What Is a Film Festival?

woman watching a film

Imagine the opportunity to see several new films, both feature-length and short, within the span of a few days. Sound good? Now envision yourself talking to those filmmakers about their work. Sound even better? Then you would love attending a film festival.

Film festivals are exciting events that showcase the best of cinema from around the world. If you’re wondering, How do film festivals work? — they are events that showcase a selection of films to an audience, typically in a specific location and over a set period of time.

Festivals can be organized by various groups, including film schools, government organizations and non-profit entities. Some of the most well-known festivals include the Cannes Film Festival in France, the Sundance Film Festival in the U.S. and the Toronto International Film Festival in Canada.

Although film festivals are open to everyone within the community, aspiring filmmakers and students are likely to gain even more from attending top film festivals in the world. Film festivals are an excellent opportunity for students pursuing a digital film or production degree to showcase their work, gain exposure to industry professionals and network with other filmmakers.

If you want to learn more or learn how to enter a film festival, this blog will take a closer look at the secret benefits of film festivals and why they can be so beneficial for filmmakers, film or production students and film enthusiasts alike.

In This Article:

How Do Film Festivals Work?

All film festivals have distinct identities. Some love to tell stories specific to specialized cultures while others love to showcase stories that will shock their audiences. There are some others that just love a good horror film. Knowing the festival’s identity will help you as a film student identify which festival your film works best in, which can increase your chances of being accepted into the festival.

After the submission deadline passes, the festival’s selection committee will review the submissions and determine which films will be accepted. As a filmmaker, you should never feel discouraged if your film does not make it into every festival, as there are a multitude of factors that play into this decision, such as:1

  • What is the quality of the film?
  • Does this film fit the festival’s identity?
  • Will this film sell tickets?
  • Will this film generate positive attention for the festival

Once the films are selected, the festival programmer will begin assembling the schedule, looking at themes and runtimes. Short films are often grouped together into a single screening while features will have their own screening. Some festivals will have themed evenings, like a local filmmakers’ night, to help draw audiences in.

After the program is set, it is published and audiences can begin purchasing tickets for the screenings they are most interested in or purchase a festival pass, allowing them to see several screenings at a discounted price. If you are one of the lucky filmmakers whose film was accepted, you are often given a free pass to attend the festival. In doing so, festival organizers hope that you will be present at the festival to answer questions about your film after it screens.

As a student, you should attend as many screenings as possible, particularly at the start of the festival when the majority of filmmakers are present. If you have business cards, bring them — you can always give one to a filmmaker whose work you particularly liked. Take time to network with the filmmakers. When you get home, connect with them on social media, including LinkedIn.

Unlocking the Secrets of Film Festivals: What They Are and Why You Should Attend

Understanding the logistics of film festivals is one thing but how do you make the most of your time while you’re there? Beyond the typical audience experience, you are encouraged to attend film festivals for other compelling reasons. For example, you will have countless films and scripts that you will want to share with the world after working with your instructors to refine and perfect them.

Attending film festivals can provide invaluable opportunities to showcase your work to industry professionals, make important connections and gain exposure that can lead to future career opportunities. Over the course of your studies, you will be taught about the specific industry roles and where your unique talents lie. Here are my top seven reasons why every film student should attend the best film festivals in the world:

1. Experience New Films

Many large film festivals will premiere films that later get more widespread distribution. However, the majority of films screened at film festivals are only available through those festivals. By attending a film festival, you will have the opportunity to see a film that you may not be able to see at any other time. This allows you to experience new stories, concepts and deliveries not accessible anywhere else.

Additionally, many film festivals have special programs for short films, a format not easily seen outside of the film festival circuit. For film students whose work is often primarily short format, this allows you a chance to see well-crafted short films and stories to help inspire your own work.

2. Network With Industry Professionals

Film festivals are filled with the filmmakers who spent countless hours producing their work. Most of these filmmakers want nothing more than to talk about the film, the process of creating that film and provide inspiration to young filmmakers, like yourself. For aspiring filmmakers, this is an excellent opportunity to learn from successful filmmakers and how others are finding ways to get their work made. Additionally, you will meet professionals from all aspects of the film industry: directors, screenwriters, producers, distributers, etc. For aspiring filmmakers, making these connections at a festival may lead to future internships or jobs.

Students in the BA in Digital Film degree program at Grand Canyon University (GCU), had the opportunity to go to the Windrider Sundance Experience while attending the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah in January 2023. Over the span of six days, the students met a wide variety of filmmakers from Oscar winners to a director currently working with Marvel Studios.

3. Exhibit Your Own Work

As an aspiring filmmaker, it is critically important to screen your work for others and gain feedback. In film school, your instructors will provide thoughtful, constructive feedback on the work you submit. At a film festival, you will be able to get feedback from the audience (did they laugh, did they cry, etc.) as well as from conversations you have after your screening.

Additionally, there are many festivals geared for students or with categories specifically for student work. By submitting your own films and scripts, you could receive feedback directly from industry professionals.

4. Exposure to Different Worlds

Film festivals are known for displaying cutting-edge and innovative filmmaking from around the world. As a film student, attending a festival can expose you to different cultures and perspectives that you may not have otherwise come across. This can help broaden your horizon and make you a more well-rounded filmmaker.

5. Meet Like-Minded People

Film festivals are a great way to meet other film students and like-minded people who are passionate about filmmaking. Most festivals host mixers and meet-ups for festival goers to mingle with each other and with the filmmakers. This can be a great way to find collaborators and build a network of creative individuals that you can work with in the future.

Additionally, there are a few organizations that host meetings alongside festivals. The Windrider Institute, which hosts the Windrider Sundance Experience, brings together Christian students from around the country to meet and watch films in Park City, Utah during the Sundance Film Festival.2 GCU is proud to be a part of this community of filmmakers as it allows our students to meet their peers.

6. Discover New Technologies and Techniques

Film festivals often highlight new technologies and techniques that are being used in the industry. Attending a festival can give you the opportunity to learn about these new innovations and how they can be applied to your own filmmaking. You may even be able to land an internship with the company.

7. Have Fun!

Let’s not forget that attending a film festival can be very exciting and a lot of fun! You will have the opportunity to see some great films, meet new people and attend events that will spark your creativity. It can be an exciting and memorable experience that you will never forget.

How To Enter a Film Festival

If you’ve been curious about how to enter a film festival, look no further. Participating in a film festival near you can help move you closer to reaching your goals of being a filmmaker. To enter a film festival, be sure to look up the festival’s guidelines online. The majority of festivals can be found on a festival aggregate site like filmfreeway.com; however, some just have their own standalone website.

Most festivals have three deadlines: an early bird, the regular deadline and a late deadline. The application fee will differ depending on which due date you meet (although for students, sometimes there is no fee at all). The deadline to apply is often several months before the actual festival to give you time to plan ahead.

Have your picture, audio and any behind-the-scenes material locked and ready to go. If you are using a festival aggregate site, you will create a listing for your film, complete with the film’s title, cast and crew information, uploaded film and behind the scenes materials. Then, it’s just a simple click to submit it to the festival of your choice.

Discover Top Film Festivals In the World and Advance Your Future in Film

Film festivals are exciting events that offer a wealth of opportunities for filmmakers, film enthusiasts and students who aspire to join the industry. At GCU, digital film students are invited to attend a myriad of film festivals throughout the year. From large scale festivals, such as the Sundance Film Festival and the Phoenix Film Festival, to smaller scale festivals, such as the AZ Drone festival ((held on GCU's campus) and the GCU Film Festival, our digital film students are encouraged to attend and participate.

As noted above, attending film festivals can help you grow as a filmmaker and gain invaluable connections that can help you get work, both as a student and once you graduate. Film festivals should be an integral part of your film education.

The Bachelor of Arts in Digital Film with an Emphasis in Production degree at GCU will give you the opportunity to develop your skills as a filmmaker, whether your interest lies in directing, cinematography, screenwriting, editing or visual effects.


1 Dennis, G. (2022, August 28). This is Everything About Film Festivals IMAFFAWARDS. Retrieved May 19, 2023.

2 (n.d)(2023, n.d.). Windrider Summit & The Sundance Film Festival Experience Windrider Institute. Retrieved May 19, 2023.

Approved by the digital film chair for the College of Arts and Media on May 22, 2023.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.