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  • Writer's pictureSophie Black

Top Film Festival Recommendations (Part 1)


[Featured image: Mansfield Town Film Festival. Photo by Another World Media]

For my first official post on this new platform, I thought I'd tackle a subject which comes up a lot. I've written about film festivals a few times in the past, over on my old blog (see posts here, here, and here), and the advice I've shared on there still stands; before planning which film festivals you want to submit to, you need to consider what it is you're looking to get out of the experience, be it awards/kudos, networking, workshops, or even just a big, enthusiastic audience! You can attend a festival for career development without even showing a film, as places like Reykjavik and Berlinale have renowned Talent Labs (as did Edinburgh Film Festival, and I hope that will come back in the future).


It's also important to know which film festivals to avoid, as so many of them are not worth the submission fee (or your time and travel expenses), and a lot of so-called 'festivals' are actually scams that take your money and don't even screen your film!


I've been lucky enough to mentor a few early-stage directors, who've asked me for advice on which festivals they should or shouldn't submit to. I always tell them: the best thing you can do is ask for recommendations. Look for festivals your peers have screened at and enjoyed. At the very least, if you see a photo of someone at a festival, you'll know the festival actually exists and that you can attend in person!


[And this post comes at a great time, as I've just attended a fantastic film festival for the first time - This Is England in Rouen, France - which I definitely recommend. You can see photos and a reel from the trip on the Triskelle Pictures Instagram feed now.]


I've submitted to hundreds if not thousands of film festivals over the years. I've had many successes, but I've also made mistakes in the past and fallen prone to those tempting spam emails that land in your inbox, saying "we really want to see your film... just pay the hefty submission fee first..." And one of the greatest joys of having a blog is being able to share my horror stories so that other filmmakers can avoid the same pitfalls!


So I thought I'd compile a list of festivals I'd personally recommend to any filmmaker - and why I'd recommend them - to help minimise the time people spend trawling through all the lists on FilmFreeway. But because there's quite a lot of festivals I'd recommend, I thought I'd better split this blog post into two, sharing one list of 'general' festivals, and one of more genre-focused ones (as I've screened at numerous fantasy-specific festivals over the years).


Without further ado, here is my top 15 film festivals for any film or filmmaker (plus a few honourable mentions)...



[Above: an industry talk at Aesthetica Short Film Festival. Photo by Jim Poyner.]

Aesthetica Short Film Festival

York, United Kingdom

So I'm starting my list with a festival I've never actually screened at! This really is a 'bucket list' festival for me, as I've submitted pretty much every film I've made over the last ten years, and I've only been shortlisted twice (The Opening Night in 2010, Night Owls in 2016) and never accepted. Sad sigh... BUT I can still recommend this festival personally, as it hosts a fantastic range of industry talks and even gives filmmakers the opportunity to have one-on-one sessions with commissioners, which is how I ended up pitching my dream film to my dream distribution company, StudioCanal, in 2022! Aesthetica is also a BAFTA-qualifying festival, so if (unlike me!) you are lucky enough to have your film selected, you'll get a nice credit for your CV.


Beeston Film Festival

Nottinghamshire, United Kingdom

Beeston was one of the few film festivals that supported my work way back in the early days, and it's been wonderful to see it grow from a cosy screening above a pub to a big BIFA-qualifying festival, hosted by The Arc Cinema. No matter the scale of the festival, it's kept its commitment to supporting local filmmakers, as well as having a high standard for the films it selects, making it an enjoyable festival to attend in person. The horror nights are particularly great!


[Above: BFI Flare utilises BFI Southbank's lush cinema. Photo by Tommy Draper.]

BFI London Film Festival / BFI Flare

London, United Kingdom

The BFI London Film Festival is the biggest festival in the UK. It's OSCAR-and-BAFTA-qualifying, and gets all the big premieres, so it's definitely worth attending as a cinema fan, even if your film isn't selected (although I know a few filmmakers who have been!). Its sibling festival, BFI Flare - which is also BAFTA-qualifying - hosts films with LGBTQIA+ characters or stories, regardless of genre (which makes for a great programme!), and I was lucky enough to attend this festival in March this year, when A Different Place was screened. I recommend BFI Flare because of the gorgeous screening quality (the screen was enormous!), the supportive approach of the team, and the energy of the audience. The crowd was buzzing - to the point of cheering at one point! - and so engaged with every film that played.


Festival de Cannes

Cannes, France

Ok, so you're likely not going to be accepted for Cannes (although it is free to submit, so have a punt!), as it's one of the biggest film festivals in the world. But you can still buy a festival pass and attend, if you want to experience everything Cannes has to offer - which is a lot. As well as the massive Hollywood premieres, there's countless parties and other networking opportunities, plus a market where you can pitch and sell completed films. Cannes is an exciting place to visit, but it's exhausting too, and you do also need to be careful if you're travelling alone, so pace yourself and carefully plan in advance when and where to network (and who with!). For more Cannes advice, read my old blog posts here and here.


Fastnet Film Festival

Schull, Co. Cork, Ireland

Fastnet's a special festival because of its community spirit; it essentially takes over all of Schull for a week, with pop-up screenings in numerous unusual places, whether or not that building is a cinema! You get a little map of all the screening venues, and what's more, the festival screens your film two or three times - whereas most festivals just screen a film once - so it really is worth the submission fee.


Festival of Cinema NYC

New York, USA

Although it's one of the smaller festivals on the list, Festival of Cinema NYC is true to its namesake and does actually screen films in a cinema (you'd be surprised how many festivals don't!). The event takes place in a rather nice venue, actually - the Regal UA Midway Theatre - and the festival advertises the screenings via press releases, not just social media, which again is quite rare for festivals these days. Festival of Cinema NYC is another festival which supported my work in the early days, back when it was called Kew Gardens Festival of Cinema.



[Above: one of Flatpack Film Festival's unique screening venues.]

Flatpack Film Festival

Birmingham, United Kingdom

Any festival which markets itself well will therefore market your film well, and my gosh does Flatpack do that!! In addition to having some of the coolest branding around, the festival hosts screenings in interesting venues across Birmingham (such as an empty, vintage swimming pool!), as well as putting on other eclectic events such as art installations and networking sessions. I can vouch for this festival not only because we screened a WIP version of A Different Place there in 2022, but because I actually met the development producer for that film, Denyce Blackman, at one of their networking events! It's also a BAFTA-qualifying festival.


Hebden Bridge Film Festival

Yorkshire, United Kingdom

The biggest draw for Hebden Bridge Film Festival is its venue, as the screenings are hosted by Hebden Bridge Picture House, which is a stunning 104-year-old cinema with lush red curtains and gilt decals everywhere. And if you attend the festival (whether or not they select your film), it's a great excuse to explore the picturesque Hebden Bridge while you're there. The festival's programming team also have strongly feminist morals, often selecting films which tell women's stories in a positive way, so that's another reason to support them. (Shout-out to costume designer extraordinaire Jema Hewit for making me aware of this festival!)



[Above: the quirky branding of LSFF hits the streets of London!]

London Short Film Festival (LSFF)

London, United Kingdom

LSFF is a festival which oozes cool, carrying its lite-punk sensibilities through its programming as well as its branding, often hosting things like gigs or pop-up screenings of no-budget films alongside its usual line-up. The quality of the films shown makes it a good festival to attend as an audience-member, and the films are programmed together within interesting topics such as 'Coming Of Age' and 'Gothic' (the latter is particularly good for horror fans, but also led me to discover one of my favourite short films, The Muse by Tim Walker). It's a BAFTA-qualifying festival too. I was lucky enough to premiere Night Owls at LSFF in 2016 - to a massive audience - and I've been hoping to earn my way back in there ever since!


Mansfield Town Film Festival

Nottinghamshire, United Kingdom

Although they only hosted their first every festival a few months ago, and will likely continue to develop and grow, I am already so impressed by Mansfield Town Film Festival! The festival team were incredible hosts, the branding and marketing was great, and their venue - the Mansfield Palace Theatre - was stunning. In spite of their fledgling status, they also managed to programme a series of interesting events alongside the film screenings, such as filmmaker panel discussions and breakout sessions. The festival has a bright future ahead!


[Above: 'Songbird' production assistant Steve Giller represents the film on my behalf at the super-cool New Renaissance Film Festival.]

New Renaissance Film Festival

London, United Kingdom

Another festival with a flare for graphic design, quality marketing and memorable branding, New Renaissance might just be the best indie festival in London, often hosted in quirky, intimate screening venues. I've been lucky enough to have two films screened there, and although I wasn't able to attend in person (much as I wanted to, I had been too busy with work), the lovely festival team posted my awards certificate to me along with a copy of the programme and even my filmmaker lanyard! The certificate has been on my office wall ever since, and I think it's the nicest-looking certificate I've ever received.



[Above: answering questions after the screening of 'A Different Place' at Norwich Film Festival. Photo by Tommy Draper.]

Norwich Film Festival

Norwich, United Kingdom

Another BIFA and BAFTA-qualifying festival, where I was lucky enough to screen A Different Place in November 2022, the best thing about Norwich, for me, was its programming. I've attended so many festivals over the years which feel bloated by the amount of films they screen, but Norwich was the polar opposite. When I was there, the LGBTQIA+ screening block included just FIVE films, but each one was brilliant and really deserved its place on the programme, so the audience enjoyed every second, plus there was enough time for a decent Q&A with the filmmakers afterwards. If only every festival programme was like that!


Slamdance Film Festival

Los Angeles, USA

Not to be confused with Sundance, one of the biggest festivals in the world, Slamdance is perhaps its cooler, more rebellious cousin - although both festivals are OSCAR-qualifying. I'm very proud of the fact that Good Grief (which I produced) premiered there in January of this year, and although I couldn't fly out for the festival, I was very impressed by the communications from the programming team. Good Grief screened twice, including a screening ahead of a feature, and that's a fantastic way to present a short because features get a bigger audience attendance than a shorts block, so more people see your film as a result.



[The Short Cinema's electric audience - with myself and the 'Songbird' team in the middle. Photo by Pamela Raith of Pamela Raith Photography.]

The Short Cinema

Leicester, United Kingdom

A quick disclaimer: The Short Cinema closed its doors for a little while post-pandemic, and although it's back again for 2024, I'm not sure what the future of the festival will be. But if it does continue to run... go to it. Just go. The branding is great, the screening quality is fantastic for a small festival (it's hosted by the Phoenix cinema in Leicester), but the best thing is the audience. As with BFI Flare, there is an infectious energy to the crowd; I've shown numerous films at this festival over the years, and somehow that same enthusiastic buzz is always present! The Short Cinema are also big supporters of local film, which is always nice to see.


This Is England Film Festival

Rouen, France

As I said at the start of this blog post, I've only just got back from This Is England, so I'm still buzzing from it, but I'll try and narrow down my reasons to recommend it... the projection quality and cinema size was perfect, the networking was relaxed but genuinely led to great conversations and connections, and the hosting skills of the festival team were phenomenal (they help cover the cost of travel for two members of your team, if your film is selected, and provided quality location). Rouen itself is an indescribably beautiful city, with crooked medieval-style architecture and cobbled streets everywhere, it feels more like a film set than a real place, so it's definitely worth exploring the sites in-between screenings (speaking of which, A Different Place got three screenings, so it was more than worth the submission fee!).


Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF)

Vancouver, Canada

And finally, a festival which came on my radar because of one of A Different Place's producers, Katie Smith (and thank goodness she recommended it, as we had our world premiere there last year!), VIFF is a huge, Canadian Screen Award-qualifying festival with a programme of features to rival some of the biggest festivals in the world. In spite of the scale of the festival, the team was wonderful to communicate with, and they also gave us a screening fee in exchange for showing our work, which is a rare thing to happen but very welcome (the money went straight back into our film's festival pot, so that we could submit it to more places!).



[A filmmaker panel - featuring 'Hidden' director Jess O'Brien - at Shorts on Tap festival, based in the stunning Regent Street Cinema.]

HONOURABLE MENTIONS


There's so many amazing festivals out there, so it was always going to be hard to narrow it down. Leeds Film Festival and Derby Film Festival are both awesome, but I'm probably going to mention those two on my second list, looking at genre-based festivals, particularly as Derby has a special sub-branch called Paracinema; Underwire is a brilliant female-focused, BAFTA-qualifying festival which hosts great events as well as screenings, but they've sadly mostly been closed since the pandemic; I know a few people who'd recommend Glasgow Short Film Festival, Bolton Film Festival, The Shortest Nights (Short Sighted Cinema), The Smalls, Flickers Rhode Island, Women X Film Festival, Show Me Shorts, and Two Short Nights, but as I haven't attended or had a film accepted at any those festivals, I haven't included them on the above list; I have had films screened at Short Waves (in Poland), Coventry Phoenix, and Shorts On Tap, and I've heard good things about all three, but again I haven't attended in person and I don't know enough about these festival to do a write-up; Finally, there are many massive, 'A-list' festivals in the world, such as Sundance, BFI London, Cannes, Berlinale, Venice, Toronto, Tampere... I've only got experience of a handful of these festivals, and out of that handful, I've included my recommendations in the list above.


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I hope this blog post is useful to any of you who are planning a festival run. I look forward to writing and sharing part two, my genre-specific festival list, at some point in the new year. In the meantime, I've got a few edits to finish so that I can put my feet up and finally have a holiday this Christmas!


Are there any festivals I've missed that you would recommend? Let everyone know in the comments below!

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