Nearly two years ago, we posted a list of what we perceived to be the best film festivals for documentaries. This list had far more impact than we ever imagined and has proved to be the most trafficked feature we've ever done here. Just try searching "top film festivals" or "best documentary festivals" and you can guess that we get scores of hits everyday from filmmakers who are wondering where they should debut their film and using the guide as a resource in planning their festival strategy.
This time of year, as filmmakers are finding out whether or not they are going to Park City in January (and revising/planning their festival strategy accordingly), it's particularly valuable.
As we wrote in our first edition:
"You've just completed your film. Now it's time to decide which festivals to target. Maybe all along you were planning on Sundance. Hell, you built your entire post-production schedule around the Sundance deadlines! Maybe you get in. Maybe you don't. Either way, you're about to make your next festival decision, and another and another. And beyond the big ticket festivals, the ones where acceptance is supposed to be worth its weight in distribution gold, there's an endless stream of festivals to navigate. Where should your second screening be? Should you wait to hear from Tribeca? And what about that random festival that you've never heard of but assures you a great time and a free ride?"
Since that first list was posted, we've had the opportunity to visit even more festivals and talk to filmmakers and industry members about what's good and what needs improvement at the top fests.
Those voices are essential to the process. We reached out to lots of folks in the community and have received more than 75 responses from filmmakers (nearly all of whom have been on the circuit in the past two years) and members of the industry (from distributors to press, publicists to programmers, producers and commissioning editors). We've kept these responses anonymous so that everyone could feel free to talk about what works and what doesn't, at least for them. We couldn't have put this together without everyone's input and we're greatly appreciative of their time and their contributions.
A caution when reading these comments: we think it's best to look for consensus where it exists. If there's one lone wolf saying "x town is a hell hole" when everyone else says it's great, then maybe the wolf had a uniquely bad experience. But if everyone is saying, "it's impossible to meet anyone here", you might take that as something closer to gospel.
Since our audience is primarily from the US, this list certainly has a regional bias. While we have included a number of international film festivals, we will note that some/many of them only screen a handful of American films. Feel free to weight your experience differently if you work in London, Prague, Rio or Tokyo.
This year, we've changed the way we look at festivals somewhat. We are going to be examining festivals based on three criteria:
- Sales potential - Are key decision makers attending this fest and if they attend, are they actually watching films. Further, does being in said festival make it more likely that people will watch or buy your film after the festival?
- Experience - Will you have a good time? Will you have a great screening? Is the festival in a unique or exotic location? Will you meet other great folks?
- Hospitality - Does the festival take care of filmmakers? Do they cover basic costs (transportation, lodging, print shipping)? Is there food and drink once you arrive?
One last caveat before we begin. Like everyone else who's commenting here, I am not an unbiased observer. I've attended many of these fests with my films, as a juror or panelist and as a member of the media. I've offer full disclosure here. Please feel free to consider my connections with festivals in reading this list.
Finally, we welcome your feedback. Let us know about festivals that you've loved and those that have left you frustrated. And let us know if you agree or disagree with our take or that of our commentators. You can post in the comments or email us.
Our first posts with the top 5 festivals are now up. We'll be posting the rest of the list as the week continues.
Next: Number 1.