What’s the Point of Film Festivals?

Film festivals: We hear about them all the time, usually with exotic cities like Cannes, Berlin and Venice in their names. However, unless you’re a filmmaker or otherwise associated with the entertainment industry, you might not really understand what the point of it all really is.

We hear about the glitz and glamour of the red carpets, but most of us have little idea of how these festivals serve the film industry as a whole or even what they have to offer mainstream audiences. You might not get the opportunity to go to Cannes any time soon, but if you’ve ever gotten curious about checking out your local festival, here are a few things to think about.

Beyond the red carpet

Most reports on film festivals tend to center on who actors were wearing or the critical response to a particular release. However, while all that may emphasize the style and prestige these annual events can absolutely represent, it doesn’t shed much light on the reality of how they operate.

Filmmaker setting up their camera for the perfect shot in an open field while the sun sets. Film Festivals pbs rewire
The less glamorous side of a film festival: Actually making a film.

The preparation starts months in advance, as independent filmmakers vie to have their films screened at festivals (even in a non-competitive capacity) and the usually small teams of in-house festival coordinators begin lining up volunteers and planning out the details.

Some festivals choose to focus on films of a particular genre, specific length or certain region, but the limited number of slots available for submissions tends to drum up demand regardless, especially among up-and-coming filmmakers.

Although the biggest festivals boast high-profile films and big-name stars, most are far from major moneymakers. In truth, most film festivals rely on a combination of ticket sales, membership fees and corporate sponsorship just to foot the bill for the festivities, with many even operating as nonprofit organizations. They truly represent a nexus for the whole of the film industry, bringing together members of the media, the creative talent behind and in front of the camera and business executives looking for the next project to take on.

From lens to screen

Getting accepted to a festival lineup is incredibly competitive, especially for major events like the Toronto International Film Festival (the most popular one in North America). But the rewards are more than worth the effort, it seems.

“Film festivals provide a platform and an audience to personally connect with,” filmmaker Tran Quoc Bao said.

Tran is currently seeking funding for production of his kung fu comedy “The Paper Tigers,” which was included in a proof of concept presentation at the Cannes Film Festival’s Marché du Film this year.

“For me personally, it was festivals that expressly celebrate diversity that … gave me the support and tools I needed to grow, opportunities that I wouldn’t have gotten from mainstream festivals,” he said.

Film festivals—and, in particular, the diversity of the literally hundreds of festivals out there—provides ample room for hungry talent to get noticed and distinguish their projects. Think back on all the movie trailers you’ve seen touting a film as an official selection of a noted film festival, and you’ll have some idea of the cache just being affiliated with a festival can bring.

For filmmakers, the festival circuit can be a game-changing experience for their career, even bringing the chance to attract potential investors or inspire financing and distribution deals.

The price of admission

The appeal for filmmakers is fairly clear, but you may still be wondering why audiences would take the time to attend a film festival. After all, what does such an experience offer that makes it any more appealing than just another trip to your local cineplex?

Three director's chairs sit empty on a stage in front of blue lights. Film Festivals pbs rewire
Film festivals usually include Q&A sessions with the people who made the films you see.

Well, for starters, the lineup of films you’ll find at festivals is vastly different from the mainstream releases you’ll see in regular theaters. In some instances, festivals host the world premieres of promising new films several months before they officially hit theaters.

In other cases, festival audiences can see films that may not ever receive a proper theatrical run, due to their low-budget nature, a lack of famous actors or simply the challenges of getting distribution.

Because film festivals are attended by so many of the players involved in these productions, fans may have the opportunity to attend special screenings with filmmakers and actors in the room, often followed by question-and-answer sessions or in-depth discussions about what they’ve just screened.

In that way, festivals allow cinephiles to really engage in their passion for film like they rarely can elsewhere. No wonder many fests nowadays give out audience awards for the biggest crowd-pleasing film.

Try your fest

Film festivals present a unique experience that still stands strong in the face of an evolving industry and an ever-changing world.

“Film festivals are important for our culture and for building community, run by passionate people who love film and curate their programs in such a personal way that can’t be beat by a cold Netflix algorithm,” Tran said.

If you’ve never considered attending a film festival but have even a passing interest in cinema, it may be worth looking into it. Most likely, you have a fest closer than you realize.

Right now, the 7th annual PBS Online Film Festival is underway and is a great entry point to the world of film festivals right from the comfort of your own home. Soak in a diverse selection of films now from a wide variety of public television producers, and make your voice heard on your favorites. To start watching, check out the Online Film Festival website.

A headshot of a man. PBS Rewire. Robert Yaniz Jr.

Robert Yaniz Jr. is a full-time freelance writer specializing in business, marketing and entertainment. Over the last 15 years, he has covered everything from the regional business scene to the latest movies and TV shows. You can usually find him—laptop on hand—sipping a latte or chasing after his young daughter. For more on his work, check out robertyanizjr.com or email him directly at [email protected] You can also find him on Twitter @robertyanizjr.