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The development and subsequent financial explosion of commercial cinema is one of the things for which the US is most famed. Whilst this having begun way back in the early twentieth century, it still very much continues to this day.

It’s important to remember, however, that not all of this success comes from the big studios. Independent filmmakers have a huge role to play too, and their movies are celebrated across the United States each year at a wide range of independent film festivals.

With so many to choose from, how should you decide which to attend? By reading our article, of course!

Here are the very best 20 independent film festivals in the US.


The 20 Best Independent Film Festivals in the US


Film Festival
Description
1 Sundance Film Festival

(Park City, Salt Lake City, Utah)
Well, where else could we start?

We’re guessing that, even if you’re not particularly clued-up on the independent movie scene, you’ll have heard of Sundance. It’s the most famous, and arguably the most prestigious, independent film festival in the United States. With a whopping 46,000-plus attendees each year, it’s also the biggest.

Sundance is a historical festival, having been going since 1978. Hollywood legend Robert Redford has been the festival’s chairman since the beginning (hence the name, taken from his brilliant role in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), and his star power has helped to grow the festival to unprecedented levels of fame. To top it off, all of this has happened despite it being located in the rural state of Utah (Redford’s home state).

Sundance has given some of the biggest names in modern cinema their break, including Quentin Tarantino, David O. Russell and Paul Thomas Anderson. Accordingly, getting a film featured here is an enormous goal for many aspiring filmmakers.

For its history, its prestige and its continuing, unwavering commitment to advancing film, the Sundance Film Festival fully deserves its place atop our list.

Location: Park City, Salt Lake City, Utah
Dates: Late January


Official website: https://www.sundance.org/festivals/sundance-film-festival/
2 Telluride Film Festival

(Telluride, Colorado)
We’re sticking in the mid-western United States for our second festival, which is located in Telluride, Colorado.

It might be nowhere near as big – in terms of size or scale – as Sundance, but the Telluride Film Festival is actually slightly older, having been started in 1974. In fact, the couple who founded it – Bill and Stella Pence – continued to run it for an incredible 33 years, before finally stepping aside in 2007. Talk about a commitment to cinema!

What Telluride lacks in scale, it more than makes up for in importance. There is something of an unwritten rule amongst independent filmmakers, which is that this should be the first American festival at which you debut your film. Telluride’s timing – being set just between Cannes and the New York Film Festival – makes it ideally suited for this.

Accordingly, some of the most celebrated films of recent years have premiered here, including Moonlight, The Imitation Game and Brokeback Mountain. If you want to get the scoop on the best upcoming movies the year has to offer, then we’d recommend heading to Telluride.

Location: Telluride, Colorado
Dates: Labor Day Weekend (September)


Official website: http://telluridefilmfestival.org
3 ITVFest

(Manchester, Vermont)
As you may well have noticed, some of the biggest and best film productions right now are being made for TV – driven by the success of services like HBO, Amazon Video and Netflix – rather than for the cinema. Despite this, there is still a relative lack of independent festivals which celebrate and publicize these areas.

Accordingly, we thought it was only right to discuss perhaps the biggest festival in the world for independent TV and web series writers and creators: ITVFest.

ITVFest – which stands for Independent Television Festival – takes place in late autumn each year, when its Vermont setting is particularly scenic. It helps more than 1,000 filmmakers, directors, writers and so on to connect with Hollywood producers and executives. Many of the biggest hitters in TV and web services are present there, including HBO, Sony, Fox and Comcast.

It might not be the longest-running festival we’re looking at (it was only founded in 2006), but – in terms of the role it serves – it’s undoubtedly one of the most important.

Location: Manchester, Vermont
Dates: October


Official website: http://www.itvfest.com
4 New York Film Festival

(Lincoln Center, Manhattan, New York)
We’d argue that Sundance is the most prestigious film festival in the US… but the New York Film Festival definitely gives it a run for its money.

This NYC independent film festival is actually the oldest we’ve looked at so far, and one of the oldest in the country, having been started back in 1963 by the Lincoln Center (a film society, which promotes independent American and world cinema).

It might not be what many people have in mind when they picture an indie festival – it’s glitzy, glamorous, and set in the heart of New York City, after all – but it’s not really intended to be a “discovery”-oriented festival, unlike the Telluride Film Festival. Rather, it’s a showcase of all the best movies from film festivals around the world, collected together and displayed to an extremely large and influential audience. And, to be fair, it does also devote screen time to lesser-known, emerging cinema talents too.

For its obviously excellent location, and as a convenient way to catch up with all the year’s biggest independent movies in one go, we highly recommend a visit to this NYC independent film festival.

Location: Lincoln Center, Manhattan, New York
Dates: September/October


Official website: https://www.filmlinc.org/nyff
5 South by Southwest

(Austin, Texas)
This is, without doubt, our most unusual entry so far.

The chances are you’ve heard of South by Southwest (colloquially written as SXSW)… but, in that case, you probably know it as a music festival. That’s certainly what it’s most famous for, but – in recent years – the event has broadened its offering. It’s now become more of a multimedia festival, which devotes an increasing amount of time and recognition towards cinema.

Despite its fame, SXSW has remained a completely independent festival, and – with its sizeable nine day running-time – it provides a lengthy, comprehensive look at the scene. Despite its indie roots, SXSW also has a strong focus on the latest technology, and has provided some fascinating insights into how technology and film are currently intersecting, and growing together.

If you’d like a snapshot into the indie scene, far from the glitz and glam of some of the more traditional independent film festivals, it’s well worth spending a day or two at SXSW.

Location: Austin, Texas
Dates: March


Official website: https://www.sxsw.com
6 Palm Springs Film Festival

(Palm Springs, California)
This may well have a claim to being the most luxurious film festival on our entire list.

Palm Springs is renowned across the US as being a destination for the rich and famous, or for those simply after a little sun and pampering. It’s a city of high-end hotels, world class golf courses, and – as the name suggests – hot springs. It’s also the setting for a particularly impressive film extravaganza.

Don’t be fooled by the glitzy setting; this is an extremely well-run and serious event. The Palm Springs Film Festival dates back to 1989, and attracts in excess of 130,000 attendees each year. Over 180 films are shown here, with a solid percentage of them coming from around the world, rather than just the United States.

It’s also held at a perfect time of the year, in January. This makes it a great winter getaway for film fans in need of some sun, and means it also serves as an excellent prelude to awards season, which begins soon afterwards.

Location: Palm Springs, California
Dates: January


Official website: https://www.psfilmfest.org
7 Los Angeles Film Festival

(Los Angeles - various locations, California)
Well, you knew we had to come to Los Angeles at some point – it’s the home of Hollywood, and most of the American film industry, after all!

Taking that into account, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that they also have a pretty darn impressive film festival of their own. It’s certainly a sizeable gathering, with over 200 films being shown across its week-long running time. The selection offers excellent variety, with feature films, documentaries, and even music videos screened here.

Despite being held in Hollywood’s home city, this remains a fiercely independent film festival. Since 2001 it has been run by Film Independent, a non-profit organization with an unquestionable desire to promote independent filmmakers, and give emerging storytellers an equal platform to their more established competitors.

This festival is also home to the Independent Spirit Awards. These prizes have been excellent indicators of a film’s future success, with recent winners for Best Film including 12 Years A Slave, Birdman and Moonlight, all of which went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. In short, these guys know a good independent movie when they see one!

Location: Los Angeles (various locations), California
Dates: September


Official website: https://www.filmindependent.org/la-film-festival/about/
8 Santa Fe Film Festival

(Santa Fe, New Mexico)
Toasty weather aside, you couldn’t imagine a much more different location to the aforementioned Los Angeles than Santa Fe, New Mexico. It’s a sleepy, historical city of only 69,000 people… but it also plays host to an extremely worthwhile film festival each year.

Santa Fe is situated in an area that was historically home to indigenous Native American people, and later Mexicans. Whilst it is now obviously part of the United States, the Santa Fe Film Festival does a fantastic job of keeping the region’s heritage alive. They make it a priority to recognize Native American and Latino cinema, awarding dedicated prizes for these categories.

You’ll still catch some of the same celebrated indie movies which have been doing the rounds at other independent film festivals here, of course. What truly distinguishes this festival, however, is the passionate commitment it has to the history of the area in which it’s set. In an industry which can be driven so much by money, this is a refreshingly worthy aim.

Location: Santa Fe, New Mexico
Dates: February


Official website: http://santafefilmfestival.com
9 Cucalorus Film Festival

(Wilmington, North Carolina)
There’s very little competition at all for kookiest film festival on this list. Of all the twenty events we’re looking at in this article, this one takes top prize with ease.

They don’t give out awards at this film festival; oh no, that’s far too mainstream! Instead, they prefer to focus on promoting up-and-coming, independent filmmakers in a non-competitive environment. The focus is very much on providing support for artists, and helping them make connections, rather than pitting them against each other in competition.

That’s just the start of what makes the Cucalorus Film Festival unusual. Events there include singalongs with both attendees and filmmakers, modern dance performances, a variety of talks on social issues, and fairly open-invite parties in nearby mansions. Proven and lesser-known filmmakers alike rub shoulders with regular festival attendees, making the whole thing feel like a thoroughly and accessible event.

This creative approach was certainly risky, but it has certainly resulted in great success. Cucalorus has been going since 1984, and – with some 15,000 attendees per year – shows no signs of slowing down any time soon.

Location: Wilmington, North Carolina
Dates: November


Official website: http://www.cucalorus.org
10 Hawaii International Film Festival

(Hawaii - various locations)
With its beaches, scenery, people and simple way of life all being renowned around the world, it’s not like you really needed any excuse to visit Hawaii… Still, if you wanted to go with a purpose, rather than just on a lovely vacation, then one of the best events you can attend there is undoubtedly the Hawaii International Film Festival.

Hawaii might be famous for being a laid back place, but make no mistake; this is a serious event. It’s been running since all the way back in 1981, and the late Roger Ebert – perhaps the most famous film critic who ever lived – made an official selection each year.

The Hawaii International Film Festival also serves an important cultural purpose. Whilst the main event may be held in Honolulu, the organizers still travel to other islands across Hawaii to show screenings there too, meaning the whole state gets involved. The festival also recognizes Hawaii’s unique geographical location brilliantly, by celebrating Asian, Pacific and North American films together.

Location: Hawaii (various locations)
Dates: November


Official website: https://www.hiff.org
11 Dances With Films

(Hollywood, Los Angeles, California)
Dances With Films might be situated in Los Angeles, and it may even take place in Hollywood… but there is absolutely no way you can question its indie credentials. In fact, this might be the single most “independent” film festival we look at in this article.

Dances With Films has a single, crucial rule: it won’t show a movie that has any connection whatsoever with a known director, producer or writer. Well, it doesn’t get more independent than that! Accordingly, every single piece of work that’s shown at the festival is effectively unknown, giving an unrivaled level of exposure to unestablished actors, directors and so on.

Sounds like an ambitious idea, right? Well, the festival has been going since 1998, and doesn’t show any signs of slowing down, so… we’re saying the organizers’ ambition was a good one! It actually works, too: a number of award winners from the Dances With Films festival have gone on to enjoy successful careers in Hollywood movies, or on network television.

We can’t imagine there’s a film festival which is more closely dedicated to the true spirit of independent filmmaking than this one.

Location: Hollywood, Los Angeles, California
Dates: June


Official website: https://danceswithfilms.com
12 Ashland Independent Film Festival

(Ashland, Oregon)
We’re heading all the way up to the gorgeous state of Oregon for the next entry into our 20 best independent film festivals in the US. It is, after all, the home of the wonderful Ashland Independent Film Festival.

Held in April each year, when the annual awards fever has had time to settle down, Ashland is a relatively new addition to the film festival calendar, having started up in 2001. Ashland itself is a quiet location, and the festival only lasts five days, but what this event lacks in scale it more than makes up for in charm. Its tagline, after all, is “like Sundance, without the lines”, which you can’t help but love!

The entire festival plays out across three local, relatively small cinemas. You’ll find a good selection of films – over 100 in total – and there are even fascinating question and answer sessions after some of the screenings, along with some separate, more general movie-related talks.

If you’ve experienced the hustle and bustle of the larger film festivals before, and they simply weren’t your thing, then we’d recommend the Ashland Independent Film Festival as a perfect, milder antidote.

Location: Ashland, Oregon
Dates: April


Official website: http://www.ashlandfilm.org
13 Florida Film Festival

(Maitland/Winter Park, Florida)
The Sunshine State is popular with holidaymakers and retirees around the world for a reason; with its great weather, and its generally easygoing way of life, it’s simply a great place to be!

It might not seem like the most natural place for a film festival, at first glance, but the Florida Film Festival is a seriously impressive event. Over 180 films are shown there, and in excess of 23,000 people attend each year.

It’s an important festival too – the Florida Film Festival is an Academy Awards qualifying event, meaning that a win in one of its award categories automatically earns a film Oscar consideration. Call us cynical, if you please… but that might also explain why it’s such a popular hangout for movie stars, who may or may not happen to have films being shown there! We’re sure they’re just there for the sun and cocktails, really…

Regardless, the Florida Film Festival features a nice variety of screenings of various lengths and types, and is even known as a champion of highly experimental pieces of work which utilize new technology.

So, to recap; it’s prestigious, it’s filled with celebrities, it has a great selection of movies, and it’s in Florida… what more could you want?!

Location: Maitland/Winter Park, Florida
Dates: April


Official website: https://www.floridafilmfestival.com
14 Austin Film Festival

(Austin, Texas)
The city of Austin is famed across the US as being a highly progressive, modern and fun-loving place. You can easily see, therefore, why it’s also a pretty popular place for holding festivals.

Austin is actually the home of South by Southwest, which we looked at earlier on in this article. Whilst film only plays a part in SXSW, however (even if it’s an important part), it’s the sole focus of the Austin Film Festival.

This event offers something different to the independent film festival scene, in that it’s primarily concerned with screenwriters; people who have historically been overlooked and – arguably – undervalued by the movie industry. In fact, it used to be exclusively a celebration of writers, but has now grown to encompass filmmakers too, and even people who work in theater and podcasting.

The common thread is simply that the Austin Film Festival wants to give credit to those folk who actually create the stories which we know and love. We’d say that’s a pretty admirable goal.

Location: Austin, Texas
Dates: Late October/Early November


Official website: https://austinfilmfestival.com
15 Camden International Film Festival

(Camden, Maine)
Located along the coast of scenic Maine, right at the end of the summer, you’ll find the Camden International Film Festival.

Many of the independent film festivals we’ve looked at have encompassed a whole range of categories, but the CIFF (as it’s commonly known) is much more focused. This is a festival entirely dedicated to documentaries, which seeks to celebrate the art of non-fiction storytelling.

Despite only having been founded in 2005, the CIFF is now recognized as one of the most important documentary film festivals in the whole world. Over 80 documentaries and short films are shown there each year, and – because of the prestige it now possesses – it’s become a great place for filmmakers to meet up with big-time financiers. It’s also an Academy-qualifying event, meaning the “best” movie shown here will automatically be entered into Oscar consideration for the Documentary Short Subject Award.

If documentaries are your preferred viewing choice, rather than fictional movies, then the CIFF is the perfect film festival for you.

Location: Camden, Maine
Dates: September


Official website: https://pointsnorthinstitute.org/ciff/
16 Big Sky Documentary Film Festival

(Missoula, Montana)
Much like the festival we just looked at, the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival is fully-focused on – as you can guess from the name – documentaries!

Set in the lovely, quiet city of Missoula in Montana, this festival was only founded in 2003, making it one of our younger entries onto this list. It has grown tremendously in that short space of time, however, expanding from seven days to 10 days already, and now attracting a sizeable 20,000 people per year.

Approximately 150 films are shown each year at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, and there are also a selection of fascinating panels and workshops which should prove invaluable to any aspiring filmmakers in attendance. These make up the “Big Sky DocShop”, which runs for five days and is backed by – amongst others – HBO and Showtime.

If you’re looking to get into the documentary-making game, but you feel that you need a little expert guidance, then we can’t recommend the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival highly enough. Not only will you receive advice from highly talented filmmakers, but you’ll also get to see a whole lot of great movies while you’re at it.

Location: Missoula, Montana
Dates: February


Official website: http://www.bigskyfilmfest.org/festival/
17 IFFBoston

(Boston, Massachusetts)
The Independent Film Festival Boston (more easily referred to as IFFBoston) was created by the Independent Film Society of Boston – a non-profit organization – back in 2003.

Despite its relative youth, it has quickly become the city’s most highly regarded film festival, and arguably the best in all of New England. It’s certainly the biggest, regularly attracting crowds of over 23,000 people across its week-long running time.

IFFBoston is renowned for its curators’ brilliance in creating each year’s program. They perfectly balance better-known indie movies with lesser-known releases, and give recognition to narrative movies, documentaries, animation and shorter pieces in turn. They’re also extremely proud of their New England roots, and make sure to give a platform to the best in locally-produced cinema from the past year.

This clear passion and understanding for cinema, combined with the festival’s sterling reputation, has helped to make IFFBoston a destination that some seriously big names enjoy attending and speaking at. These include both those in the film industry (including Steve Buscemi and Ben Kingsley), and even modern-day philosophers like Noam Chomsky, and politicians such as Cynthia McKinney.

This is very much a festival on the rise, and is a perfect choice for the more intellectual film fans out there.

Location: Boston, Massachusetts
Dates: Late April-Early May


Official website: http://iffboston.org
18 Beaufort International Film Festival

(Beaufort, South Carolina)
The southern United States are tragically overlooked when it comes to the film industry, but the Beaufort International Film Festival is looking to change all of that. It markets itself as being the fastest growing film festival in the Southeast, and we certainly hope it can continue to develop and, in turn, promote the region’s love for film.

Beaufort itself is a charming, historical city, which makes a perfect setting for this equally charming festival. It has also actually proven itself to be a great place to set a movie too, having served as a filming location for Forrest Gump and The Big Chill, amongst other pieces of work. You certainly can’t argue with the area’s film heritage!

It may not be the most publicized festival we’ve looked at, but the Beaufort International Film Festival is a serious and well-organized event. A range of different types of movies are shown here, and there are guest speakers, Q&A sessions, and even parties for attendees.

If you want to support an up-and-coming event, head down to South Carolina in February for the Beaufort International Film Festival.

Location: Beaufort, South Carolina
Dates: February


Official website: https://www.beaufortfilmfestival.com
19 Citizen Jane Film Festival

(Columbia, Missouri)
This may be another festival located in the south of the USA, but it takes a very different approach to the event we just looked at.

The overall aim of the Citizen Jane Film Festival (which might be the best name of any festival we’ve looked at, by the way) is to promote women – and specifically gender equality – in the film industry. It was created in 2008 at Stephens College, which is the second-oldest women’s college in the entire US, and it is starting to pick up some serious buzz.

Aside from obviously enjoying the actual films that are shown over the four-day event, the principle aim of the Citizen Jane Film Festival is to inform and educate. There are a series of brilliant, inspirational talks about the lack of gender parity in the film industry, and how attendees can go about helping to change that. Oh, and with parties, comedy shows and dance performances also taking place throughout the festival, it’s a whole lot of fun too!

Location: Columbia, Missouri
Dates: October


Official website: https://citizenjanefilmfestival.org
20 FilmQuest Festival

(Provo, Utah)
When it comes to our top 20 independent film festivals in the US, we’ve definitely saved the geekiest for last.

FilmQuest festival has only been going since 2014, but it’s already established itself as one of the premier genre film events in the country.

This is a sizeable festival, with awards given out in over 30 different categories, and there is in excess of $20,000 of prize money available to be won. It runs for a hefty nine days, and has all the individual events you’d expect from a proper film festival: panels, workshops and parties take place throughout, in addition to the screenings of course.

Given its relative youth, this isn’t yet the place to come if you’re looking to form connections in the film industry. Given its sheer excellence, however, we’d say it’s only a matter of time before the FilmQuest Festival achieves more widespread recognition. In the meantime, whether you’re a fan of horror, sci-fi, fantasy or any other nerd-tastic genre, you’ll be extremely well catered for here.

Location: Provo, Utah
Dates: September


Official website: http://www.filmquestfest.com






Well, that concludes our rankings of the 20 best independent film festivals in the US.

But wait! Before you hit that “Close Tab” button, we’d encourage you to stick around for a little longer. We’ve looked at the best current indie festivals that you can go to… but what is the actual purpose of these festivals?

Time to investigate.

On the surface, you’d assume that they’re simply places for movie buffs to hang out, check out the latest great indie releases, share their passion with each other, and generally have a great time, right?

Well, that’s certainly a part of the reason. It’s the actual fans, after all, who help to spread the word of mouth for these festivals, and thus boost their visitor numbers and their popularity as time goes on. They spread the word about the films themselves too, and – particularly in the internet age, and the age of social media – this kind of street-level popularity is invaluable. It’s the fans, too, who primarily create the great atmosphere for which these festivals are renowned.

But… these things are also true of non-independent film festivals. What makes these festivals so important?

To answer that question, you need to understand independent filmmaking in general. The “independence” to which the name refers is from the established movie industry; the enormous studios, like Warner Brothers, Universal Pictures, MGM, 20th Century Fox, and so on.

Some indie filmmakers aren’t independent by choice; the studios simply aren’t interested in either them, or their idea, so they need to find an alternate route to getting their films made. Others, however, will specifically decide to go independent, not even trying to work with the studios and, instead, looking for other sources of funding.

Given that they’ll likely get a lot more money by working with studios, this might seem like a curious decision on the surface. The reason why people do it is usually because they want more creative freedom. A studio would seek to exert control over their movie, perhaps in terms of the casting or the plot. By taking an independent approach, the creator – or creators – retain control over the direction of their project.

That’s all well and good, of course… but how do you then get funding for things like distribution and marketing? How do you get people to even find out about your movie in the first place, without a studio to promote it?

This is where independent film festivals come in. These events help with both conundrums which indie filmmakers face – how to get funding, and how to publicize a movie.

Regarding the first point, it isn’t just normal film fans who go to these festivals. The larger events will also be visited by a whole bevy of people who are there for business reasons. They’ll be on the lookout for movies which they think have a shot at being successful, and – if they find one – they’ll be highly interested in investing money in it. They will almost always do that whilst wanting something in return, of course, whether it be a share of the profits, or boosting the portfolio and prestige of their independent production company.

As for promoting an independent movie, film festivals are simply invaluable in this regard.

Firstly, every film shown at these events will have already been approved by a jury. That means that – if your film simply gets on to the program at a festival – it’s already a big deal for you; it’s a display to everyone that your film is of a certain quality, in short.

Secondly, as we mentioned earlier, fan-based word of mouth is incredibly important in the age of the internet and social media. If your film strikes a chord with attendees, it can create a buzz almost instantly online, which will basically gain you great publicity for free.

Finally, in addition to fans and producers, there will also be journalists and film critics at these events. Larger festivals, like Sundance, will attract veritable armies of reporters, and if your movie starts getting good reviews then – again – it can set off a chain reaction of publicity. You’ll suddenly find that your film gets onto the program for other independent film festivals too, and actually getting it into cinemas will get a whole lot easier.

Overall, you can clearly see how independent film festivals are not simply the feel-good celebrations which they first appear to be. This element – of communal enjoyment of cinema – is important, of course. But perhaps even more important are the other purposes they serve – enabling indie filmmakers to network with important individuals, and publicize their works without investing money that they don’t have.

The independent movie scene relies heavily on these kinds of events, and we certainly hope to see more and more of them in the coming years.