A Layman's Guide to the World's Biggest Film Festivals


Film festivals are a place where lovers and creators of cinema can gather each year and showcase some of their favorite works of the year. Current stars, as well as up-and-coming ones, along with film enthusiasts and people who have a hand in our favorite and soon-to-be-favorite movies, all come together to celebrate the art of movie-making together. With the beginning of the New York Film Festival coming up soon, it’s time for a round up of some of the most famous and prestigious film festivals, both regional and worldwide.

1. Cannes

The Cannes Film Festival is the widely agreed to be the most well known film festival around the world today. It takes place in Cannes, France, and originated in the 1930s, when the minister of national education at the time set it up with the support of America as well as Britain. It showcases films of all genres from around the world, from animated shorts to full-length documentaries. Since its beginning, Cannes has boasted equal adjudication, having started out with one judge from each country represented (16 nations in its first year), and now having an appointed president and board of judges.

The “Festival de Cannes,” as it was rechristened in 2002, is most renowned for the way it exposes European films to worldwide audiences, and for its promotion of the idea that European cinema is an art.

2. Toronto

The Toronto International Film Festival, originally termed the “Festival of Festivals,” is one of the newer festivals, created in just 1976. But it’s risen to quite a measure of fame, with some people citing it as the second most prestigious film festival in the world behind Cannes. Though it’s begun to give attention to mainstream Hollywood films as well, it still primarily remains a showcase for independent films, in keeping with its roots. It is also famous for exposing international films, including Canadian, African, South American, and Asian films (Indian films in particular).

TIFF is unique in that it has no jury, so conventional “best actor/actress,” “best film,” “best director,” etc. awards are not given out. In fact, there’s only one type of award to be had: the People’s Choice Awards, which are given to single films in specific categories with the highest rating from the festival’s attendees of the year.

3. Venice

The Venice Film Festival was actually the first international film festival ever established. It was founded by Count Giuseppe Volpi in 1932, who originally called it the “Esposizione Internazionale d'Arte Cinematografica,” or in English, the “International Exposition of the Cinematographic Arts.” It’s part of the Venice Biennale, a cultural institution that also hosts an International Art Exhibition, International Architecture Exhibition, the Festival of Contemporary Dance, and many other artistic expositions.

The Venice Film Festival gives out awards for best actor and actress, as well as best film, and has specific sections for custom-format films (both feature length and short films) as well as a large Italian film section.

4. Berlin

Called the “Internationale Filmfestspiele Berlin” in Germany, this film festival has been around since 1951. It’s closely associated with the European Film Market, one of the three largest and most well-known movie markets worldwide. The film festival is also linked with the Berlinale Talent Campus, a school for filmmakers that happens in conjunction with the film festival every year.

The Berlinale, as it is sometimes called, features seven main categories of film (Competition, Forum, Panorama, Generation, Perspektive Deutsches Kino, Berlinale Shorts, and Retrospective), as well as other “curated special series,” featuring categories like Homage, Gala Special, and Culinary Cinema.

5. New York

Finally, let’s take a look at the film festival that's sure to be gracing our newspapers and web searches sometime soon: the New York Film Festival, an utterly non-competitive celebration founded in 1963. The films showcased here are selected annually by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, whose president William Schuman first recruited Richard Roud to create the festival in 1962. Roud’s “era” of being in charge of NYFF was characterized by a focus on European films. Following him came Richard Peña, a fan of Richard Roud’s, who upheld the non-competitive traditions of the festival while expanding past its strictly European focus.


There are plenty of other film festivals, of course, and each holds prestige for different reasons. There are regional festivals, such as the Mumbai Film Festival, or the Panafrican Film and TV Festival; and there are categorical festivals such as the Annecy Festival for animated films, or Cinequest for art and technology films. But the ones listed above are some of the most renowned and respected in the cinematic community, for bringing films from all over the world to the masses of people who attended the festivals. Film festivals have a history as long and rich as the industry itself, and the festivals we hold in high regard today reflect the humble beginnings of cinema while proudly displaying how far we’ve come since then.