The History of the Film Festival

Cannes and Sundance are monikers easily recognizable to filmmakers and non-filmmakers alike, but what about Midnight Sun, Dances With Films or the Trash Film Festival? These are also film festivals, but much less identifiable and it’s no surprise. They are only three of a reported 3,500 film festivals that take place each year. To give you an idea of how important and active film festivals are, Europe has its own organization called the European Coordinator of Film Festivals (ECFF), which works with 250 festivals in over 50 European countries. Its aim? To provide informational, networking and promotional resources to artists, cultural organizations and audiences. When you consider that the international box office revenue for 2014 was a staggering $26 billion, it’s also not surprising that there would be concerted effort to gain more than a slice of such profits. Enter the film festival…a place where cinematically artistic fare may or may not be more important than business.

The first film festival took place on January 1, 1898 in Monaco, only four short years after the Lumière Brothers filmed the first motion picture. Nine years after that, the first prize-winning festival (organized by the Lumière Brothers) took place in Italy. As time progressed, festivals became more about nationalistic aspirations than they were about uncovering cinematic talent. In fact, Eduardo Antín Quintín, former director of the Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Films likens the film festivals of yesterday to the Olympics, noting that national governments desired to host international exhibitions that would showcase the countries political and cultural superiority. So while film festivals were all too often steeped with geopolitical aspirations, their continued growth was fueled by an avant-garde community that was hungry for not only artistic craftsmanship, but also interested in abandoning elitism in the hope of a more true audience experience.

There is a shocking amount of theoretical and academic research devoted to understanding the evolution of and the importance of film festivals. I will tread lightly through some of these very dense theories and arguments to highlight some of the more important film festivals, their historical importance and the state of film festivals today.


In 1932, the first reoccurring film festival (bi-annual to begin, then annual after 1935) began in Venice. Cinematically, films with sound had not only become the norm but were considerably more mature than their predecessors. With this maturity though, came postwar feelings of nationalism, which until then had been more easily hidden when intertitles, or title cards, could easily be modified to suit any language necessary. At its outset, Venice was successful because it minimized the complex nationalistic sentiments among the festival participants and it catered to the reality that cinema was becoming an international industry.

Unfortunately in time, Mussolini’s Fascist government coopted the film festival for its own political purposes. Not only did it envision the festival as the centerpiece of the country’s cultural institutions and a destination for cultural tourism, but also Mussolini himself saw the festival as a way of coalescing a fascist national identity, which in turn would legitimize his government on the international stage. Although the festival did show some cinematically important films, overall the festival in its early years was at the mercy of the government and its propagandist agenda.


The emergence of the Cannes Film Festival was a direct reaction to the Venice Film Festival’s undercurrent of fascist ideology and government control. Festival organizers desired a “truly international film exhibition,” free of governmental design and political propaganda and instead based on artistic and cinematic integrity. Set to open in 1939, it was canceled just after its first film was screened due to the German invasion of Poland, the event that marked the beginning of World War II. It wasn’t until 1946 that it resurfaced, when the country was desperate to increase tourism. One of its most notable events was in 1968, when the festival was interrupted and ultimately canceled because filmmakers, in solidarity with striking workers across France, withdrew their films from the festival.


Prior to the rise of Hitler, the German film industry was an artistically thriving industry responsible for the emergence of German Expressionism. Soon though, it found itself in the same predicament as Italy under the fascist state. Gone were the cinematic networks that supported creative and artistic freedom, replaced instead by the Third Reich, which used the industry for its own nationalistic goals. In the immediate post-war period, the United States then used the industry to show the ravages wrought by Nazism. With the increasing Cold War tensions, the West fully supported the 1951 Berlin Film Festival, envisioning that a successful festival would help prove the superiority of the Western model. The film festival was, in fact, a success and not only did it help revitalize a waning cinematic community, but it also brought Berlin once again to the forefront of the European film industry.


Throughout the 1960s, anti-colonialism, third world revolutions and anti-Vietnam movements became prominent and film festivals reflected this trend by taking on increasingly political vs. nationalistic overtones (as evidenced when The Battle of Algiers took the top prize at the 1966 Venice Film Festival). The Pesaro Film Festival, founded in 1965, was one such festival known to be political in nature and successfully provided an alternative model to the European festivals. Pesaro’s thematic programming was a direct challenge to the historical nationalistic bent apparent in festivals since Venice in 1932. Further, Pesaro’s format allowed for in-depth discussions and greater audience participation. As film festivals progressed, they did so similar to how Pesaro had long operated.


FESPACO is a bi-annual festival that accepts films primarily from African filmmakers. More remarkable for its existence as a cultural happening than for it’s importance as a film festival, it was once prominent for its optimistic hope of showcasing African cinema and creating worldwide interest in African filmmakers. Having suffered from organizational instability, it still serves as the continent’s most important film festival.   


Beginning as the Utah/US Film Festival in 1978, the festival would change its name to Sundance in 1991 (the Sundance Institute had taken over its management in 1984). Sundance has as many staunch defenders as it does voracious critics. Critics loathe its turn toward being a glam fest and lament its business-laden approach. Others criticize Sundance for what they call an anti-commercial bias and its tendency to prefer movies about angst ridden youth living on the outskirts of society. Its supporters on the other hand, applaud its continued efforts to supply socially diverse films, as well as its continued ability to serve as an alternative entryway into Hollywood for aspiring filmmakers. Most importantly, the festival has shown there is a mass American market for well-made, artistically significant films. Some of the most notable films to emerge from Sundance have been: sex, lies, and videotapes, Reservoir Dogs, The Usual Suspects, Roger and Me, Little Miss Sunshine, Garden State, Clerks, Napoleon Dynamite, The Blair Witch Project, Memento and most recently Whiplash.

So what is the state of film festivals today? Critics seem merciless in their disappointment over the current state of film festivals.  One critic lambasted the major festivals (quite possibly rightly so) by saying: they “have metamorphosed into ultra-hierarchical corporate entities in which the most glamorous, although not necessarily the most artistically distinguished, films are displayed in competitions that receive the lion’s share of media attention while more audacious work is ghettoized in sidebars that are usually only covered with any depth by specialized film magazines.” (Porton, “On Film Festivals,” 2) While this consternation may be one of the reasons for the burgeoning number of film festivals who hope to fill a gap, it’s not clear that they do.

The film festival’s appeal has skyrocketed largely because they provide an opportunity for an audience to view a large number of movies over a short time and are no longer exclusive to cinephiles. For their part, festival boards promote this accessibility and program accordingly. Audiences also crave festivals because they provide unique viewing opportunities and festivals often compete for the ability to premiere worthy films. Further, festivals offer some of the best chances for a community to interact – the Tribeca Film Festival sports masterful execution of this. Filmmaker to filmmaker, amateur to professional, filmmaker to audience, all these interactions are vital to the growth and quality of the filmmaking profession.

On the other hand, with the massive number of international film festivals (including big budget festivals) that have emerged, many worry whether there is enough quality material to fill the need. Further, it seems that with the expansion of large international festivals comes an equal number of smaller mini festivals with increasingly narrow scopes and many question whether all festivals warrant the label, “film festival.”

One of the most important concerns about the state of film festivals is the extent to which capitalism has seeped into the entire process. Are festivals simply what one author calls a “commodified product in the cultural economy,” meaning is their most important commodity that as a destination for cultural tourism? Or more importantly, are film festivals about business or art? There is a wide spectrum across which the many festivals fall in answer to this question. Successful film festivals most likely hope to achieve a dual purpose and work to cater to the rabid desires of an industry focused on marketing, promotion and profit, while also satisfying the cinematic and artistic desires of filmmakers and audiences. Whether they are successful or not is up for debate and the myriad of groups that festivals need to answer to is daunting (filmmakers, audiences, critics, festival sponsors, sales agent, distributors and buyers). For all its failings and for all its criticisms, the film festival is an entity sure to be around for years to come. It seems for the time being there is a place for all. Buyers and distributors will continue to hunt for the next big movie, filmmakers will continue to challenge themselves to make artistically relevant material and audiences will continue to come in mass to soak it all in. And maybe that’s enough.