoples' Choice Award, Best Canadian First Feature, Best Canadian Feature Film, Best Canadian Short Film, Discovery Award Submissions: Tickets:
  • Tribeca Film Festival Web site: History: Founded in 2002 by Robert DeNiro, Jane Rosenthal and Craig Hatkoff, the Tribeca Film Festival was a response to the attacks on the World Trade Center. It was conceived to foster the economic and cultural revitalization of Lower Manhattan through an annual celebration of film, music and culture to promote New York City as a major filmmaking center and allow its filmmakers to reach the broadest audience as possible. Where: New York, New York When: April/May Length of festival: 12 days Awards: Best Narrative Feature, Best Actor in a Narrative Feature, Best Actress in a Narrative Feature, Best New Narrative Filmmaker, Best Documentary Feature, Best New Documentary Filmmaker, Documentary Special Jury Prize, Make in New York Best Narrative Feature, New York Loves Film Best Documentary Feature, Audience Award, Best Narrative Short, Best Documentary Short, Best Student Visionary Short. Submissions: Tickets:


Specialized and Unique Festivals

$100 Film Festival, 2004
Photo courtesy $100 Film Festival


Festivals Around the World

Cannes Film Festival logo
Image courtesy Festival de Cannes

Visit just about any big city in the world and you'll find at least one annual film festival. There are literally thousands of them -- from Albania to Zimbabwe. But the undisputed grande dame of international film festivals is Cannes, which for more than 50 years has lit up the French Riviera with its glittering, star-studded spectacle.

Cannes Film Festival

Cannes is as much an event in itself as it is a showcase for some of the best films in the world. Its red carpet is graced by some of Hollywood's A-list celebrities, and its roster of past winners reads like a film buff's bible: "Easy Rider" (1969), "Taxi Driver" (1976), "Apocalypse Now" (1979), "Pulp Fiction" (1994) and "Fargo" (1996).


The winning feature at Cannes each year walks away with the prized Palme d'Or along with worldwide recognition. Other awards given out include the Grand Prix, the Jury Prize, Best Performance by an Actress and Actor, Best Director and Best Screenplay. There are also individual prizes given out to short films. For more information, see How the Cannes Film Festival Works.

Berlin International Film Festival

Berlinale logo
Photo courtesy Berlin International Film Festival

The two other big names in the international film festival circuit are the Berlin International Film Festival (Berlinale) in Germany (see General Regulations for Entering Films in the Berlinale 2005 to find out about submitting and Berlinale: Tickets to learn about attending), and the Venice International Film Festival (Venice Biennele) in Italy.

The Berlin Film Festival was founded in 1951, just six years after the end of World War II, as part of an attempt to restore Germany to its former artistic glory. The first film screened at the Festival was "Rebecca," Alfred Hitchcock's 1940 adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier's novel by the same name. The Berlin International Film Festival quickly gained momentum, and by the mid-1950s, it rivaled Cannes and Venice as one of the premiere film festivals in the world.

Each February, an International Jury decides which films will be awarded the top prizes at Berlin -- the Golden Berlin Bear and the Silver Berlin Bear. Prizes are also given out for Best Director, Best Actor and Actress, Outstanding Artistic Contribution, Best Film Music, Best European Film and Innovation in Film. Other awards are given by a separate jury to short films.

Venice International Film Festival

The Venice International Film Festival (see the Venice Biennele FAQ to find out about submitting and Venice Biennele: Tickets to learn about attending) has a much longer history than its counterpart in Berlin. In fact, it is the oldest film festival in the world. It evolved out of a Venice art exhibition that had its start back in the late 1800s. In 1930, the event was expanded to include music, theater and cinema. From 1935 onward, the film festival became an annual part of the Biennele. The famous filmmaker Federico Fellini once said that "entering the Film Palace of the Venice Film Festival was like passing a final exam."

The Venice International Film Festival lasts for 10 days each September. The biggest competition is the Venezia 61, in which filmmakers vie for the Golden Lion award for best film. Prizes are also awarded in several other categories including best short film and best first feature.

For more information on film festivals and related topics, check out the links on the next page.