Travel Tips

Beyond Sundance: Six Standout US Film Festivals

Locations in this article:  Atlanta, GA Nashville, TN Santa Barbara, CA Seattle, WA

This week, film-savvy travelers are making their way to Sundance, one of the most publicized and anticipated independent film festivals in the world. But you don’t have to book a last-minute flight to Park City, Utah, in the dead of winter to get a film fix.  Instead,  contributor Darra Stone shares the top six Academy Award-qualifying film festivals that take place across the country as well as some can’t-miss local attractions away from the festival crowds.

1. For Industry Insiders: The Santa Barbara International Film Festival

You don’t need to attend Sundance to rub elbows with some of the top names in show business. The Santa Barbara International Film Festival (January 24 through February 3) hosts multiple panels with A-list guests. Past panel participants have included Gore Verbinski (Pirates of the Caribbean), Graham King (Hugo), and Paul Feig (Bridesmaids). This year’s festival will honor Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, Daniel Day-Lewis, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Ben Affleck just to name a few.

For a film and wine lover, the Sideways tour is a must while visiting Santa Barbara. Travel along the same Santa Ynez route as the characters in the film, including the Fess Parker Winery & Vineyard,  stay at a bed and breakfast, and then take a tour and tasting for only $20 per person.

2. For Avant-Garde Aficionados: Ann Arbor Film Fest

The city of Ann Arbor, Michigan has more than just the University of Michigan. The city also runs the Ann Arbor Film Fest, the longest-running experiment film festival in the United States. The festival runs some of the most dynamic and cutting edge films from around the world, celebrating out-of-the-box, non-narrative pieces. Famous avant-garde and experimental filmmakers such as Andy Warhol, Yoko Ono, and George Lucas (not Star Wars, but his lesser-known shorts) have showcased at this festival.

 In between film screenings, head down to the Huron River for outdoor fun. During the off-season you can hike the paths, and in the high season, canoeing is a popular sport.

3 . For the Socially Conscious: The Atlanta Film Festival

This year instead of just walking in a parade show your support of the gay-rights movement, attend the Atlanta Film Festival. Running March 15-24, the focus of the festival is to highlight the best LGBTQ films and put the focus onto controversial issues. Every year the top LGBTQ film is given the coveted Pink Peach award. Notable films that have screened at the festival include Born Into Brothels, Winter’s Bone, and (500) Days of Summer.

While visiting Atlanta, take time to visit the Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail, which follows in the footsteps of Revolutionary wars soldiers.

4. For Mystery Lovers: Seattle International Film Festival

With a “Secret Festival” within a festival, it’s easy to see why film lovers flock to Seattle International Film Festival. Held from May 16 to June 9, one of the most widely talked about festival events is the 11am secret screening held every Sunday for the duration of the festival. Although most people know about this festival within a festival, audiences are sworn to secrecy about the actual films displayed. For those not on the “in” enough to make it to the “Secret Festival” the hundreds of other world renowned films will have to do. Notable past films and awards include Tim Burton winning Best Short for his original Frankenweenie (1985), The Cove (2009) for Best Documentary, and Run Lola Run (1999) for Best Film.

 Located just minutes away from the Puget Sound, this film festival not only offers some of the best films in the world, it also gives the viewer a chance to explore the water or city. When not attending screenings, stop by the world famous Pike Peak Market Place. After caffeinating at the market, travelers with a strong stomach can venture to the Gum Wall and stick on a piece of history.

 5. For the Equal-Rights Advocate: Cleveland International Film Festival

Held April 3 through 14, Cleveland International Film Festival spotlights diversity. This festival was granted $150,000 from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to help fund and promote minority filmmakers with their Focus on Filmmakers program. As the only multi-year grant receipt from the Academy in 2011, they have already been able to support nine up and coming filmmakers. In addition to focusing on diverse filmmakers, they have screened such films Shall We Dance?, Into the West, and Spellbound.

Movie lovers might want to take a break from the festival and head down to the house where A Christmas Story was shot. This landmark has been refurbished to its original splendor and tours are available year-round. Once you’re done reliving your child, take a trip down to the Emerald Necklace park system. There you will find 70 miles of connected bike trails and walking paths in the city.

6. For the Music Lover: The Nashville Film Festival

It’s no wonder that a film festival located in “Music City” focuses on music. The Nashville Film Festival, held April 18- 25 offers a wide-range of films from all over the world, but they put a particular emphasis on the film score. The festival offers showcases, workshops and events for songwriters and score lovers to participate in at the event. They have also screened such Academy qualifying shorts as Instead of Abracadabra, West Bank Story, and For the Birds.

Don’t miss the opportunity while in Nashville to get your honky tonk on and line-dance the night away at the world-famous Tootsies.

For more film festival-related travels, check out:

By Darra Stone for