17 U.S. Film Festivals That Are Absolutely Worth a Trip

Check off a new destination, mingle with celebrities and enjoy the best new movies: It's the perfect vacation concept for cinephiles.

OK, film buffs, here's an aspiration: Travel to a top-notch film festival. Not only is it a chance to see 100 or more of the latest and greatest films within a few days, but these are festivals, and that means there is a lot more to do. With films come movie stars, directors, screenwriters and others involved in every aspect of the movie-making process, and some of the celebrities, producers and directors will give workshops and lead discussions about their work. There also are parties where guests can mingle with celebrities while munching on gourmet food and sipping a craft cocktail or a fine wine. What's there not to like about that?

To get you started, follow our guide to 15 of the top festivals in the U.S. Thanks to the mostly indoor nature of film festivals, these events occur throughout the year. This is by no means an exhaustive list—there are many more festivals out there—but these should be on every cinephile's travel plan.


1) Sundance Film Festival

When: Mid-late January

Where: Park City, Salt Lake City, Ogden and Sundance, Utah

What: The largest independent film festival in the U.S. was founded by actor-director Robert Redford in 1981. Sundance shows new work from the world’s independent filmmakers. There are competitive selections for American and international dramatic and documentary films and noncompetitive showcase films, including the Sundance Online Film Festival. About 200 films are screened in 10 days. For the 2016 festival, almost 13,000 films were submitted from 120 nations and there are now Sundance festivals being held in London and Hong Kong. 

Where to stay: The Park City Marriott is the official headquarters for the festival. The hotel is adjacent to the Prospector Square Theater, where most of the films are screened. The Park City location is perfect for also visiting one of area's several ski resorts.

Sundance Film Festival


2) Ann Arbor Film Festival

When: Late March

Where: Ann Arbor, Michigan

What: The longest-running independent and experimental film festival in America (the 2017 event will be the 55th), the week-long Ann Arbor Film Festival showcases more than 180 films from all over the world. The films are picked from about 3,000 annual submissions. Genres screened during the six-day event include experimental, animation, documentary, fiction and performance works. Guests also can join in on filmmaker retrospectives, gallery installations, panel discussions and artist programs. The festival is an Academy Award-qualifying festival for the Short Films category.

Where to stay: In a quiet residential neighborhood about six minutes away from the festival site by taxi is the Stone Chalet Bed and Breakfast Inn. Amenities include a free cooked-to-order breakfast daily, free on-street parking, complimentary coffee and more. Live entertainment features musicians, singers and magicians.


3) Atlanta Film Festival

When: Late March-early April

Where: Midtown Atlanta, Georgia

What: One of only two dozen Academy Award-qualifying festivals in the U.S., the Atlanta Film Festival attracts more than 25,000 people to screen more than 150 new independent, international, animated, documentary, and short films. Screenings often include dialogue with filmmakers. There also are awards, creative conferences, master classes and filmmaker dialogues. Celebrity guests in recent years have included Josh Brolin, Eddie Vedder, Margaret Cho, Jeff Foxworthy, Pauley Perrette and Jasmine Guy.

Where to stay: The quaint Highland Inn is less than two miles from downtown Atlanta in the Poncey-Highland neighborhood. The historic inn offers 24-hour concierge and front-desk services, free parking and Wi-Fi, event hosting and pet-friendly rooms.


4) Ashland Independent Film Festival

When: April

Where: Ashland, Oregon

What: Ashland is one of only 20 festivals in the U.S. selected to receive a grant from The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The festival attracts filmmakers, actors and documentary subjects. AIFF takes place on five screens of the art-deco Varsity Theatre, the Historic Ashland Armory and Ashland Street Cinema. More than 90 films are screened in five days. In addition to films, there are parties, discussions and more.

Where to stay: There are many small B&Bs and boutique hotels near the festival. One that stands out is Anne Hathaway’s B&B and Garden Suites. The B&B is dedicated to being green, which includes recycling, composting, buying locally, using refillable toiletry containers and more. Amenities include a three-course breakfast, afternoon tea, a front porch swing, spacious gardens, concierge service and organic food.  

Ashland Independent Film Festival


5) WorldFest: Houston International Film Festival

When: Mid April

Where: Houston, Texas

What: Founded 50 years ago, WorldFest is the oldest independent film and video festival in the world. WorldFest screens only 55-60 feature film premieres in order to maintain its focus on independent feature films. WorldFest also has competition in TV production, documentary, student films, TV commercials, music videos, screenplays and more. Directors Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Ang Lee, the Coen Brothers, Francis Ford Coppola and David Lynch all premiered their first films at WorldFest.

Where to stay: Stay at the site of the Festival Club, the master classes and the awards gala—The DoubleTree by Hilton. The Greenway Plaza hotel includes a business center, fitness center, meeting rooms and an outdoor pool. Also enjoy free Wi-Fi, three restaurants and room service.


6) Nashville Film Festival

When: Mid April

Where: Nashville, Tennessee

What: The Nashville Film Festival has accumulated several honors since its inception in 1969: One of MovieMaker Magazine’s 25 film festivals worth the entry fee; one of the best film festivals by Film Festival Today and one of Brooks Institute’s top five film festivals in the U.S. The festival attracts more than 15,000 fans every year for screenings in many genres, but especially those with a musical theme. There also are a variety of workshops, forums and after-show parties throughout the festival’s 10-day run. Celebrity honorees and participants have included William Shatner, Al Gore, Nicole Kidman, Ashley Judd, Brad Paisley, Peter Falk, Patrick Swayze and more.

Where to stay: The Courtyard by Marriott, Green Hills is a preferred partner of the festival. The upscale hotel is less than a half-mile from the Regal Theater where festival screenings are held. The hotel has suites in addition to standard rooms, an outdoor pool and lounge area, a fitness center, media pods in the lobby and dining at The Bistro and the poolside lounge.

Nashville Film Festival


7) Tribeca Film Festival

When: End of April

Where: Downtown New York City, New York

What: Created by Robert De Niro in response to the 9/11 attacks, Tribeca is now considered one of the top international film festivals. Tribeca attracts more than 400,000 people for more than 1,000 film screenings, award ceremonies, special gala events and free outdoor “drive-ins.” Celebrity guests including Danny DeVito, Chris Rock, J.J. Abrams, Jodi Foster, Joss Whedon and Whoopi Goldberg, were at the 2016 festival.

Where to Stay: Ranked one of the best hotels in New York, the boutique Smyth Hotel by Thompson epitomizes luxury. James Beard Award-winning chef Andrew Carnellini helms little Park, the onsite restaurant. There also is a high-end craft cocktail lounge, artistic living spaces, complimentary town car service and bottled water at turndown, among the many luxury amenities.

Tribeca Film Festival


8) Seattle International Film Festival

When: Mid May to early June

Where: Seattle, Washington

What: The 25-day Seattle International Film Festival has been a success for almost 40 years. It draws more than 150,000 visitors each year and features more than 500 films from 80 countries shown in three theaters. Hundreds of directors, actors and industry professionals are usually in attendance, and awards are presented for Best New Director, Best Documentary, Best New American Film and more. SIFF’s mission is to “create experiences that bring people together to discover extraordinary films from around the world.”

Where to stay: The Pan Pacific Hotel Seattle is close to festival venues, fine dining, shopping and attractions. It features views of the Seattle skyline, Space Needle and Lake Union. Luxurious rooms exude a Zen influence and feature European soaking tubs, Hypnos beds, plush bedding, and ultra-high-speed wireless internet.


9) Los Angeles Film Festival

When: Mid June

Where: Los Angeles, California

What: The Los Angeles Film Festival screens the work of American and international filmmakers by showcasing more than 200 feature films, shorts and music videos from more than 30 countries. The festival takes place in many theaters and locations over nine days in Los Angeles. Events include a filmmaker retreat, coffee talks, master classes, awards and a day-long forum for African American filmmakers. Selection to the festival qualifies films for several awards, including Academy Awards in Narrative, Animated and Documentary Short Film categories.

Where to stay: If you're going to a film festival, you might as well stay in the heart of Hollywood at the Sunset Plaza Hotel. Amenities include a heated pool, fitness center, free Wi-Fi, charging stations for electric vehicles and more.


10) Nantucket Film Festival

When: Late June

Where: Nantucket, Massachusetts

What: The Nantucket Film Festival takes place on Nantucket Island, 30 miles off the Massachusetts coast. The festival was formed in 1996 to to promote cinema screenwriting. Today, people come from all over the world to screen films and attend workshops and other programs. The festival screens approximately 100 films over the course of six days. Don't miss the All-Star Comedy Roundtable, the Screenwriters Tribute, Late Night Storytelling and other events with celebrity hosts, including Ben Stiller, Jim Gaffigan and  Chris Matthews and Glenn Close (below). 

Where to stay: The Beachside at Nantucket is a five-minute walk to Jetties Beach and 12 minutes to Main Street. The 90-room hotel includes a heated outdoor pool on the grounds and access to a tennis court at Jetties Beach. There also are three two-bedroom suites on the property and some rooms are pet-friendly for an additional charge. 


11) Telluride Film Festival

When: Labor Day weekend (September)

Where: Telluride, Colorado

What: Each Labor Day weekend, thousands of film enthusiasts flood Telluride for four days of films, and fans don’t even know the program until the festival starts. TFF screens films, pays tribute to film legends and offers discussions with films’ creators. Telluride Film Festival audiences were the first in the world to see “Juno," “Brokeback Mountain," “The Crying Game," “Blue Velvet” and many more films that went on to earn awards and critical acclaim. The festival is not a competition; it is simply a showcase for great films from around the world.

Where to stay: If you want to stay in luxury, check into the Madeline, with ski-in and ski-out service with a ski valet. Reserve a guest room or a four-bedroom residence. Enjoy the sky outdoor pool on the Sky Terrace with two hot tubs and fire pits, the Black Iron Kitchen & Bar, the M Club with billiard tables, onsite Starbucks, a spa and even bath baristas who will draw your bath complete with salts and oils.

Teeluride Film Festival


12) New York Film Festival

When: Late September to mid October

Where: New York City, New York

What: Often called “the granddaddy” of U.S. film festivals (2016 is its 54th), the New York Film Festival is organized by film critics and features many of the major films shown in Cannes and Venice. With more than 30 films shown in 17 days, the festival draws about 75,000 people and also showcases titles that have not played the rounds at the larger events. The main venue for the festival is Lincoln Center’s Alice Hall.

Where to stay: Just a few blocks away from the Lincoln Center is the four-star Empire Hotel. It has a luxurious rooftop lounge, an outdoor swimming pool with poolside bar, a steakhouse, modern fitness facilities, high-speed Wi-Fi and chic accommodations.


13) Out on Film Festival

When: Early October

Where: Atlanta, Georgia

What: Popular for more than 25 years, Atlanta's Out on Film is one of the most-respected and well-attended LGBT film festivals in the Southeast. More than 50 films are screened in eight days at Midtown Art Cinema. The festival’s mission is to support LGBT film and video art forms by showcasing films by, for and about the LGBT community.  

Where to stay: The elegant Four Seasons Hotel Atlanta is near the festival and offers a sauna, saltwater swimming pool, hot tubs, a concierge and fitness facilities.


14) Chicago International Film Festival

When: Mid October

Where: Chicago, Illinois

What: Hundreds of films are screened in 15 days at the Chicago International Film Festival. Selections include feature-length documentaries, films by first-time filmmakers and short-subject films from more than 55 countries. World-renowned directors including Martin Scorsese, Peter Weir, Mike Leigh, Jan Troell, Tsai Ming-Liang and Wim Wenders have been presented. Cinema/Chicago, the presenting body of the festival, is a year-round nonprofit that works to provide underserved Chicago residents access to world-class films.

Where to stay: The headquarters hotel for the festival is the JW Marriott Chicago. Enjoy upscale dining at the onsite Florentine Italian restaurant or the more casual Lobby Lounge. There also is a spa and fitness center with pool and sauna, and rooms come with five-fixture bathrooms, luxury linens and refined furnishings.


15) Napa Valley Film Festival

When: Early November

Where: Napa, Yountville, St. Helen, Calistoga, California

What: A celebration of food, film and—of course—wine, the Napa Valley Film Festival is young (its sixth festival is 2016) but has the advantage of being held in California wine country. More than 120 new independent films and previews will be shown at 13 venues throughout four villages. There will be 300 filmmakers and celebrities on hand to interact with audiences. In addition to films, there will be film panels, culinary demonstrations, wine tastings, celebrity tributes, an awards ceremony and several parties and receptions. Previous guests have included Bill Paxton, Mike Myers, Anna Camp, Michelle Monaghan, Kevin Costner (right) and more.

Where to stay: Perhaps the best place to stay is the hotel where the box office will be set up: The Mount View Hotel & Spa in Calistoga. Guests can stay in a standard room or in a winery balcony suite or winery guest cottage that comes with a hot tub. Amenities include wine tastings, mineral whirlpool, day spa, swimming pool, feather beds, free espresso, aromatherapy and much more.

Napa Valley Film Festival


16) Mill Valley Film Festival

When: Early to mid October

Where: Mill Valley, California and various locations

What: Held in high esteem as a “filmmaker’s festival,” the Mill Valley Film Festival has transformed from its humble beginnings as a small, three-day showcase into an eleven-day, world-renowned cinematic affair. The festival provides the best of both worlds–introducing audiences to new, up-and-coming filmmakers, as well as celebrating the works of well-established greats. The festival showcases the works of more than 200 filmmakers from over 50 countries in categories such as World Cinema, US Cinema, Valley of the Docs, Children’s FilmFest, a daily shorts program, and Active Cinema–MVFF’s activist films initiative. Tributes, spotlights and galas are also sprinkled throughout. The intimate, noncompetitive setting has attracted the likes of Dustin Hoffman, Ang Lee, Brie Larson, Steve McQueen and more. The festival takes place in various venues throughout Southern Marin including Mill Valley, San Rafael, Larkspur and Corte Madera.

Where to stay: With a number of hotels and B&Bs in the area, one can be certain to find the perfect place to relax when the festivities are over. A notable choice is the Acqua Hotel, situated on the edge of Richardson Bay, providing splendid views of the water from its simple, tranquil rooms.  Its location is also near San Francisco, Mt. Tamalpais, Muir Woods, Point Reyes and the vineyards of Napa and Sonoma, so you can be sure to find things to do outside of the film festival. 


17) Sonoma International Film Festival

When: Late March to early April

Where: Sonoma, California

What: Celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2017, the Sonoma International Film Festival will highlight over 90 specially chosen films including independent features, documentaries, world cinema and shorts. Dedicated to promoting independent film, celebrating cultural diversity and encouraging young filmmakers, the festival also features works from both Sonoma Valley middle and high school students. Previous years have focused on themes such as Women in Film and Latino films. Former tributes have included filmmaking luminaries John Lasseter, Blythe Danner, Bruce Willis, Susan Sarandon (below) and more. Where to stay: With a number of hotels and B&Bs in the area, one can be certain to find the perfect place to relax when the festivities are over. A notable choice is the Acqua Hotel, situated on the edge of Richardson Bay, providing splendid views of the water from its simple, tranquil rooms.  Its location is also near San Francisco, Mt. Tamalpais, Muir Woods, Point Reyes and the vineyards of Napa and Sonoma, so you can be sure to find things to do outside of the film festival. 

Where to stay: Pair award-winning movies with a stay at an award-winning hotel. MacArthur Place has been recognized as one of the “World’s Best” Hotels in Conde Nast Traveler’s annual Reader’s Choice Award and also as one of the “Top 10 Hotels in San Francisco and Northern California.” With complimentary amenities like the breakfast buffet, nightly wine and cheese reception, DVDs from the library (if you haven’t gotten your fill from the festival), Wi-Fi, gym and spa facilities with steam rooms, it’s easy to see why. 

Susan Sarandon at her tribute during the Sonoma International Film Festival.

 

Dustin Turner
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