When it comes to film festivals, you know the biggest hitters—Cannes, Sundance, maybe Venice and Telluride. But they’re tough events for pleasure travel. The Cannes festival is mostly for the film industry and the press, so if you went, you’d likely be able to see only a handful of public events. Other festivals are decidedly pricey. Example: A full-access ticket to the Sundance Film Festival in Utah costs $7,500. And that’s not including a donation of at least $5,000 to be able to buy the priority pass to the first half of the festival.
Happily, there are some terrific, high-quality, more affordable film fests in the US and abroad that you can definitely attend as fully as you’d like. They offer eclectic selections of films…the camaraderie of other film buffs…a much more audience-friendly experience…and they’re ideal to build a vacation around.
Here are six of the best lesser known film festivals in order of their dates in 2019…
TCM Classic Film Festival
Hollywood/Los Angeles, April 11–14. This four-day event celebrates not the newest but the classic films, which cry out for the glamour and glitter of big screens. Headquartered in the heart of Hollywood, attendees view movies in some of the nation’s most iconic venues including the historic TCL Chinese Theatre, the Egyptian Theatre—and poolside at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel.
Each year celebrates a different theme, such as Make ’Em Laugh: Comedy in the Movies (2017)…Powerful Words: The Page Onscreen (2018)…and the upcoming Follow Your Heart: Love at the Movies (2019). The 2019 film roster hasn’t been announced yet, but Powerful Words films included The Ten Commandments starring Charlton Heston as Moses and Yul Brynner as Pharaoh Ramesses II…Phantom of the Opera featuring a live orchestral accompaniment…Stage Door with Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers…Murder on the Orient Express…Kramer vs. Kramer…Bull Durham…and more.
Tickets start at $299 for a three-day pass that’s good for the major showings at the big theaters…rise to the “Classic” ticket ($649), a four-day pass that includes all films at all venues…and finally the “Spotlight” ($2,149), which includes all of the above plus an opening-night gala (celebs likely), meet-and-greet events and more.
All festival venues are within walking distance of one another and are Americans with Disabilities Act accessible.
While you’re there: TCM’s three-hour Classic Movies Bus Tour is a fun add-on (TCM.com/tours/tour_la.html). You may want to stay at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel—it’s the most central lodging option, with many events taking place on premises. FilmFestival.TCM.com
Karlovy Vary International Film Festival
Czech Republic, June 28–July 6. Held in an absurdly beautiful rural Czech spa town, this is one of the most enjoyable European festivals. Every summer, A-list stars from around the world converge here for a hotly anticipated lineup of Eastern European and Western European films. Restaurants are few and far between, so don’t be shocked if you sit down to dinner next to Robert De Niro, Susan Sarandon or John Malkovich. (Asking for selfies is frowned upon, but stars often are happy to chat.)
The town of Karlovy Vary is legendary for its curative natural hot springs. The architecture is delightful, as well—candy-colored 18th-, 19th- and early-20th-century homes are arrayed along the canal running through the old part of town. One unique gem is the neo-baroque Grandhotel Pupp, thought to have inspired Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Festival tickets are very affordable. You can purchase a one-day, three-day, five-day or whole-festival pass for 250 CZK to 1,200 CZK (about $11 to $54), with discounts for people 65 and older. Thanks to the festival’s “No Barriers” project, moviegoers using wheelchairs, plus their escorts, receive free tickets to barrier-free cinemas, assistance services, transportation throughout Karlovy Vary in specially modified vehicles and more.
While you’re there: Consider renting a bicycle to “commute” between the dozen-plus cinemas—rentals are widely available. KVIFF.com
Mill Valley Film Festival
San Rafael, California, first two weeks of October (exact dates vary by year). Exuding impeccable taste—nine of the 11 Academy Award Best Picture awards given between 2008 and 2018, including Slumdog Millionaire and The King’s Speech, have screened here—Mill Valley Film Festival has been commemorating the best in short and feature-length films for four decades. Celeb sightings (Kristin Scott Thomas, Holly Hunter, Sir Ian McKellen) are pretty much guaranteed at this 11-day Bay Area gathering, which has earned a reputation as being a “filmmaker’s festival” by highlighting 200-plus filmmakers from around the globe every year.
Single-film tickets are available for $16.50, with 12-packs for $150 ($12.50/ticket). If you want to make a (mostly) tax-deductible contribution, you can purchase an all-access festival pass for $2,750, which gets you access to 11 days of films, panels, music shows, opening- and closing-night galas and VIP receptions.
While you’re there: Set aside plenty of time for sightseeing. Mill Valley is located just 14 miles north of San Francisco and about an hour’s drive to Sonoma wine country. MVFF.com
Margaret Mead Documentary Festival
American Museum of Natural History, New York City, October (exact dates vary by year). One of the oldest and most respected documentary festivals, the Margaret Mead Film Festival, screens fascinating documentaries, experimental films, animation and more from around the world with an emphasis on people and cultures. Recent films included Ouaga Girls, about a group of African women studying in Burkina Faso to become auto mechanics…and Lust for Sight (La fureur de voir), about documentarian Manuel von Stürler’s gradual vision loss and his deeper appreciation of what it means to “see.”
Tickets are very affordable at $12 for an individual film, $30 for a pass that covers three films during any one day and $50 for five films over three days. Both passes include access to the festival’s special events such as panel discussions with filmmakers. Tip: A pass doesn’t guarantee a seat, and opening-night and prime-time screenings sell out quickly, so mark your calendar to check the website in early September, when details are posted and you can reserve seats at specific films.
While you’re there: Explore the galleries of the museum, including the 122-foot-long titanosaur fossil in the Fossil Hall (alas, it’s not the same one that fell so comically in the 1938 screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby). Between films, walk across the street to visit the New-York Historical Society. AMNH.org/mead
BFI London Film Festival
London’s West End/Leicester Square and the South Bank beside the River Thames, October (exact dates vary by year).This brilliant festival of festivals takes place in the greatest city in the world (but perhaps I’m biased?) and is dedicated to championing stellar new films. Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water and Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here both played here in 2017, to great audience delight, with the fest closing with Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. You’ll also have the chance to listen in on a series of idea-generating talks, called LFF Connects, featuring high-profile creative artists such as Cate Blanchett discussing her 13 characters in Manifesto.
Weekday matinees cost £10 to £14 each, depending on venue (about $14 to $18). Evening and weekend screenings cost £13 to £20 each (about $17 to $26), with a three-movie pass at £30 (about $40).
While you’re there: London is a top-notch walking city. My favorite walk takes about 20 minutes without stopping, but you’ll definitely want to stop and breathe in the history-soaked surroundings. Starting at London Bridge, cross the bridge and walk toward the Shard, the UK’s tallest skyscraper, and walk along the South Bank to the British Film Institute, tucked beneath the Waterloo Bridge. Along the way, you’ll pass Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre…the bustling Borough Market…a replica of the Golden Hinde (the ship on which Sir Francis Drake circumnavigated the globe in the late-16th century)…The Clink Prison Museum…and the Tate Modern museum. WhatsOn.BFI.org.uk/lff
International Film Festival of Kerala
Kerala, India, December 7–14. This is a fun festival held in what’s arguably the most beautiful (and temperate) of the Indian states. It’s close to the Arabian Sea and surrounded by the Western Ghats mountain range, home to elephants, tigers and nearly 200 species of amphibians.
Films, including Bollywood (of course) and international, play in 14 venues across the city including the 1,200-seat Tagore Theatre, the largest. Expect enthusiastic audiences providing ample cheers and applause. The excitement spills over post-show, with festival-organized performances of traditional Indian song and dance.
There are no paid tickets for specific showings. Rather, attendees register as “Delegates” (you can do this online) by paying 2,000 INR (about $27). After registering, you can reserve seats for individual screenings online. The Delegate fee also allows entry to panel discussions, art and musical exhibitions and various other presentations. Delegate registration opens up in early November.
While you’re there: Set aside time for a daytime boat tour through the Kerala backwaters, a tranquil, picturesque chain of lagoons and lakes near the Arabian Sea. I like to spend the day on a boat in this “Venice of the East” before catching a film in the evening. IFFK.in
To Enjoy Festivals More
Film festivals tend to attract fascinating characters, so whichever festival you choose, be sure to mingle. And if you want a truly one-of-a-kind experience, when you view trailers online at festival websites, pay attention to whether the words “sales company” or “distribution company” appear at the end of the credits. Either one means that rights have been purchased to distribute the film to theaters.
My advice: If the film doesn’t include one of those phrases, which means it doesn’t have a distributor—go see it. Sometimes a wonderful film just never gets distributed. And if that’s the case, you—or anyone else—may never have another chance to see it.