Not everyone can go to Cannes, Sundance, and Toronto -- and thank goodness! Those places are crowded enough as it is. South By Southwest, heretofore a medium-sized film festival, in 2010 was suddenly plagued with sold-out screenings and disappointed pass-holders. Everyone wants to check out the big festivals, and with good reason. They have a lot to offer. But are the smaller fests completely devoid of virtues? I assert with great vehemence that they are not! Using the Oxford (Miss.) Film Festival and the Ashland (Ore.) Independent Film Festival as examples -- simply because I've been to both fests recently -- I can see several good reasons to forgo the expensive trip to Sundance and take advantage of what's close to home.
Smaller crowds = better chances of getting in. The number one thing people complain about at the major fests is holy crap there are too many people here what the hell we're never going to get in we've stood in line for two hours and now there aren't even any more &@*#@&* wait-list tickets. At fests like Oxford and Ashland, screenings tend to be full, but not so full that you have to get in line first thing in the morning for even a chance of getting in. And for lesser-known titles, you can often stroll up five minutes before showtime and get a seat just fine. Try that at Sundance and see what happens.
Tickets are cheaper... The Oxford fest, held Feb. 4-7 this year, charged $50 ($40 for students) for a pass covering all four days of the festival, all screenings. Ashland, which ran this past weekend, charged $225 for a similar pass, and tickets to individual screenings were $10, with senior and student discounts available. Meanwhile, a five-day pass at Sundance, with access to all screenings, was $3,000. Or you could pay $750 and get 20 individual tickets. At Tribeca, which runs April 21-May 2, it's $400 for 20 tickets. You get the idea. ...but the movies are often the same! You might think the smaller festivals can only get movies that were rejected by the big leagues. And, OK, that's true with some films. But smaller fests also benefit from programming titles that have played elsewhere and bring some buzz with them. For example, if you'd been in Ashland this weekend, you could have seen the docs Burma VJ, For the Love of Movies, Last Train Home, and The Most Dangerous Man in America, all of which got positive notices when they played at Sundance, SXSW, Toronto, and elsewhere. The features Bomber, Easier with Practice, and Entre Nos were there, too, also bringing good reviews with them. Oxford had Stingray Sam (Sundance) and Wonderful World (Tribeca). At the Sarasota Film Festival, happening now, you can see festival hits Cold Weather, Dogtooth, The Freebie, Saturday Night, and Last Train Home, among others. For people who go to a lot of festivals it can be annoying to see so many repeats on the schedule, but for regular people, it's as if Cannes, Toronto, and Sundance have come to their doorstep.
Tailor-made for local interests. Many regional festivals, having mostly a local audience (as opposed to out-of-towners), cater to that market by spotlighting movies that were shot locally. Oxford is really good about this, emphasizing movies from Mississippi, Tennessee, and the area. Often these films are on topics that will be of particular interest to locals, and they're films that you'd never see at a huge festival, where programmers have to appeal to a more general audience.
Smaller often means nicer, friendlier, more hospitable. The Oxford festival is small enough that parties can be held in local benefactors' beautiful homes, with food provided by local caterers and chefs. (That stereotype about Southerners being good cooks? Sweet merciful cholesterol, it's true.) Ashland is a quaint town that's also home to a world-class Shakespeare festival, so they know how to treat tourists in a way that'll keep 'em comin' back. Not all the filmmakers are there -- but the ones who do attend are accessible, easy to talk to, eager to hear your thoughts about their movies. I won't even bother comparing the price of a hotel in Cannes, Toronto, Park City, or Austin to that of a room in Oxford or Ashland.
So what do the smaller festivals lack? They have fewer big-name world premieres, and fewer visits by big-name celebrities. They offer less glitz and glamor and spectacle. But is that so bad? If it's cheaper, and if the movies are interesting, and if a lot of them are the same ones that have played at the bigger fests, then why not support your local film festival? Keep an eye out for what's happening in your region -- IMDb has a fairly thorough list -- and take advantage of the opportunities that arise. You might never go to Cannes, but Cannes might come to you.