Like Movies? You'll Love a Film Festival Vacation
Be the star of your next getaway by booking a trip to one of the 4,000 film fests staged worldwide
Leah Rozen, a former film critic for People magazine, is a freelance writer for The New York Times, More and Parade.
That’s a portmanteau for getting away from it all while visiting another city or town specifically to attend a film festival.
Sure, everyone knows about the highly publicized South by Southwest Film Festival, currently running in Austin, Texas, the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, and the Cannes Film Festival in the south of France, but those are just three out of the more than 4,000 film festivals held annually around the world.I’m just back from a four-day stay in Miami for the 30th annual Miami Film Festival. I went there as a guest of the festival, appearing on a panel to wax wise on the state of film criticism. I also saw eight movies, including a documentary that I absolutely loved called Oma & Bella, which is about two old Jewish women in Berlin, both Holocaust survivors, who spend hours cooking dishes they remember from their childhoods.
(MORE: How Travel Taught Me to Live More Fully and Simply)
This wasn’t exactly hardship duty. Would I rather be eating the empanadas sold at the snack bar of one of the festival’s theaters and soaking up rays at the hotel pool for a few days, or slogging through the snow and slumped on my couch in my small apartment in New York finishing up yet another writing assignment?
But I’d go even if I were paying my own way. Film festivals are fun. They’re not just for movie stars, show biz industry professionals or movie critics. They’re for anyone who loves movies.
Take a look at a map of the United States (or the world if you’re feeling ambitious or rich or, better yet, both). Pick a place that you’ve always meant to visit and I can almost guarantee that a film festival is held there at some point during the year.
San Antonio? The 19th annual San Antonio Film Festival runs June 19–23 this year. Seattle? The Seattle International Film Festival stretches from May 16 to June 9. Sarasota, Fla.? Mark April 5–14 on your calendar for the Sarasota Film Festival. And those are just three cities I picked at random that begin with an S.
Most film festivals feature a mix of commercial films, art house movies, international cinema and documentaries. Some festivals have a special area of concentration, be it documentaries (the True/False festival in Columbia, Mo.), indie films made by and about African-Americans (the American Black Film Festival, gay movies (the Louisville LGBT Film Festival in Kentucky’s largest city) or films with Jewish themes (the Santa Fe Jewish Film Festival). There is even a film festival aimed especially at senior citizens, the Legacy Film Festival on Aging in San Francisco.
Going to a film festival in another town is a swell way to mix tourism and culture. Figure on seeing two movies a day — or more, or fewer; it’s up to you. You’ll also want to spend time checking out the sights or lounging at the beach or pool. And don’t forget to schedule time for meal breaks so you can sample local gourmet specialties at restaurants both high and low.
To get the most out of a film festival, don’t make it a last-minute venture. If you do, tickets to the best films likely will already be gone.
So plan ahead. Make your hotel reservations early. Try to pick a hotel near one of the festival’s primary venues. That way, you can just walk to and from the theater and easily get back to your hotel.
Buy tickets in advance. Go to the festival’s website and, once the schedule of films is announced, pore over the list, reading the descriptions and write-ups on the directors and cast. Figure out which films you want to see and when — keep in mind that the golden rule of film festivals is that you can’t see everything — and order your tickets early. Aim for a mix of popular films, documentaries and quirky or foreign titles you might not get a chance to see elsewhere.
Even better, fork out the big bucks for an all-access pass that lets you zip to the head of the line at any screening.
If, like me, you’re a habitual procrastinator and don’t really focus until you actually get to the festival, don’t despair. You can often pick up a last-minute ticket, even to some of the films with the hottest word of mouth. When in doubt, go see a documentary. They are usually the strongest and most emotionally stirring films at film festivals and rarely get the attendance they deserve.
To help jumpstart your filmcation, here are five, lesser known festivals worth considering:
This festival on the resort island off Massachusetts always attracts big names, thanks partly to the participation of Ben Stiller, who spent summers in Nantucket as an adolescent. Last year, he conducted a roundtable discussion of comedy with guests Jim Carrey, Chris Rock and Saturday Night Live’s Bill Hader. In between seeing films, take a couple of hours to rent a bike and pedal along one of the island’s many bike paths to the beach.
Southern hospitality and intimate scale are the hallmarks of this festival in one of Georgia’s most scenic towns. Sponsored by the Savannah College of Art and Design, the festival imports impressive stars and industry professionals and encourages them to share their knowledge and enthusiasm at panels and lectures. Guests at last year’s festival included Alec Baldwin, Ellen Barkin, Lily Tomlin and James Cromwell.
Many of the fashionable summer residents will have already departed the eastern end of Long Island, N.Y., by the time this popular festival begins unspooling films, but plenty remain and turn out to see the mix of hot titles and worthy unknowns on the program every year. If you’d gone to the festival last year, you could have had early peeks at Argo and Silver Linings Playbook.
Pulitzer-prize winning film critic Roger Ebert, who reviews for the Chicago Sun-Times and was famous for giving movies a thumbs up or thumbs down on TV for many years, holds his very own film festival annually in his hometown of Champaign-Urbana, Ill. He picks 12 films — movies he liked or believes were overlooked — which are shown at the festival’s sole venue, the restored, 1,600-seat Virginia Theater. No surprise, Ebert himself is always very much in evidence over the long weekend.
The festival’s slogan puts it succinctly: “Film. Food. Wine.” You’re likely to sample plenty of all three at this savory festival an hour north of San Francisco. Films are shown in four of the Valley’s communities: Napa, Yountville, St. Helena and Calistoga. There’s a welcome center, a wine pavilion and a hospitality lounge in each town as well as multiple venues where films are shown. Now you just need to figure out whether a red or a white goes better with the film you’re seeing.