Of all the worldwide events that emphasize the role of storytelling in modern society, film festivals are perhaps the most impactful. After all, they do much more than just highlight feel-good flicks and offer sneak peeks of upcoming blockbusters — they provide a platform to new and diverse filmmakers, honor creatives for their hard work and well-crafted stories, and remind audiences of the need for equality and representation in entertainment. Film has a powerful way of touching hearts and shifting perceptions, and nowhere is that on better display than at the world’s biggest festivals.

So, without further ado, here are six of our favorites.

A person's hands holding a clapperboard
Photo by Jakob Owens

The Big Three

Thousands of film festivals take place every year, each doing their part to showcase a variety of stories from around the globe, but only a few command the entire world’s attention. Most popular of all are the festivals held in Venice, Cannes, and Berlin, collectively known as the Big Three.

Venice

Every summer, the stone bridges, opulent buildings, and floating islands of Venice play host to the world’s oldest film festival. Dating back to 1932, the Venice International Film Festival is a renowned cultural event, but it’s just one of several annual exhibitions held in the city. The Biennale, the Italian foundation that oversees the festival, also manages events dedicated to architecture, dance, music, theatre, and more, making it clear that a passion for the arts runs through Venice’s canals.

In recent years, the film festival has opened with movies that went on to dominate at the Academy Awards, such as “Gravity” in 2013 and “La La Land” in 2016. Additionally, many other acclaimed films — like “The Shape of Water” and “Roma” — have debuted during this festival and taken home its Golden Lion. So, if you’d ever like to get an idea of which movies will make it big during awards season, pay attention to Venice!

To attend: This festival is open to the public and usually begins in late August. You can purchase tickets to individual screenings (ranging between 5 and 30 euro) or festival passes (up to 1,600 euro).

Cannes, home to one of the world's top film festivals.
Photo by Barna Bartis

Cannes

The most exclusive film festival in the world, this invitation-only event shines the spotlight on southern France every May. Near the city’s yacht-lined harbor, you’ll find the red carpet swarming with famous actors and actresses, rising stars, and hopeful contenders for the festival’s most coveted award, the Palme d’Or.

In addition to screening their latest movies, many recent Cannes attendees have used the festival to share messages about gender equality in cinema. In 2015, after a security guard barred a group of women from entering an event because they weren’t wearing high heels, several stars spoke out about the festival’s dress code. And in 2018, actress and jury president Cate Blanchett led 81 other women up the stairs of the main venue. They represented the 82 female directors (compared to 1,688 male directors) who have taken prizes home since the festival’s inception — it was a powerful protest that clearly reflected the growing empowerment of women in the entertainment industry.

To attend: Unfortunately, this festival is not open to the public, so you’ll need to work in the film industry or the press to score an invitation. That said, plenty of tourists hang around the city in May, so if you’d like to enjoy Cannes’ overall atmosphere, that’s always an option.

Berlin

A venue at Berlinale, one of the world's top film festivals.
Photo by Anna Vecher

Usually referred to by its moniker of “Berlinale,” this festival takes place in Germany’s artistic, party-hard capital. Berlinale attracts huge numbers of people every February, with its 2018 attendance totaling 18,000 film professionals, 3,700 journalists, and hundreds of thousands of people from the general public. And if those numbers weren’t impressive enough, the festival also screens a staggering 400 films each year.

The festival also coincides with the European Film Market, one of the largest trade meetings in the industry. It brings roughly 10,000 film professionals to Berlin, where they network, buy and sell films, and learn about new industry trends — setting the tone for the movies that will hit theaters around the globe in years to come.

To attend: This festival is open to the public, but Berlinale only sells a limited number of tickets online. It’s relatively easy to buy tickets in person, although you’ll need to check the program for more information. In general, tickets cost 13 euro.

The red carpet in Venice, one of the top film festivals in the world.
Photo by Elisa Giudici

Other Major Film Festivals

Though we could list dozens of influential film festivals under this heading — Rotterdam for its support of filmmakers from developing countries, Tribeca for its post-9/11 revival of a Manhattan neighborhood, imagineNATIVE for its inclusion of Indigenous peoples, Shanghai and Tokyo for their dominance in the Asian market — the following festivals are some of the biggest in the business. They may not be intimate events, but anyone who follows entertainment should keep an eye on Toronto, Sundance, and SXSW. Here’s why.

Toronto, home to one of the world's top film festivals.
Photo by Scott Webb

Toronto

There’s a reason that the Toronto International Film Festival, or TIFF, is a big deal in the film industry. Every September, it brings hundreds of thousands of people to the shores of Lake Ontario, where the dynamic metropolis rolls out both the welcome mat and the red carpet. And although TIFF doesn’t count as one of the Big Three, it’s not far behind Venice, Cannes, or Berlin in terms of prestige, explaining why many producers use it to generate Oscar buzz for their newest movies.

While TIFF’s jury does give out certain prizes, it’s the festival’s attendees who decide which films receive the top honor: the People’s Choice Award (which is awarded in three categories). With past distinctions given to “Slumdog Millionaire,” “12 Years A Slave,” and “Room,” film buffs often look to this award as a good predictor of Oscar winners in categories like Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor and Actress. And since 2018 People’s Choice Awards went to “Green Book” (feature film) and “Free Solo” (documentary), we wouldn’t be surprised if these movies nabbed an Oscar or two.

To attend: This festival is open to the public, as TIFF needs fans to weigh in on the People’s Choice Award. Premium tickets, which cost between 25 and 82 CAD, might include red-carpet screenings, premieres, or audience Q&As. Regular tickets cost between 18 and 42 CAD, and rush tickets (when available) cost 20 or 40 CAD.

Theater at Sundance, one of the world's top film festivals
Photo by Leah Tribbett
Flyers at Sundance, one of the world's top film festivals
Photo by Louie Alfaro

Sundance

“The work of independent artists inevitably reflects the state of our culture and the times in which we live. Their stories are often irreverent, challenging, compelling, and unexpected, and not only possess the power to move and hopefully inspire audiences, but also speak to our shared humanity.”

— Robert Redford

Presided over by actor and director Robert Redford, Sundance is perhaps the most influential film festival in the United States. It began decades ago as a relatively low-profile event but has grown into a major celebration of cinema, attracting top talent from Hollywood and the international film community. And the festival is still growing — for 2019, the Sundance Institute received a record-high 14,259 film submissions from 152 countries.

Despite the fanfare now surrounding the festival, it has always maintained its focus on independent films across a variety of genres. With documentaries, dramas, comedies, horrors, and plenty of other films, festival-goers have their pick of movies, and each one will make an impression. Among the most successful titles that have premiered at the festival are “Get Out,” “Call Me By Your Name,” “500 Days of Summer,” and “the Blair Witch Project.”

The action takes place every January in Park City, Utah, where the calendar is packed with premieres, Q&As, panels, and more. Winters in Utah can feature either blue or blustery skies; regardless, Park City’s ski resorts, upper-end restaurants, art galleries, mom-and-pop shops, and Banksy originals make for the perfect Sundance backdrop.

To attend: This festival is open to the public and offers a variety of passes and packages, in addition to individual tickets. Passes and packages go on sale in October, costing hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Individual tickets cost 25 USD and become available in January, with early access given to Sundance Institute members and locals.

A concert at SXSW, which hosts one of the world's top film festivals.
Photo by Ryan Loughlin

SXSW

Every March, this event brings professionals and creatives from a variety of fields to Austin, Texas, a college town that puts good music at the forefront. From keynote addresses to networking parties, SXSW provides ample opportunities to learn all about modern communications and industries.

Even though the event isn’t solely dedicated to cinema, its film festival is undoubtedly one of its most important branches. This year, the SXSW Film Festival will open with the world premiere of “Us,” the latest horror movie from Jordan Peele, and showcase dozens of additional film projects. And with four concurrent festivals dedicated to music, comedy, gaming, and emerging technology, the conference allows for close interaction — and possibilities for future collaborations — between attendees. It’s a dynamic event that pushes creatives to redefine their industries in the 21st century.

To attend: this festival is open to the public. SXSW sells platinum badges that include access to the entire conference, as well as individual badges to certain festivals. Badges go on sale in September (1,150 USD for a platinum badge and 825 USD for a festival badge), but the rates steadily increase as SXSW approaches.

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Eager to learn more about filmmakers’ storytelling efforts around the world? Check out our movie buff’s guides to Jordan, West Hollywood, and the USA.

Header image by Kilyan Sockalingum
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Whitney Brown
Whitney Brown is a recent journalism graduate and travel writer based in Utah. She has lived in France and Ireland, and she's always planning her next big adventure. In addition to her passion for travel, Whitney loves archaeology, photography and floral design.