Film Festivals: The True Movie Going Experience

By Brian Brooks,

The experience of walking the red carpet while cameras are flashing in Cannes may still be elusive for most, but enjoying a film festival experience, meeting filmmakers, celebs and going to parties is certainly not a totally exclusive realm for the privileged few. There is scarcely any time on the calendar when there is not a film festival happening somewhere, and quite often, there are many. Each event has its own characteristics, so each will cater to a crowd.

For the film festival ‘virgin,’ there is one thing to keep in mind: All festivals have public access, even the seemingly most exclusive among them. True, a Cannes, Venice or closer to home, Sundance or New York Film Festival may have obstacles to traverse, not to mention expense, but most festivals tout their prowess to get enthusiastic audiences — and not just insiders — to fill their theaters as selling. And, cinephiles can meet like-minded people who are all about the movies, making the festival environment truly unique.

In short, if you love movies and like a good time, check out a film festival near you or even pick a destination you’ve been meaning to visit. Very likely, there’s a festival there too.

“Most festivals create events you’re not going to have anywhere else,” said Andrew Peterson, Director of Programming at the Provincetown International Film Festival, taking place June 14- 18 in the famed resort/arts hamlet on the tip of Cape Cod. “Festival-goers join well-heeled, sophisticated audiences in a great atmosphere. Going to a film at a festival is like going back to the early ‘90s when art house audiences went to see Gregg Araki’s The Living End or Todd Haynes’ Poison. There are lines around the block because that was really your opportunity to see those films and you’re watching them with [eager crowds].”

Highlights from this year’s PIFF include a screening of Sofia Coppola’s latest The Beguiled, which screens on the heels of its Cannes world premiere in May. Coppola will also take part in a particularly unique program at PIFF. She will join a conversation with filmmaker/artist John Waters in an informal community setting. Waters, a summer resident in Provincetown, has hosted these annual chats with the likes of Quentin Tarantino, Darren Aronofsky and others in previous editions of PIFF. “It will be a conversation that only a John Waters can give..,” observed Peterson. “Our festival is not like a big festival in L.A. where you’re one of 500 people in a room. You will have the opportunity to interact with the special guests.”

Still, while more intimate festivals like Provincetown or others in say Montclair, Sarasota, Mill Valley or even the Hamptons may offer the chance to grab a quick chat with a well-known director or actor, there typically are still some hoops to go through.

As with many pleasures in life, money opens doors — or in this case perhaps — party invitations. Most festivals offer an array of all access or near all-access passes to its screenings and other events. Every festival has its own breakdown, but typically, a popular regional festival will give high tier pass holders access to unlimited (or near unlimited) screenings as well as invites to special events. For the enthusiastic festival-goer, a pass, while not cheap, may prove a good value depending on how many films an individual holder wants to see. And, typically, pass holders will gain entry to a screening before individual ticket holders.

As a festival-goer, you join an elite crowd. Along with programming, audiences are the critical component in any festival’s modus operandi. Reactions in Toronto, Sundance or even regional events can affect which films are acquired by film distributors or how a film is released. So, by joining a festival audience, you are for all intents and purposes, a de facto ‘tastemaker.’

“The audience is of paramount importance,” said Basil Tsiokos, who is a Programming Associate at Sundance as well as the Film Program Director at the Nantucket Film Festival (June 21 – 26) and Director of Programming at the non-fiction focused DOC NYC festival which takes place in New York in November. “A good example is the [2007 Irish film] Once. Nobody paid attention to it before the festival, but then audiences reacted strongly and it became a huge success. Films can get the spotlight through audience reaction and it can ultimately create careers.”

Festivals also tend to be in places people like to be both at home and abroad. Along with Provincetown, a Nantucket film festival and other American fests in resort/destination locales like Aspen (October 3 – 8), Santa Fe (October 18 – 22), Maui (June 21 – 25) or even New Orleans (October 11 – 19), there are plenty on the international circuit. The Locarno Film Festival in the Italian-speaking region of Switzerland offers one of the most amazing nightly outdoor screenings found anywhere, drawing thousands of people right in the heart of the village against the backdrop of a stunning lake and the Alps. In the Czech Republic, the Karlovy Vary Film Festival (June 30 – July 8) takes place in a spa town. This year’s honoree in Karlovy Vary is Oscar Best Actor winner, Casey Affleck. And a cinephile in the Northern Hemisphere can escape the early winter doldrums by heading to Uruguay’s Mar Del Plata International Film Festival to enjoy Southern Hemisphere spring, right near the beach (November 17 – 26).

In addition to the potential vacation/festival combination, fans of genres of cinema can also hone in on clusters of films that whet their taste. Thriller/horror fans get their fixes at events like Fantastic Fest in Austin (September 21 – 28) or Canada’s Fantasia (July 13 – August 2). In Spain, one of the earliest of its kind, is the Festival Internacional de Cinema de Fantàstic de Catalunya, (October 5 – 15) just south of Barcelona.

Documentary lovers can get their non-fiction on at DOC NYC and others like Hot Docs in April in Toronto, AFI Docs in suburban Washington, D.C. (June 14 – 18), Full Frame in North Carolina in April and True/False Film Festival, which takes place in Columbia, Missouri in early March.

In addition to that, there are festivals that spotlight Jewish, LGBTQ, African American, Latino cinema in addition to other interests like human rights, anthropology and more.

Television or episodic storytelling is one of the newer entries on the festival scene. SeriesFest (June 27 – July 2) exclusively showcases independent pilots in addition to sneaks/premieres of network programs ahead of their broadcast. Film festivals have also been slowly getting into the episodic space, including Sundance, SXSW and more recently Tribeca, which debuted the hot Hulu series, The Handmaid’s Tale in April.

“Television has long been a popular conversation topic around the ‘water cooler,’” said Randi Kleiner who heads SeriesFest. “So, we’re harnessing that and bringing people together in the same room to experience a form of storytelling they’re very familiar with, but immersed in a community setting on the big screen.” Series Fest (full disclosure: I’m a co-organizer of the event) takes place at the Sie Film Center in Denver, home of the Denver Film Society and the annual Denver Film Festival in November.

Beyond the glitzy destinations or special interest festivals, likely the best place to get started for the novice is a local festival. There are literally hundreds of them — and likely not too far from home. Check one out and get to know the feel of how a festival operates. Then, branch out. Traveling to larger festivals, however, will more than likely require dropping a decent chunk of change. There is, however, one less expensive option — for those willing — who want to attend a Sundance, Toronto, or other apex festival with all the bells and whistles such an event affords.

“Volunteering is a great way to have the festival experience…,” noted Melissa Bowers, the Senior Manager of the Sundance Film Festival’s Volunteer Department. “Last year we had 2,100 people volunteer. Seventy-two percent of those were [returnees]. We’ve even had quite a lot of members of the Sundance staff who started out as volunteers.”

Most North American festivals, large and small, have volunteer programs. While there are of course obligations for volunteers to fulfill, there are also benefits — access. And minus the time spent doing festival tasks, being a volunteer can reduce cost, while also giving people who participate prime entrée to screenings, events and the overall experience not typical for most regular attendees.

“We have a multi-teared volunteer system. People can volunteer full-time (about 80 hours over the course of the 12-day Sundance Film Festival) and obviously, they get more benefits,” explained Bowers about how the volunteer program works at the Sundance Film Festival, which takes place each January in Park City, UT. “We also have ‘Half-Fest’ which is typically 40 hours. We’re always looking for volunteers during the second-half of Sundance. That’s typically when we have some drop off.”

Sundance offers its volunteers, who are in its top tiers, passes which allows them to see potentially any movies in its line-up. Volunteers with passes still have to queue, but many stand in a ’staff line.’

“We’ve had volunteers actually go to 40 films during the festival,” said Bowers. “They can go to as many as they can manage to go to. Some of our volunteers who work at the Eccles Theater (one of the premiere Sundance venues) will spend the rest of the night going to films there once they’re off. Some have been doing it so long, they know how to set their schedules.”

This last January, about 72% of Sundance’s volunteer crowd are returnees, while the rest are first-timers, representing 700 – 800 people. The festival offers about 400 beds for their very top tier volunteers. Translation: people who are full-time willing to work late night hours and/or spend a lot of time outside in the cold weather. Most will still have to find accommodation, which is not an insignificant amount of money in Park City, though volunteers in-the-know have ways of mitigating those costs. Though not operated by Sundance, long-time volunteers have set up a Facebook page called, “Homeless at Sundance,” and the festival points those interested to other social networking sites that will help to defray costs.

The benefit for volunteering is the social aspect. “We do seven or eight volunteer only screenings,” said Bowers. “We also do [two volunteer parties].” Like Sundance, most festivals are non-profit (but not all), so they will typically find ways of showing their appreciation.

“We have volunteers who come in from as far away as Australia,” added Bowers. “Many fly in from New York or L.A. and [around the country].” Information about volunteering can typically be found on any festival’s website. The application for Sundance begins in August.

Volunteering or simply immersing yourself in the culture of a festival can be a rewarding experience. While it’s the movies that take center stage, the substance of any event is also rooted in celebrating and bonding with fellow cinephiles.

“Remember, a film festival is also not just about the films, though that’s the central part,” observed Andrew Peterson. “It’s also about being around a bunch of film lovers and having an exchange of ideas and sharing those discoveries.”