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10 Best Fests: A Directory

Indiewire By Brian Brooks | Indiewire May 12, 2010 at 6:0AM

Ask filmmakers, biz insiders and moviegoers to name the top film festival and you're likely to get a few different answers. Sundance in the United States? Venice in Italy? Cannes in France? Others?
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Ask filmmakers, biz insiders and moviegoers to name the top film festival and you're likely to get a few different answers. Sundance in the United States? Venice in Italy? Cannes in France? Others?

For the past year or so at indieWIRE, we've been delving into international film festivals to develop a new section for navigating the annual fest calendar. Today, we're officially unveiling indieWIRE's list of 50 leading film festivals.

Atop indieWIRE's first 10 Best Fests is the Festival de Cannes, which opens today in the South of France.

King Cannes

Perhaps not surprisingly, the number one slot occupied by Cannes sparked internal debate among iW's editors. This is a top ten list based on our own ranking and criteria. The top event from our vantage point. It likely has near universal agreement as the Grand Dame of all festivals. More than any other, it typically sets "the agenda" for international cinema, with a disproportionate number of its titles forming a core for other prestigious fests around the world later in the year.

Yet, if indieWIRE's roots are within the North American independent film community, why wouldn't January's Sundance Film Festival rank number one? Well, quite honestly, that was the core of our debate. In the end, the argument is that the declining influence of American independent film in recent years gives Cannes an edge. International cinema is flourishing in countries around the world and Cannes is the place where many of the top films each year get their start. Festivals ebb and flow, in a couple of weeks once we've had a chance to digest this year's fest, will we reconsider our ranking?

The Criteria

All lists have at least some element of subjectivity, that being said, most veterans of the festival circuit generally agree on a core short list of the world's top tier film events. But, depending on which region of the world an individual happens to hail from, the exact order of importance varies. Someone connected to Bollywood and living in India might count the festival in Mumbai among the world's most important, while neighboring China could look to Hong Kong or Shanghai.

indieWIRE's core audience (and many of our writers) hail from North America. And while we are happy to count readers from all inhabitable continents, our home nevertheless forms the basis for the 50 festivals chosen for this wider first round of festival profiles. While North America, and to a lesser extent Europe, receive weighted attention in this initial list, iW also decided to include festivals that we feel represent the best from various regions of the world. Within North America itself, iW also included events that are considered at the forefront for having pioneered special interest events such as Asian, gay or Jewish fests that have an impact on the fest landscape.

A ranges of fests

There are an array of attributes that add to any festival's importance. Not surprisingly, the ability to attract first-rate world premieres or at least international premieres from both the creme de la creme of established filmmakers, but also curated innovative work from emerging filmmakers, is key. Likewise, attracting international attention from the world's film industry, talent and press is a major component. And if the event is able to also draw enthusiastic audiences, that is icing on the cake. Of course ,there are many other crucial components that allow a festival to soar, but which of the world's fests perfectly merge these critical areas? Well, none - at least not perfectly... And quite honestly, perhaps none should. Each event has a personality of its own, and while there are definite parallels among all festivals, it is important that each maintain their own individuality.

Likewise, regional festivals rightly look to their local audiences needs and tastes when creating their yearly programs, as they should. Not all fests should cater to the industry and not all fests should solely program crowd pleasers. Whether a festival is defined as large or small, the ability to both challenge and satisfy attendees is paramount. Also, it would be easy to satisfy both those criteria by simply programming hundreds of films. That may work for a relative few festivals - though we readily admit skepticism of that model - but run the risk of confusing an audience and doing a disservice filmmakers who might be sidelined by an over-packed lineup.

There is another still evolving and potentially crucial aspect of festivals that has yet to fully manifest. With the decline of traditional distribution models (ie. a project premieres at a fest and is picked up for theatrical release by an established distributor), festivals are emerging as increasingly important exhibitors. This model is far from developed (we think) and what eventually becomes the blueprint may not necessarily reveal itself for some time. Still, fests such as Tribeca, SXSW and Sundance are some of the established players who have taken on the vacuum left when "the sky was falling" following on the indie boom of the '90s and early 2000s.

But with the rapid advance of technology, the rise of day and date/video on demand and other changes in an individual's decision about how, when and even where to view entertainment evolves, will festivals maintain their meteoric rise around the world?

It's notable that Italian dictator Benito Mussolini is (cringe) credited for establishing the first film festival in Venice before World War II and Cannes emerged as its anti-fascist counter-event. Since then, festivals mushroomed around the world and both large and small events have pioneered new niches. So, while the collective experience of a film festival, in our opinion, will still hold appeal, it is likely impossible as the information age matures to maintain the exclusivity most festivals have long nurtured. Moving forward, a festival's ability to not only embrace but pioneer new definitions of a what a festival actually is may ultimately destroy any of today's film festival rankings.

Beyond that, our refined list today spotlights 10 great festivals, based on what we consider to be the most important from our vantage point. So, while there will no doubt be detractors - and we certainly welcome respectful counterpoints - here is a quick look at the ten fest indieWIRE considers the best, in order.

Agree? Disagree? indieWIRE expects nothing less than some good healthy dissent on what we included in the Top 10 and indeed in our first list 50 film festivals. We will continue to expand the number of festivals profiled here over time. Take a look at the various components included. Festival dates, calls for entry, indieWIRE coverage and images and our original 'Lowdowns' will be updated and revised throughout the year. We also invite festival organizers to offer up their suggestions on their individual pages in order to make them informative, interesting and even fun.

The complete list of 50 leading film festivals.

-- on page two, a list of the Ten Best Fests --

The List:

1. Festival de Cannes (Cannes, France)

The "masterpiece" of festivals, most years it attracts the latest from the world's top directors and emerging filmmakers. The relatively highly curated festival debuts important work that will eventually make their local premieres around the world. The number of industry, talent and press that regularly descend on Cannes is unparalleled. While Cannes has long been a place that has embraced new creative movements in cinema, its rules and traditions may prove to be both a hinderance and an advantage. The marquis "Cannes" name cannot be easily replicated. People all over the world are aware of it as a "brand." But like any institution at the pinnacle of its field, the festival is often slow to adopt change and even jealously guards its traditions and that could very well pose a challenge in a world hell-bent on the fast lane of change.


2. Sundance Film Festival (Park City, U.S.)

Still the United States' most important film festival, Sundance is the cradle of the American indie movement. While the combination of economic downturn and massive restructuring within the industry have meant that deals made at the fest are not where they were five or more years ago, it is still an important place to do business and even its detractors would not dare miss it. The festival continues to showcase the most anticipated titles in new American cinema.


3. Toronto International Film Festival (Toronto, Canada)

Toronto is an early must-stop in the long lead up to awards season with Fall titles using the event as a crucial launching pad for their release. Considered by many as North America's most important film festival, Toronto premieres first-rate titles from established and emerging filmmakers alike, many only days (or even hours) after their world premieres in Venice. While Italy's (and one of the world's) biggest film events may still corner the glamour factor, it's Toronto that attracts the brunt of North America's film industry (still the world's most important) and it is TIFF's agenda that establishes the early course of regional critics awards leading up to the Oscars.


4. South by Southwest (Austin, TX, U.S.)

This may be a controversial choice, but we're going for it. We believe that unlike any other festival, SXSW is uniquely establishing itself as the event on the cusp of technological innovation. while redefining what a festival is. SXSW made its name as a center showcasing new music. Later it established its film and interactive events, which have themselves rivaled the music component for attention. In 2010, the interactive program grew exponentially and among the most popular offerings were gatherings showcasing the convergence of technology and film. With innovators in both technology and film under one very large roof, the energy is palpable and SXSW may be taking a lead in showing how festivals may look in the future.


5. International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (The Netherlands)

Outside of the working documentary community, IDFA is still shockingly off the radar for North American audiences. Despite obvious hiccups, documentary has exploded in the past decade and while many important docs have reached people's radar at Sundance, Hot Docs, SilverDocs, Full Frame and others, there is a good chance that in any given year, a good number of the non-fiction film world's most important titles started out at the world's biggest doc fest, held annually in Amsterdam. Its Forum is Europe's biggest co-financing market for international doc productions, and its popular "Docs for Sale" is an important international doc market where buyers, sales agents and converge. The fest also draws large local audiences.


6. Venice Film Festival (Italy)

For many, Venice ranks alongside Cannes as the top of the festival heap. Like its French counterpart, the August/September event is a magnet for splashy premieres, stars, parties, paparazzi. It has long been at the forefront for defining in the popular imagination how a film festival should look and feel. That is not to say the substance isn't there either. Venice is the destination of some of the most important world premieres of any given year and while it typically beats its closest North American counterpart, Toronto, in screening the likes of a "Brokeback Mountain," "The Wrestler" or "A Single Man," many in North America's film industry are fine with saving the extra expense and waiting for the North American debut in Canada.


7. Berlin International Film Festival (Germany)

From its Cold War roots in a now united Berlin, the annual Berlinale is one of the world's most established film events and regularly attracts filmmakers and industry from around the world. Attendees often praise the event for having the best venues of any film festival and it has long welcomed and celebrated the avant garde alongside splashy Hollywood work. Like many who travel there, Berlin has long been a favorite in the festival calendar for indieWIRE, though recent editions have called into question its overall importance. Hype has too often turned to disappointment in recent years due to inconsistent programming. Even so, among the extensive roster of films in the fest's various sidebars, some quiet gems nevertheless emerge. We're rooting for this film festival to regain its deserved footing.


8. International Film Festival Rotterdam (The Netherlands)

Despite being nestled in between Sundance and Berlin, there's a regular crew of filmmakers and industry who regularly head out of Utah for the Netherlands and then on to Berlin. Rotterdam regularly showcases important new talent and backs it up with its signature CineMart, which has found and helped finance new voices who've gone on to establish themselves in the worldwide film scene.


9. New York Film Festival

While not exactly what might be called a "discovery festival," the NYFF is nevertheless an important American showcase defining the most important voices in world cinema. The highly curated event typically picks a select number of films from the world's top film festivals, while also adding a more finite number of lesser known important titles from emerging filmmakers. While it may not have the cache in defining for America what is "important" cinema as it did back when it began in the '60s in the advent of the French New Wave, it is still a cultural beacon of record.


10. Telluride Film Festival (Colorado, U.S.A.)

What makes Telluride unique its it programmatic mission of offering an equal number of both new and classics films that are presented over just a few days during long Labor Day weekend. Top notch projection and sound give well-heeled attendees the chance to experience a sort of cinematic summer camp that includes substantive dialogue and insight on films and filmmakin, a low-key social scene and even in-depth printed program notes that stoke conversastions among attendees. It a model event.


And 40 more fests:

The complete list of 50 leading film festivals.

Special thanks to everyone who contributed to the development and building of this new section of indieWIRE: Albert Lai, Peter Knegt, Jeff Douglas, Basil Tsiokos, Andy Lauer, Bryce Renninger, Nigel Smith, Sofia Savage and Eugene Hernandez.

This article is related to: Features