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What Is an Independent Film Festival?

By Amanda Livingstone
Updated May 17, 2024
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Generally an independent, or indie, film festival showcases documentaries, shorts and films that are usually produced by small film studios. Student or individual amateur filmmakers have also been known to submit work to these festivals. These shows give independent filmmakers the opportunity to network, market and sell films to bigger movie studios. An independent film festival also offers actors, filmmakers and producers the chance to plan and collaborate with other industry professionals on future projects.

Each independent film festival has its own criteria for admission and award consideration. Generally, the filmmaker pays a non-refundable fee and must fill out an application to start the selection process. Once a film is selected for award consideration, copies of the film are submitted in either print or digital video format. Most film festivals will not return any media associated with the application process. Awards are usually given in the form of money, services and products.

Films that are produced, financed, or initiated by a major film studio are generally ineligible to participate. Some indie film festivals will allow films that are produced or distributed by subsidiaries of major film studios for award consideration. Typically in these cases, more than 50% of the film's financing comes from an independent source such as private investor, or from the filmmaker’s private capital. Otherwise, if more than half the film's financing comes from a major movie studio, the film will lose its indie status and will no longer be eligible for award consideration.

Nearly all of these festivals have different award categories. Popular categories for an independent film festival include best documentary, feature length film and short film. Several will also include a special category for up and coming student filmmakers. In some cases an independent film festival will only admit films from a specific category, such as documentaries or short films.

Popular festivals such as Festival de Cannes®, Sundance® and Tribeca® give filmmakers with out-of-competition films the chance to showcase their work. Out-of-competition entries are often films that are not eligible for award consideration. Usually these films are either produced by major film studios or do not meet the festival’s award consideration criteria. Some indie festivals such as Tribeca® require these films to have at least one premiere in order to be showcased.

In addition to honoring and showcasing indie films, some festivals also include award categories for actors, directors and cinematography. The Boston Film Festival® is a smaller, lesser known festival that offers best actor, actress and cinematography categories for feature films, shorts and documentaries. Festival de Cannes®, which is one of the more prestigious film festivals, also offers similar categories honoring performers and other film contributors.

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