ten best!: Film Festivals

by Keith Barber

Sundance Film Festival

The largest independent film festival in the nation and the one with arguably the greatest clout, the Sundance Film Festival began as the US Film Festival in 1978. Robert Redford, founder of the Sundance Institute, likes to joke that during the early days of the festival he would stand on Main Street in Park City and try to convince people to go inside the theater like a barker in front of a strip club. The Sundance Institute officially took over the festival in 1985, and gave it a new namesake. This past January, the festival celebrated its 25th anniversary. So many of America’s great young directors broke through at Sundance. Kevin Smith, Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino, Jared Hess, Paul Thomas Anderson, Steven Soderbergh and Jim Jarmusch represent a mere handful of the careers launched at the 10-day festival held annually in a ski resort town in the middle of winter. But getting your film accepted isn’t easy. Festival programmers received more than 9,000 submissions for the 2009 festival and screened a grand total of 210 features and shorts.

Toronto International Film Festival

Known as the premier film festival in North America, the Toronto International Film Festival or TIFF has a history as rich as Sundance’s. TIFF’s primary advantage over its American rival is the fact it’s held in a thriving metropolis, rather than a small ski resort town. Therefore, the festival has access to more venues, which means there are twice as many films to see. The 10-day festival also begins the Thursday after Labor Day and has served as the launching pad for scores of Oscar winners including the 2008 Best Picture Slumdog Millionaire.

Venice Film Festival

The oldest film festival in the world, Venice was the vanguard of independent cinema when it launched in 1932 as the Esposizione Internazionale d’Arte Cinematografica. The top film at Venice each year is awarded the Leone d’Oro or Golden Lion. But if filmmakers don’t capture the Golden Lion, Venice hands out almost as many awards as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences during the Oscars. For any filmmaker, having one’s film accepted by the Venice Film Festival is a dream come true. It’s not just about the honor and prestige but it’s the opportunity to spend 10 days in the city known as the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance.

RiverRun International Film Festival

One of the fastest growing regional film festivals in America, the RiverRun International Film Festival runs April 22-29 and features a slate of nearly 100 films. The festival, which moved from Brevard to Winston-Salem in 2003, offers a showcase for emerging filmmakers, especially North Carolina filmmakers. Case in point: RiverRun will present Winston-Salem native Ramin Bahrani with its Emerging Master Award at this year’s festival before screening his latest work, Goodbye Solo.

Full Frame Documentary Film Festival

Known as the “granddaddy of all documentary film festivals,” Full Frame has achieved a level of recognition for specialized film festivals that is unparalleled. This year’s festival, held April 2-5 in Durham, made headlines before the first film screened. One of Full Frame’s presenting sponsors, The New York Times, withdrew its sponsorship just weeks before the event began, highlighting the struggles of film festivals to maintain their economic viability in the current recession.

Cucalorus Film Festival

By all accounts, Cucalorus is the longest running regional film festival in North Carolina, and for that alone, it deserves great praise. What started as a few friends getting together at a downtown Wilmington restaurant to screen films they shot between jobs on major motion pictures on the Screen Gems Studio lot has now grown into one of the most prestigious film festivals in the southeastern US. On Nov. 11, Cucalorus will celebrate its 15th anniversary by screening more than 145 documentaries, features and shorts. Dan Brawley, director of Cucalorus, has long championed the festival’s importance to the Wilmington community. The festival has helped keep the talented film professionals in Wilmington by creating a community of artists and a premier showcase for their work.

South by Southwest

This film festival does far more than just celebrate independent cinema. In March, South By Southwest featured more than 1,800 musical acts performing on more than 80 stages in downtown Austin, Texas. In addition to the typical best documentary and best feature awards, South By Southwest also hands out hardware for best animated short, best experimental short, best music video and an award for best film by a Texas high school student.

Cannes Film Festival

The biggest and most influential film festival, Cannes has no equal in the film festival world. Held in the south of France each May, Cannes has history, ambiance, and a lot of topless women sunbathing on its golden beaches. No wonder Cannes is a magnet for Hollywood’s power players to premiere their latest works. To win the Palme d’Or ranks right up there with winning the Oscar these days.

Tribeca Film Festival

Tribeca is a film festival with star power and a big heart. Robert DeNiro co-founded the film festival in 2002 in response to the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent decimation of the TriBeCa neighborhood in Manhattan that followed. The inaugural festival generated more than $10 million that was subsequently donated to TriBeCa merchants. And two months ago, Tribeca pulled of a coup when it

lured Geoffrey Gilmore away from Sundance and hired him as the 2009 festival director.

Hot Docs

Think Full Frame, only bigger. Hot Docs is North America’s largest documentary festival, conference and market. Toronto hosts this international celebration of the documentary idea by screening more than 150 cutting-edge documentaries from Canada and around the globe. Slated for late April, Hot Docs provides a full range of professional development, market and networking opportunities for documentary filmmakers.