It’s a new year, and you’ve probably made your fair share of resolutions. But we have one more for your list: Attending film festivals. As a filmmaker, you probably fall into one of two camps. First, you already know why you should go to them and are tying to decide which film festivals in 2020 to attend. Second, you’re either unconvinced or unsure if they’re worth the effort.
Well, if you’re in the latter group, you’re not alone. As creatives, we can tend to be solitary creatures. The word ‘networking’ might sound terrible to you (trigger warning: we bring it up in this article). But, there are a lot of great reasons to break out of your shell and head to one of the thousands of film festivals that now cover calendars around the internet.
But, don’t take our word for it. We reached out to our old friends Drea Clark and Jim Cummings, both of whom are Musicbed blog alums. Drea is a programmer for Sundance Film Festival, L.A. Film Festival, Bentonville Film Festival, and is a producer as well. Jim Cummings is an award-winning director who released the acclaimed film Thunder Road in 2018, which took home the Grand Jury prize at South by Southwest.
Both of these filmmakers have unique perspectives on why film festivals are important in 2020. They offered their advice on why you should be attending them, and how to choose which festivals to dedicate your time and money to.
Why You Should Attend Film Festivals In 2020
Probably the most obvious advantage of attending film festivals is to meet more filmmakers. As Drea points out, there’s a unique opportunity at these events because almost everyone has the same interest as you. So, networking in this case doesn’t really feel like networking, at least in the stuffy corporate sense.
“Film festivals, both for the attendees and the filmmakers, are a lot about networking, but in a much more fun sense of that word,” Drea told us. “Chances are, the people who also just saw the film you just screened are also filmmakers. It’s a natural conversation-starter. There’s no need for ice breakers because everyone’s already signed on with what their primary interests are.”
Something that may not be as obvious to people, though, is the type of connections you can make at these festivals. It’s easy to think of the filmmakers you look up to as out-of-reach, but at film festivals, they’re in the same boat as you.
“There are a lack of barriers at a festival,” Drea says. “Most filmmakers still see themselves as up-and-coming. You can make five or six films that are critically acclaimed, but making films still seems like a grind to most filmmakers. That’s more of a connective thread that people should be aware of. They may feel like someone is far out of their reach, but that person probably doesn’t see it that way. Most are in there because of the grind of it.”
Imagine a place with thousands of potential friends, collaborators, and mentors just waiting to have a good conversation. All of this is to say that attending film festivals in 2020 could be the easiest way to break out of our shell and push your film career to the next level.
It’s easy to be passive about your approach to movie-viewing. There’s a whole marketing machine designed to tell us what we should be watching. That’s why film festivals are so important. It’s a different form of curation.
“These curators showcase the best stuff from around the world. They watch everything. Sundance and South by Southwest get about 9,000 submissions every year,” Jim says. “It’s such a huge amount of content, and for people to curate that and say, ‘This is the better stuff that was made around the world’ is a beautiful thing.”
Because many of these films are not yet under distribution, you don’t have the suits at the major studios curating the films you have access to. They’re simply curated by people who love the art and craft of films just as much as you do. By going to these festivals, you’re able to get exposure to films that you may never have seen in the open market.
It’s important to demystify the filmmaking process. After all, these are human beings making things, and that’s the exact same thing you’re doing, right? For Jim, going to film festivals in his younger years inspired him to keep going for a few different reasons.
“It was really fulfilling to watch some of the incredible films in a shorts block,” Jim says. “And then, some of the films weren’t incredible, which was also a weird kind of inspiration for me to keep making movies [laughs]. We only have to be as good as these to get in.”
As casual movie attenders, we only tend to see the cream of the crop, or at least what we’re told is the cream of the crop. But, as Drea pointed out in our previous interview, many programmers will select movies because a filmmaker has something to say or there’s huge potential for growth, not because the film is perfect. You could be that filmmaker.
On a more logistical note, too, each film festival has their own quirks and habits for the type of films they accept, and by attending festivals, you can begin to learn which ones may work for your films in the future.
“I think it’s a great idea for filmmakers to attend festivals without one of their own films,” Drea told us. “Both to get a sense of the energy of different festivals and the kind of films they tend to bring in.”
It’s important to know where you stand in your own craft, and film festivals may be the best barometer to measure against. By attending them, you can see how far you need to go and, most importantly, how far you’ve come. Then, act accordingly.
How to Choose Your Film Festival In 2020
The iconic film festivals are iconic for a reason, and that means they’re probably worth checking out. They draw incredible films from incredible filmmakers. Plus, as Jim pointed out, there’s the opportunity to see something before the hype and media attention.
“Sundance and festivals like that are fantastic just because they have so many world premieres,” he says. “It really kicks off the festival season, so they seem to get a lot of the big releases. Seeing a movie that’s being shown for the first time is an incredible experience.”
It’s important to take this whole experience with a grain of salt, because the festivals themselves bring their fair share of hype. But, the spectacle of the matter is an experience in itself. As filmmakers, we all dreamt of red carpets, camera flashes, and ornate theaters. And by attending festivals like Sundance, Tribeca, Cannes, and TIFF, you’re assuredly going to come face to face with them.
Both Drea and Jim mentioned this point several times for a few different reasons. The film festival calendar has exploded in recent years, and that’s in no way a bad thing. If you don’t have the time, money, or energy to head to New York or France, regional film festivals may be a great option. In fact, they may be the better option.
“Most areas have regional festivals at this point, and it’s remarkable how many people don’t go to their regional festivals. Look out for your local festivals,” Drea says. “There’s probably something within an hour of people that’s bringing the films that they’re hearing about from the big festivals. People working at those festivals are going to the other festivals for you, and deciding what to bring back to your region and your hometown.”
And, if you’re shopping your own film, Jim pointed out that you shouldn’t pass up the regional festivals for the glitz and glamour of the iconic festivals.
“I’m always thinking we should submit to ‘Academy festivals’ that have the most eyeballs on them,” he says. “But, the people who really care about this movie are those who are most local to the production. If you shoot in a film in Atlanta, it’s going to go down really well at the Atlanta Film Festival.”
At regional festivals, of which there are far too many to list here, you’re going to get an amplified version of the ‘why you should go’ reasons we listed above. Everyone is going to have even more shared interests as you, and they’ll be more open and accessible than you’d expect.
Follow the Story
Whether you’re looking for a film festival to attend, or trying to decide which films to screen once you’re there, Drea pointed out that it’s far more important to follow the story than the big premieres and well-known cast and crew.
“It can feel like it’s difficult to choose. But, if you’re attending as a filmmaker, I would skip the huge premieres, largely because those films are probably going to be released in the next couple of months,” she says. “The films that feel like more curated finds from around the world, those are the ones that may be interesting sleeper hits. Most people tend to look for actors they recognize because they want something identifiable. You’re better off looking just at the caption. What is this film about? I’m a big fan of films with unknown actors or first-time directors. You can most likely get an opportunity to meet those people and make a connection, too.”
Being a part of a discovery is a cool feeling, and by attending the festivals with smaller screenings and up-and-coming filmmakers, you’re going to be one of the first in the world to experience their work.
With the growth of film festivals, there’s also been an increase in niche film festivals. So, whether you’re a filmmaker looking to get a film in the festival circuit, or if you just have specific tastes, don’t shy away from film festivals that only curate specific types of films.
“There’s something to be said for looking out for niche festivals,” Drea says. “Genres like horror, thriller, or even rom-coms have really great niche festivals. If you’re an attendee with a specific set of film interests or a filmmaker who has made a film that may fulfill a niche, those are other great options.”
Drea and Jim’s Recommendations
Just a note: there are thousands of film festivals in 2020 happening all over the world. There’s no way we could even begin to compile an exhaustive list of every single one. So, here are just a few of the festivals that Drea and Jim recommended from their personal experience:
Sundance Film Festival
January 23–February 2
Slamdance Film Festival
South by Southwest
San Francisco Film Festival
Tribeca Film Festival
Bentonville Film Festival
April 29–May 2
Atlanta Film Festival
April 30–May 10
Cannes Film Festival
May 12–May 23
Toronto International Film Festival
September 10– 20
Odesa Film Festival
American Black Film Festival
Traverse City Film Festival
July 28–August 2
Telluride Film Festival
Eastern Oregon Film Festival