S: Screenwriting contest or competition
V: VR showcase or category
P: Pitch competition or facilitated sessions
Oxford, Mississippi / March 2022 / S
The former home of William Faulkner, a little over an hour’s drive from Memphis, is one of the most beloved and respected festivals in the country, known for lavishing amenities on moviemakers. It offers three nights at a hotel, three meals a day, transport to and from the airport, and a 50-50 ticket split for virtual sales with the teams behind accepted films. Collaboration with the Yoknapatawpha Arts Council has produced the OxFilm Society, which provides year-round equipment rentals to local moviemakers, and contributes sound, lighting, and camera-gear prizes during the festival. The festival also disperses $30,000 cash in prizes.
Morgan Hill and Gilroy, California / April 7–20, 2021
Poppy Jasper had only a three-week head start to reimagine its entire event last year amid shelter-in-place orders, and wildfires made that challenge even more intense. The festival still offered an ambitious schedule of 205 films from 38 countries, a youth/student films showcase, and a showcase of Mexican cinema. Poppy Jasper’s other draws include workshops, afterparties, and an awards show in which poppy jasper gemstones are given as trophies. Whatever couldn’t be held virtually, and was unworkable due to lockdown restrictions and hazardous air quality, will be re-programmed into the full 2021 festival, which will operate at almost double capacity and include partnerships with NASA and Netflix.
Portland, Oregon / October 10–16, 2021 / P
The Portland Film Festival actually grew during COVID. In the run-up to the October fest, PFF partnered with a medical air filtration and surface cleaning company to create COVID-safe screening pods, and went hybrid with a television channel via Comcast. The festival’s online portal made more than 100 films and events accessible to over 30 million U.S. subscribers. Executive director Joshua Leake calls the decision to expand access a “no brainer,” explaining that Comcast’s “technology made it easier for us to fulfill our commitment to the disability community,” who “are often forgotten or pushed to the back.” 2020’s innovations are locked in for 2021, and in February, PFF held the independent film screening series, Black Voices.
Queens, New York /June 23–July 3, 2021
Last year, the annual Queens World Film Festival was set to inaugurate its 10th edition at the Museum of the Moving Image and Kaufman Astoria Studios. Screening equipment was being installed when on March 16th, just three days before lift-off, the city of New York announced the closure of all cultural organizations. Queens World managed to reprogram 51 thematic collections of films onto a beta platform and run the 11-day festival within just three days of the announcement. The beloved New York fest boasts strong local support and maintains a loyal alumni network through programs like a (now virtual) weekly screening series that’s shown 91 alumni films to over 19,000 viewers. The festival also pays out screening fees.
San Luis Obispo, California / March 2022
Just a few hours north of Los Angeles, the seaside college town of San Luis Obispo is home to a festival with international pull. Its 2020 dates fell mere days after the first lockdown orders, but it quickly pivoted online, becoming one of the first festivals to do so. The SLOFF team used the rest of 2020 to perfect the conversion of the full-film program and its signature outdoor events (like audience talkbacks and distributor meet-and-greets) to a new virtual platform. SLO is a notoriously happy, laid-back city, and the festival has a long list of alums who return in droves. The advisory board includes Josh Brolin, James Cromwell and Norman Jewison.
Savannah, Georgia / October 23–30, 2021
Given Savannah’s wide sidewalks lined with weeping willows, and stately brick-and-iron walk-ups garlanded with spanish moss, this festival may offer the most charming urban experience on this list. Downtown Savannah is the largest National Historic Landmark district in the country, and SFF scatters its screenings and events across this walkable and relaxed stretch. The festival, hosted by the Savannah College of Art and Design, is known for big regional premieres—SFF 2020 virtually premiered Regina King’s directorial debut One Night in Miami and Garrett Bradley’s stunning Time. And last year, over 120 movies were programmed from 1,500 submissions, giving rising moviemakers a decent chance of acceptance.
Park City, Utah / January 2022 / A, S
This champion of indies and microbudget filmmaking rallied this year around the theme of “Greenlight Yourself,” and an easily accessible online platform allowed viewers to enjoy a wide range of audacious films, including multi-award winner Taipei Suicide Story and the pulsing documentary 18th & Grand: The Olympic Auditorium Story, which closed out the fest with an L.A. drive-in screening. Going online made the festival more accessible than ever, and Slamdance further embraced inclusion with its new Unstoppable program highlighting work by creators with disabilities. Slamdance is run by moviemakers, for moviemakers, and every aspect of the festival is built around providing early-career professionals what they need to break in. Its success stories famously include Christopher Nolan, Steven Soderbergh and Anthony and Joe Russo. The Russos also present the festival’s annual AGBO Fellowship.
Wichita, Kansas / October 20–24, 2021
This self-described “stubbornly independent” festival puts on five days of dynamic programming around independent American cinema each year, and 2020 was no different. The festival included a dusk-till-dawn seven-feature event at Wichita’s historic Starlite Drive-In, as well as panels and workshops on topics like women in horror, and mental health and support for creatives. Signature programs include the Scholfield Emerging Programmer Apprenticeship. Tallgrass has fervently loyal alumni, and curious moviemakers can expect to compete for $20,000 in cash prizes distributed between 30 awards, including the Stubbornly Independent Award and the DoXX Female Documentarian Award, as well as the inaugural $5,000 Gordon Parks Award for Outstanding Black Filmmaker.
Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada / September 30–October 10, 2021
The potential rewards are great for the roughly 3,000 moviemakers who compete for the 100 slots that VIFF programs annually. Selected films screen in front of a pantheon of A-listers, and compete for a chunk of $100,000 CAD in prize money. Last year’s virtual VIFF secured German auteur Christian Petzold’s return to the screen with Undine, and the North American premiere of Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor. VIFF prides itself on discovering new talent. “When Bong Joon-ho lifted the Oscar last year,” associate director of Programming Curtis Woloschuk recalls, “we could proudly say that we screened his student short ‘Memories in My Frame’ back in 1994.”
Victoria, British Columbia, Canada / February 2022 / P
Held each year in British Columbia’s pristine, cosmopolitan “garden city,” this festival brings the future of filmmaking to the historic Vic Theatre, curated into a dense program of world premieres and forward-looking tech talks. This year’s keynotes included “The Future of Distribution” and “What We Are Looking For,” and the fest included panelists from the CBC, Netflix, Telefilm Canada, and AMC. “VFF looks ahead at the changing state of media consumption” and works hard to change the focus “from traditional industry presentations and pitches, to the internet and how to use new technology,” says communications manager Emily McMahon.
Houston, Texas / April 16–25, 2021 / S, P
If you’re a burgeoning moviemaker with a solid, finished work to your name but haven’t yet earned any festival credentials, WorldFest-Houston is a great place to start. Founding director (and skilled raconteur) Hunter Todd calls WorldFest-Houston a “premiere festival,” because out of more than 4,500 annual submissions, it programs approximately 100 features and 100 short films, almost all of them premieres. WorldFest is one of the oldest film festivals in the country, and in its nearly five decades it has handed out awards to moviemakers like Ang Lee, Oliver Stone, Brian De Palma and Steven Spielberg. The competition is stiff, but the benefits are bountiful and immediate — all films are screened on massive Cinemark digital screens, three master classes with industry professionals are held each day, and dozens of prizes are distributed over more than 200 subcategories.
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