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.