Top 250 International Film Festivals + Submission Tips [2020 Update]

Adrian Țofei, August 2016

Latest Major Update: May 2020

Latest Update: June 2020

Main changes in the June updates: I’ve removed FilmFreeway’s list of best reviewed festivals as a support list (too many scam festivals rated high on FilmFreeway, like Madrid & Nice IFF, which have been exposed as scams), I’ve added The Rumpus’ list of top 5 US festivals by number of features selected from paid submissions as a support list, and I’ve added at the end a descriptive list of scam festivals to avoid. I’ve also expanded the list from top 100 to top 250, since the initial “beyond top 100” section ended up having 150 festivals which are greater than honourable mentions.

Main changes in the May update: In order to emphasise discovery festivals, I’ve researched & included the number of world premieres of feature films screened by most top festivals on my list in their latest edition (excluding special/gala screenings), which has caused major changes in the top. For the world premiere of their movies, filmmakers have a higher chance of selection when submitting to festivals which usually screen world premieres, compared to festivals which mostly screen regional premieres of movies coming from other festivals. I’ve also extended the “beyond top 100” section to over 150 festivals, I’ve updated the support lists, added more submission tips for indie filmmakers at the bottom of the page and updated the existing ones. 

All major changes in the last two updates are colored green.

Seeing the success of my Top 100 Genre Film Festivals in helping thousands of filmmakers around the world, I decided to make a general list as well, with the most important international film festivals, regardless of type (which will also help me select the best festivals for my upcoming movie We Put the World to Sleep). This list got shared by top festivals like Raindance and gradually became known and used in the industry as much as my initial genre list. I’m constantly researching festivals and updating it usually once or twice a year, but sometimes even every month.

I take into consideration in my research over 40 other lists (see below), the opportunities the festivals offer to indie filmmakers and actors (distribution offers, publicity, networking, awards, attracting reviews in relevant publications and selections/invitations to new festivals, boosting the chances for the Academy Awards, discovering new talents, boosting the chances for getting new projects), the number of world premieres they screen (which can be an indicator for discovery festivals), the number of years running, their status in the film industry, the location, communication, hospitality, atmosphere and safety, how they make the selected/attending filmmakers feel, the size (the number of films selected and the number of audience, press and film industry members attending), the quality of the selected films, the quality of the information on their websites and social media, the entry fee, submission process and selection process, plus my own experiences with my first movie Be My Cat: A Film for Anne, my premiere preferences for my upcoming movie We Put the World to Sleep and other various recommendations. I only included international film festivals with live screenings.

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Before starting the top, here are the lists that helped me make mine, with codes to identify on which lists each festival is mentioned (updated & newly-added lists are colored in green):

Top 10 Film Festivals:

Colored in green are the newly-added festivals & those that climbed in the top at the latest update. The number of world premieres is for features only, excluding special/gala premieres (the 2nd number is for movies from outside of the festival’s country or region). Festivals must be at least 15 years old.

  1. Cannes Film Festival / Festival de Cannes – Cannes, France, 73 years – IW3, IW100, R100, cFIAPF, AASh, RSh5, TG11, wCG10, AADo, G3, Os5, V5 – 38 world premieres in 2019 in the main & un certain regard competitions
  2. Toronto International Film Festival: TIFF – Toronto, Canada, 45 years – IW3, IW100, R100, nFIAPF, TG11, Ca10, wCG10, HR10, G3, Aw3, AASh, Os5, V5 – 82 / 65 world premieres in 2019 in the sections discovery, platform, docs, wavelengths, contemporary world cinema & midnight madness
  3. Berlin International Film Festival / Berlinale (focused on art films) – Berlin, Germany, 70 years – IW10, IW100, R100, cFIAPF, AASh, TG11, wCG10, AADo, G5, V5 – 84 world premieres in 2020 in competition & the sections encounters, panorama & forum
  4. Sundance Film Festival (focused on US films) – Park City, Utah, US, 43 years – IW3, IW100, R100, AADo, AASh, AAShDo, RSh5, TG11, usCG10, G3, CNC, Os5, V5 – 72 / 26 world premieres in 2020 in the US & world competitions for dramatic & documentary features, and the sections next & midnight
  5. Venice International Film Festival (focused on Hollywood films) – Venice, Italy, 77 years – IW10, IW100, R100, cFIAPF, AASh, TG11, G5, Aw3, Os5, v5 – 44 world premieres in 2019 in the main & orizzonti competitions, and the section sconfini
  6. Telluride Film Festival (focused on Hollywood films) – Telluride, Colorado, US, 47 years – IW10, IW100, R100, TG11, usCG10, Aw3, Os5, G50, V50 – 14 / 4 world premieres in 2019
  7. Locarno Film Festival – Locarno, Switzerland, 73 years – IW100, R100, cFIAPF, AASh, MM25-2017, G20 – 58 world premieres in 2019 in the piazza grande, moving ahead, concorso internazionale & cineasti del presente competitions
  8. Tribeca Film Festival (focused on US films) – New York City, US, 19 years – IW100, R100, AASh, AADo, AAShDo, TG11, usCG10, G10, CNC, V50 – 47 / 18 world premieres announced for 2020 in the US & international narrative competitions, documentary competition, and the sections viewpoints & midnight
  9. South by Southwest / SXSW Film Festival (focused on US films) – Austin, Texas, US, 27 years – IW10, IW100, R100, MM25-2017, AADo, AASh, AAShDo, TG11, usCG10, Sub5, V50 – 42 / 8 world premieres announced for 2020 in the documentary & narrative competitions and the sections visions, midnighters & global
  10. Directors’ Fortnight / Quinzaine des Realisateurs (parallel section of Cannes Film Festival) – Cannes, France, 52 years – R100, G50 – 21 world premieres in 2019

Top 25 Film Festivals:

(in alphabetical order from 11 to 25)

Colored in green are the newly-added festivals & those that climbed in the top at the latest updates. The number of world premieres is for features only, excluding special/gala premieres (the 2nd number is for movies from outside of the festival’s country or region). Festivals must be at least 15 years old.

Top 50 Film Festivals:

(in alphabetical order from 26 to 50)

Colored in green are the newly-added festivals & those that climbed in the top at the latest updates. The number of world premieres is for features only, excluding special/gala premieres (the 2nd number is for movies from outside of the festival’s country or region). Festivals must be at least 10 years old.

Top 100 Film Festivals:

(in alphabetical order from 51 to 100)

Colored in green are the newly-added festivals & those that climbed in the top at the latest updates. The number of world premieres is for features only, excluding special/gala premieres (the 2nd number is for movies from outside of the festival’s country or region). Festivals must be at least 10 years old.

Top 250 Film Festivals:

(in alphabetical order from 101 to 250)

Colored in green are the newly-added & re-added festivals at the latest updates. The number of world premieres is for features only, excluding special/gala premieres (the 2nd number is for movies from outside of the festival’s country or region). Festivals must be at least 5 years old.

For more festivals, check out also Wikipedia’s list and New York Film Academy’s lists (but do your research before submitting, they are not all major festivals, and the NYFA’s list is not at all comprehensive as they claim, missing some of the most important festivals).

Submission Tips:

(the newly-added submission tips are coloured in green)

  • First of all, if you’ve never made a film before, but you’re thinking of making one, don’t listen to advices about what’s needed, if that puts you down. You don’t necessarily need a script or a professional camera or a team or a lot of money. Escape the mental entrapment about what filmmaking is. Find your own ways.
  • If you just finished shooting your first indie film and have no idea about how festivals work, here are the basics: the film is not considered a professional artistic film until vetted by at least one festival which has a certain degree of recognition in the industry. The festivals are the gatekeepers. Thousands of them are listed on submission platforms where you put your film (private link with password) together with info about the film, and then you choose which festivals to submit to (some festivals also accept submissions via email or directly on their websites). Most festivals receive hundreds or thousands of submissions, and for that they hire programmers to watch all the films and select only a few. In continental Europe, Asia and South America, a lot of festivals get funded from the state budget, but in North America, UK and Australia, almost all of them take submission fees, which can be as low as $2 and as high as $200 per film. So you pay in order for someone to watch the film and decide if it’s going to be selected or not. When the festival gets enough money from the state and doesn’t ask for a fee, it is paid from taxes by the community, because it is assumed that any healthy community needs art.

  • Promote your film even before you start the production. Use social media, send press releases, anything you can to ignite people’s interest and ultimately the interest of the film industry. A good percentage of your film’s success will be about the expectation and buzz created around it. 
  • Keep your feature film below 100 minutes if possible and never above 120 minutes. And if you have a genre feature film, keep it below 90 min if possible and never above 100 min. Most festivals are commercially oriented and don’t wanna risk boring their audiences and fade away in popularity.
  • Keep your short film below 10 minutes if possible and never above 15 minutes. Festivals prefer to screen a bigger number of shorter short films instead of a single longer short film. Cannes doesn’t even accept short films above 15 min in the main competition.
  • Some festival programmers won’t watch your feature film entirely and might reject it based on the first 10-20 minutes. Try to have a powerful beginning or one that shows potential for a powerful development and entices the viewer to watch more.
  • Get feedback about your final cut from people with experience in the film industry that you trust before submitting to festivals.  
  • For feature films, it’s very important to have the world premiere in a big festival. All the selections after the world premiere will be in smaller or at best similar festivals, never in bigger festivals. Plan carefully your world premiere (and also the premieres at continental and country/state/big city level), don’t settle for a little-known festival if you think your movie can do more than that.
  • For short films you don’t necessarily need to have the word premiere in a big festival. A short film can travel the festival circuit in smaller festivals, gathering publicity, before being selected to a bigger one.
  • Don’t waste your money and/or chances submitting to world premiere your feature film in festivals which don’t screen world premieres, but select most of their films from other festivals. Focus initially on discovery festivals known for screening world premieres and leave the rest for your regional premieres. I’ve mentioned the number of world premieres for most top festivals in my list, but I might not find the time to finish my research on all of them, since most do not mention it in their press releases or programs and I need to manually check out every movie. I’m also excluding special or gala premieres from my count, which are irrelevant for most filmmakers.
  • Check out the genres & types of films the festival usually screens. If you’ve made a low budged mockumentary, but the festival never screened low budget mockumentaries in the past, you might want to keep the money to submit to festivals which are more relevant for your film. Check out also the geographical region the festival focuses on (if 9 out of 10 world premieres were American films last year and you plan paying to submit a German film for the world premiere, better keep the money for another festival).
  • Keep the cover letter very short – about three phrases of essential info if possible. Programmers are very busy and might not read long letters. Same for the synopsis, try to keep it short and catchy, similar to an IMDb plotline.
  • Include in the short cover letter the best things about your movie and yourself, to catch the programmers’ interest, like known cast & crew, past known films of yours, awards and top festivals, anything else unique or sensational about your film. When submitting for any type of premiere (world, regional, local), mention that in your cover letter.
  • A lot of important European, Asian, South-American & African film festivals have no submission fees. Find them and definitely submit to those ones (keep in mind that some festivals with fees for features have no fees for shorts).
  • Don’t fall for partial discount offers received via email, thinking they are personalised and the festival is interested in your film. Most of the times they are not, those are discount codes listed publicly on the submission platform or mass-sent to filmmakers. When a festival is interested in your film, they offer you a 100% discount code or fee waiver. With a few exceptions, the partial discount is just a marketing strategy.
  • Ask for fee waivers before submitting if you have good reasons to do so which are relevant for the festival, like important awards & festivals for your current or previous film, known actors, being an alumni or anything else sensational, unique or valuable that would make the festival staff think “we might want this film“.
  • Knowing someone in the festival can help. I used to advise against this practice, but since the established names in the industry have so many advantages, it is only fair if indie filmmakers try to use whatever they can for fee waivers and a fair consideration. 
  • Do your online research and also submit to major competitions like the Academy Awards, the Golden Globes, the European Film Awards and other regional or national major film awards not listed here. For a chance at the Oscars, don’t miss the Academy Awards Qualifying Festivals for documentary features, documentary shorts, and short films (including animated shorts), and the 5 festivals known to be top Oscar boosters for feature films (Toronto, Venice, Telluride, Sundance, Cannes).
  • Some of the top 10 festivals have very powerful and popular sections for genre films (TIFF, Sundance, SXSW, Tribeca & Cannes’ side sections). But if you don’t get accepted, try my Top 100 Horror & Fantasy Film Festivals.
  • When you get accepted and/or win an award in an important festival, email the other festivals you are waiting a decision from and inform them about your success (but try not to bother them with too many emails).
  • And finally, if you get into festivals and distributors express interest in your film, always negotiate an advance payment (minimum guarantee – MG) or at least a gross corridor. Otherwise chances are you will see little to no money later. Go without an advance or gross corridor only if the backend split is great and you trust the distributor, or if no other distributor wants your film and that’s your only chance at distribution.

Festivals to Avoid:

  • Online festivals and award events listed on submission platforms. Most are scams and won’t help your career or film in any way, no matter how well rated and reviewed they are (unless they are big festivals that went online temporarily during the pandemic, or well established award events like the European Film Awards).
  • Festivals that appear valuable, but are just cash-cows for the owners. Some are outright fake (the event doesn’t happen), while most are pseudo-festivals or scams organised to get as much money as possible from filmmakers while offering them as little value as possible (most of the times zero value).
  • Warning signs: multiple different festivals in various locations around the world or the US run by the same company or person(s) (like the multiple festivals run by the company Film Fest International around the world: Madrid International Film Festival, Nice International Film Festival, London International Filmmaker Festival, Milan International Filmmaker Festival), huge number of submission categories with high fees, huge number of awards given (in order to satisfy filmmakers’ ego and buy their silence), big sounding titles that have no recognition in the industry and just sound similar to established festivals, the event happens far away (different country or city) from the administrative headquarters, the festival mass-sends discount codes to filmmakers to attract more submissions, they take advantage of selected filmmakers by making them pay for promo materials, trophy, the award gala or party, the festival happens in a hotel, in the city outskirts or other improper venue/location, there’s no industry or press or even audience present besides the attending filmmakers, the films selected in previous editions have little to no online presence, the event generally looks more like a business than a film event. 
  • Established festivals that don’t offer you a fee waiver and you have info that they view paid submissions mainly as a source of revenue and select/invite most of their films directly from premium sources like sales agents, distributors, contacts or other festivals. These festivals can offer you a lot of value if selected, but you can pay big money submitting thinking you have a chance, when you actually don’t.