Ask the Expert: Film Festivals Return

Jeffrey Ruoff | Associate Professor of Film and Media Studies  

Film festival organizers scrambled when Covid struck, but now they’re back. “Despite whatever has been tried online during the pandemic, the live dimension of film festivals remains essential,” says Ruoff, a film historian and documentary filmmaker. “It’s like the feeling at a rock concert. You can’t really duplicate that experience online.” Film festivals also give filmmakers a chance to showcase new projects and can serve as a springboard for new talent. Here are five of the best around the country, according to Ruoff.

Telluride
Telluride has a chill atmosphere. Exceptionally, the festival, held during Labor Day weekend in the tiny Colorado town surrounded by spectacular mountains, does not announce its program ahead of time. You attend on a wing and a prayer, with the idea that you don’t know what they’re going to show, but they’ve always gotten the goods in the past. Filmmakers want their movies to premiere at Telluride, partly because many voting members of the academy attend the festival. Bill Pence, who cofounded the festival in 1974, became director of film at the Hopkins Center in 1983, bringing his connections and world-class expertise. Every fall, Hop Film screens in Spaulding Auditorium six avant-premieres from Telluride’s latest lineup before their general release in theaters or through streaming services.

New York
The New York Film Festival (NYFF) is regarded as the high temple of film. Founded in 1963 and running for more than two weeks starting September 30, NYFF features experimental as well as more mainstream features and lots of foreign films. There’s no competition, no awards, no marketing—it’s more about showcasing film art for audiences to appreciate, discuss, and argue about.

Sundance
Looking to get distance from Hollywood, Robert Redford created the Sundance Film Festival in 1981 in Park City, Utah, to highlight independent media and film. Sundance has become a trendsetter for the industry, now attended by Hollywood A-listers. It attracts film folks who want to go skiing and experience the joy of Utah in winter. Unlike Telluride, Sundance awards prizes to the best documentary and feature films. It’s also an important marketplace for industry buyers and sellers. It runs annually in January. 

South By Southwest
This nine-day event in March in Austin, Texas, known as “SXSW” or simply as “South,” is more than just a film festival. It also boasts a technology conference, a wellness expo, and the largest music festival of its kind in the world. The film festival has a great reputation for featuring indie artists and attracting younger audiences.

Tribeca
Tribeca, another New York City film festival, was cofounded by Robert DeNiro in 2002 as part of an effort to economically develop lower Manhattan after the devastation of 9/11. Held each June, Tribeca emphasizes new voices in film, and diversity in particular. Samantha Knowles ’12, made the 2012 film Why Do You Have Black Dolls? as her senior thesis in the College’s film department, and its premiere at Tribeca in 2013 was an important springboard for her successful career as a filmmaker.

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