Independence days: U.S. indie film fests fit for celebration
Many consider the U.S. to be the home of indie cinema, and while that title is certainly up for debate (and we aren’t about to delve in with a hot take on it), the country definitely boasts some incredible independent film festivals. On one side of the spectrum, some events are among the most prestigious in the world and can mark a real turning point in the career of an up-and-coming filmmaker.
However, on the other side, the U.S. is home to some incredibly gutsy examples of indie cinema in its rawest and most visceral form – D.I.Y. or die, baby. Either way, here are ten U.S. indie film fests you’ll definitely want to grab tickets for.
Cleveland International Film Festival
April 4 – 15
With an aim to celebrate the human experience while promoting the power of film to entertain and to educate, CIFF promotes culturally significant filmmaking in order to enrich the local community. But that doesn’t mean CIFF is small fry when it comes to their program. As one of the largest & longest running regional film festivals in the U.S., CIFF is a premier film event attracting an audience of around 106,000 each year. In 2017 – for the 41st edition of CIFF – the festival featured a diverse line-up of over 400 films from 70 different countries.
Ashland Independent Film Festival
April 12 – 16
Bringing Southern Oregon together every Spring is the AIFF, which attracts an average of 7,000 film fans each year to enjoy over 90 feature, short, and documentary films across five days. As well as screenings, the festival also butters up filmmakers and audiences with a series of celebrative parties to encourage networking and community development.
Revered indie filmmaker Michael Tully (Don’t Leave Home) once proclaimed, “The Ashland Independent Film Festival is one of those regional gems that gives me faith & hope for the future of independent cinema.” But it’s not just Tully who enjoyed the fest – in recent years, the festival has also attracted special guests such as Helen Hunt (As Good as It Gets), Bruce Campbell (Army of Darkness), and Ty Burrell (Modern Family).
Tribeca Film Festival
April 18 – 29
Manhattan, New York City
Renowned for being a hotbed of groundbreaking, original indie cinema, Tribeca is a launchpad for rising filmmakers looking to make their mark. Those hoping to catch diverse, fresh perspectives in film will find plenty to love – in 2018, 75 of the 100 titles being screened are world premieres and 46% of the movies are directed by women.
Alongside traditionally programmed narrative features, international stories, documentaries, and genre programming, the festival also champions experimental storytelling with an immersive program showcasing VR exhibits & storyscape experiences, resulting in a film festival at the cutting edge of technology.
May 3 – December 6
After kicking off in the UK, this roaming independent film festival takes its daring program to selected events across the U.S., showcasing movies that break boundaries, bend genres, and map uncharted cinematic territories. Best Fest makes indie cinema accessible by bringing it direct to audiences. Festival representative Nicola Taylor revealed, ”We want to take the movies to the people, rather than having them read about them and not be able to see them at their local arthouse.”
As a result, Best Fest screens a major indie movie alongside an obscure delight from a rising filmmaker, thus championing original ideas from artists of all levels. Taylor added, “We’re hoping to change the way that cinemagoers engage with film by offering them a chance to see unique, most wanted indie films in a cinema setting.”
Atlanta Underground Film Festival
July 19 – 21
Promoting creative, D.I.Y. artists who work outside the system to create movies at a grassroot level, Atlanta Underground Film Festival offers a gleeful alternative to “the traditional stuffy film festival.” Providing a welcoming, informal environment where filmmakers & fans can connect and collaborate, AUFF provides a “non-stop party” in celebration of the most independent short and feature films.
Sundance Film Festival
Jan 24 – Feb 3
Park City, Utah
Robert Redford’s iconic indie film festival needs no introduction but it still deserves the plaudits. 37 years after the actor & filmmaker founded the Sundance Institute as a place for emerging filmmakers to develop original indie projects, the event has continued to go from strength to strength in celebrating unique and powerful cinematic storytelling.
Delivering the festival upon the belief film has as much power to entertain as it does spark empathy and understanding, Sundance promotes and supports independent artists and also seeks to advance how their work impacts the world. Sundance may be as big and prestigious as indie film festivals get, but it remains a unique, free-wheeling showcase of phenomenal movies, unfaltered by the mainstream.
April 20 – 29
As the world’s oldest film & video festival in the world, WorldFest evolved into a competitive film event in 1968, and is known for giving esteemed filmmakers like David Lynch (Twin Peaks), Steven Spielberg (Ready Player One), the Coen Brothers, Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing), and Oliver Stone (Platoon) their very first awards. Every year the festival honors a different country with its diverse film program and also promotes independent filmmaking at every level with its annual Short Film Showcase, honoring over 100 shorts by amateur and student filmmakers.
Milwaukee Underground Film Festival
April 19 – 22
For the past 15 years, MUFF has been amplifying voices within its annual film program. The lively, surprising festival is abuzz with fresh, invigorating ideas, celebrating cinema’s capacity to unite communities and create critical discussions about current hot topics. The student-run festival is a must for anyone looking for audacious and daring storytelling from promising new filmmakers.
Nashville Film Festival
May 10 – 19
Founded in 1969, the Nashville Film Festival has enjoyed several evolutions to become the colossal independent film event it is today. Presenting the best in world cinema, American indies, documentaries, and shorts, NashFilm screens movies by veteran masters alongside rising talent and first-time filmmakers.
Unsurprisingly for a festival located in Music City, NashFilm also boasts a unique program of films about music and hosts several events encouraging collaboration between musicians & filmmakers. With screenplay and episodic competitions, over 300 films from 56 countries, and the new Creators’ Conference promoting education and discussion, NashFilm offers nine bustling days of non-stop indie film action.
Brooklyn Film Festival
June 1 – 10
Brooklyn, New York City
Providing a public forum to advance the production of indie films, BFF draws worldwide attention to Brooklyn as a center for cinema. Promoting the power of independent filmmaking within the Brooklyn community, the festival offers impartial, creative freedom to the artists within its showcase. BFF draws a phenomenal array of filmmakers each year, accepting submissions in six categories: narrative features, documentary features, short narrative, short documentary, experimental, and animation.
Napa Valley Film Festival
November 7 – 11
One of the more uplifting indie film festivals on offer (and not just because of the luminous location), NVFF screens captivating movies intended to entertain, inspire, and enlighten audiences. As well as screening the most hyped & feelgood indie studio films, NVFF also features a selection of bold, boundary-pushing shorts & features in a section called The Lounge.
As an added bonus, NVFF also likes to accompany screenings with some of that world-class Napa Valley food & wine, so if you like that sort of thing (and honestly, who doesn’t?) then this indie film festival is about as lavish and delicious as they come.