An Expert Breaks Down Film Festival Season

You may not have realized it, but the race to the Academy Awards began this last week. Suddenly it feels a little bit normal, with movie stars walking red carpets, giving canned responses which brew gossip about who hates this one, who boinked that one, who may or may not have spit on that other one… you get it. And yes, this makes news. And news is good for films. And film festivals.  

The week before Labor Day is the kickoff of the fall films, with most of the fall contenders caught in a cinephiles’ civil war between the Venice Film Festival, the Telluride Film Festival, and the Toronto International Film Festival. These three fests set the stage for how the entire fall film release calendar and Academy race will play out. Each of these festivals has a different signature, type of audience, and type of appeal.

Brad Pitt, 79th Venice International Film Festival. Photo by Andreas Solaro/AFP via Getty Images

These festivals battle for “premier” status, which is the equivalent of being first in the comments of an Instagram post. They all want to be the first to play the significant movies, and they knife fight like Wesley Snipes in the Beat It video to lock down a program that will get the festival in as many headlines as possible.

And indeed, the stars are back on carpets. You may no longer subscribe to People Mag, but sure as hell your girlfriend knows that Timothee Chalamet stepped off a water taxi in Venice this week donning a backless halter top. And yes, this also makes news.

“If it’s got credits and dog something, I can promise there is a Canadian reddit string about it being the best movie ever made.”

Tribeca Film Festival.

The two reasons to play a film at a film festival are: to sell the film to distributors, and/or to try and get people talking about it for the purpose of PR. The fall festivals try to do the former but succeed at the latter. 

Venice always kicks off the race and is the most glamorous—with big star power, press conferences that make lots of celebrity gossip, and photos of people on boats. It is more of an international festival, catering to European tastes and trying its best to play a nice chunk of Italian films as well.

Mark Rylance, Taylor Russell, director Luca Guadagnino, Timothee Chalamet and Chloë Sevigny attend the “Bones And All” red carpet at the 79th Venice International Film Festival. Photo by Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

Telluride happens in a small ski town in the Colorado Rockies where they don’t announce the lineup until the first day of the festival. Many of the talent arrive from Venice baggy-eyed in the studio PJs to the local airport, which is nothing more than the top shorn off a mountain with a runway down the middle. Movies dominate this former mining town with every school auditorium and antique opera house turned into a movie theatre for four days.

The curated lineup typically does a good job picking the contenders and can establish a movie as a best picture front runner after one screening. The prognosticators prognosticate even louder in the thin mountain air. The downside is this is a collection of the 1% of the 1%, and therefore spend more time asking people to donate money to the festival in their will, than trying to be accommodating to the everyman. People chat in long lines about the most esoteric and pretentious side of film, but this is not the festival people play when focusing on mainstream audiences. This is a fest of rich movie diehards which mixes conversation of obscure Belgium coming-of-age dramas with restaurants serving $75 sou-vide buffalo ribs.

“The prognosticators prognosticate even louder in the thin mountain air.”

The Telluride Film Festival. Photo by Vivien Killilea/Getty Images

Starting next week is Toronto, which, unlike Telluride, is much more an egalitarian film festival of the people. Playing almost 200 movies and taking over a wide section of Canada’s largest town, locals get to be Canada-nice to a wide swath of size and scope of movies. Studios opt to go to Toronto in order to premiere all types of films to a friendly audience.  If it’s got credits and dog something, I can promise there is a Canadian reddit string about it being the best movie ever made.

The 2021 Toronto International Film Festival at West Island Open Air Cinema at Ontario Place. Photo by Sonia Recchia/Getty Images

While the festivals all battle each other for the ability to yell “first,” it is actually a good time to start paying attention to movies again as the summer blockbusters phase out and the good stuff starts to roll out.  You may want to pay a little attention as the table is being set for those movies you’ll need to sit through with the family on turkey day. More importantly, the theaters need us back, so now is the time to keep an ear out for what’s good… or at the very least, to finally see the movie that took over your news cycle that clogged up your feed all those weeks ago.  


  • Empire of Light, Directed by Sam Mendes
  • Corsage, Directed by Marie Kreutzer
  • The Fabelmans, Directed by Steven Spielberg
  • The Whale, Directed by Darren Aronofsky
  • Tár, Directed by Todd Field
  • Bones & All, Directed by Luca Guadagnino