Top 10: Awards Season’s Most Important Film Festivals


Awards season sits firmly at our doorstep as the first of the fall festivals begins with the Venice Film Festival on August 29.  As we emerge from the summer months, films like “BlacKkKlansman,” “Hereditary,” and “Avengers: Infinity War” hope to hold onto any type of Oscar buzz to sustain the rest of the calendar year.  The fall festivals are what change the game.  Dozens of film festivals hope to be the “launching pad” for THE film that takes the coveted Best Picture prize at the Academy Awards.

From the “Hamlets” of New York to the southern tip of California, here are the 10 most important film festivals to the awards season.  Some of their lineups have already been announced and you can find more information about them on their respective websites.

Hamptons International Film Festival 110. Hamptons International Film Festival
PLACE: East Hampton, NY (Oct. 4-8)

The Hamptons have become much more than a talking piece for any of the women from the “Real Housewives of New York.”  The festival, which was founded in 1993, has nabbed notable features over the years including many Best Picture winners like “12 Years a Slave,” “Argo,” “The Artist,” “Birdman,” and “The King’s Speech.” While last year’s lineup didn’t exactly pan out that way (last year’s Opening Night film was the documentary “Itzhak” from Alison Chernick before it wrapped up with “I, Tonya” from Craig Gillespie), some of the films in the lineup did go on to notable citations including a Best Supporting Actress win for Allison Janney.

HIFF’s Executive Director Anne Chaisson (who’s been heading it up since 2012), has been around the beat including stops at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, Nantucket Film Festival, and producing credits on “Roger Dodger” and “P.S.,” and continues her efforts today.  HIFF also has notable Academy members on their board including Alec Baldwin, and looks to spearhead another banner year ahead; This year, “The Kindergarten Teacher” starring Best Actress hopeful Maggie Gyllenhaal will open the festival, while Foreign Language contenders “Capernaum” and “Border” will get viewings.  They even nabbed up Rupert Everett‘s directorial debut “The Happy Prince,” a story about the final days of Oscar Wilde.

bfi9. BFI London Film Festival
PLACE: London, U.K. (Oct. 10-21)

Getting the perspective of the international community, BFI, in partnership with the British Film Institute, screens more than 300 films, documentaries, and short films from nearly 50 countries.  This year, their opening night film “Peterloo” from seven-time Oscar nominee Mike Leigh and Amazon Studios, will kick off the festivities in the home venue of Manchester before screening two days later according to Deadline.  In 2017, BFI managed 29 world premieres overall but nabbed notable films among its lineup including the Oscar-nominated “The Breadwinner” from Nora Twomey and “Loveless” from Andrey Zvyagintsev.  This was also the first stop for Andrew Haigh’s “Lean on Pete,” which ended up in the hands of A24 and hopes to nab some awards attention later this year in categories like Adapted Screenplay.  The rest of the lineup will be announced at the end of August.

SBIFF8. Santa Barbara International Film Festival
PLACE: Santa Barbara, CA (Jan. 30-Feb. 9)

The one festival on the list that isn’t about what plays there but focuses on the awards it gives out in the thick of the Oscar voting period.  Founded in 1986, the festival has morphed and changed over the years, now shining a light on independent and ethnic filmmakers.  Last year, the festival opened with Emilio Estevez‘s newest film “The Public,” with other smaller titles making their debut.

With the 2018 lineup already behind them, which also honored Oscar-winners Gary Oldman (“Darkest Hour”) and Sam Rockwell (“Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri”), along with nominees Saoirse Ronan, Daniel Kaluuya, Willem Dafoe, Mary J. Blige, and Timothée Chalamet, festival director Roger Durling will hope to be another necessary stop on the way to the Oscar podium.

millvalley7. Mill Valley Film Festival
PLACE: San Rafael, CA (Oct. 4-14)

A seemingly smaller regional festival, Mill Valley has been a beating heart in California for 41 years.  Founded in 1977, the San Francisco Bay Area has been a great stop for independent and international cinema for West-coasters.  Handing out awards such as “The MVFF Audience Favorite” for Overall, US Cinema, and World Cinema, you get a clear sense of what audience and Academy members are digging, especially when films like “Mudbound,” “Molly’s Game,” and “Lady Bird” walk away with prizes.  MVFF so far has announced a Spotlight Presentation of Paul Dano‘s directorial debut “Wildlife,” starring Carey Mulligan, where both will be in attendance for an onstage conversation.  Last year’s lineup included “The Florida Project” from Sean Baker, “Last Flag Flying” from Richard Linklater, and Oscar-winner “The Shape of Water” from Guillermo del Toro.

middleburg6. Middleburg Film Festival
PLACE: Middleburg, VA (Oct. 18-21)

In a small, quiet part of Virginia, shared with the beautiful Salamander resort, a regional film festival has been making waves.  Just this past year, the Middleburg Film Festival celebrated 33 Oscar nominations among its 26 films that screened, including four for Best Picture (“Call Me by Your Name,” their Opening Film “Darkest Hour,” Centerpiece film “Lady Bird,” and Closing film “Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri”).  Can you name a festival where their three main selections went on to so much Oscar glory?  The festival has also made a focus on diversity as proven by their all-female panel last year that included Dee Rees (“Mudbound”), Greta Gerwig (“Lady Bird”), Maggie Betts (“Novitiate”), and Valerie Faris (“Battle of the Sexes”).  The festival is also highlighted by a Symphony Orchestra Concert honoring a film composer, one-on-one conversations with filmmakers and industry leaders, and sensational parties and wine tastings.  All this led by Founder & Board Chair Sheila Johnson along with Executive Director Susan Koch and Programming Director Connie White.  This year’s slate will include Joel Edgerton’s “Boy Erased” and Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Favourite” with more announcements to follow.  Looking to be another stellar year ahead.

afi fest5. AFI Film Fest
PLACE: Los Angeles, CA (Nov. 8-15)

The American Film Institute is a staple in the film community and it’s one of the qualifying festivals that the Academy recognizes for the Short Films categories.  While paying tribute to so many artists over the years including Agnès Varda, Pedro Almodóvar, and David Lynch, the festival likely doesn’t rank higher on this list due to timing.  November is pretty late in the season, where few films have yet to be screened at any other festivals.  Even when the fest does pull a big film like “Lincoln,” which was slated to have its World Premiere, the New York Film Festival gave it a “secret screening” slot in their lineup, pouring water on the fire they were hoping to start.  With that said, many great contenders have gotten their start at AFI like “Selma” and “A Most Violent Year.”

While we look to November and December films to get one of their centerpiece spots (perhaps “Mary Queen of Scots,” “Backseat,” or “Bohemian Rhapsody“), one thing will remain certain:  With Oscars pushing their 2020 ceremony even earlier, many films will want to screen and release earlier.  I wouldn’t be surprised to hear the fest to move to the October time frame in the near future.

nyff56 header rgb24. New York Film Festival
PLACE: New York, NY (Sept. 28-Oct. 14)

Any other year, the outstanding festival from the Film Society of Lincoln Center would sit higher on this list.  Founded in 1963, NYFF has been launching pad to multiple Oscar winners and nominees including “Hugo,” “Life of Pi,” and “Captain Phillips.”  This year, they have acquired another diverse and inclusive slate that will include “If Beale Street Could Talk” from Barry Jenkins and “ROMA” from Alfonso Cuaron. However, for the first time, the festival does not have any World Premieres on its slate.  Perhaps it’s ripe for another “surprise screening” somewhere in the middle of the madness, but until we know that for sure, it’ll have to settle for outstanding filmmakers like Claire Denis, Pawel Pawlikowski, and Tamara Jenkins to make their festival pop this year.  Don’t think they’ll have too much trouble.

Venice Film Festival 20183. Venice Film Festival
PLACE: Venice, Italy (Aug. 29-Sep. 8)

The highest ranked overseas festival on the list, and the oldest film festival in the world, the Italian staple has been around since 1932.  One of the “Big Three” (alongside Cannes and Berlin who are equal in importance to the awards season despite their early timeframes), the festival is ready to make a splash again this year with films like “The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs” from The Coen Brothers, “First Man” from Damien Chazelle, and “A Star is Born” from Bradley Cooper all premiering there.

Other features like “The Other Side of the Wind” from the late Orson Welles, “22 July” (formerly called “Norway”) from Paul Greengrass, “The Favourite” from Yorgos Lanthimos, “Suspiria” from Luca Guadagnino, and “At Eternity’s Gate” from Julian Schnabel are also screening.  Did we also mention they nabbed “Peterloo” from Mike Leigh and “The Nightingale” by Jennifer Kent?  What a lineup.  This will be a hard festival to follow, being the first “big one” out the gate for the fall season.

tiff logo 22. Toronto International Film Festival
PLACE: Toronto, Canada (Sep. 6-16)

For the past three years or so, TIFF had been fighting to get its singular heat back after getting dowsed by other regional and international festivals over the years.  It seems like ages ago when Sam Mendes’ “American Beauty” was picked up, and went on to win multiple Academy Awards the following year.  In the years between, TIFF hasn’t missed out on a whole bunch.  It’s because of them that Julianne Moore has an Oscar (2014’s “Still Alice”), and they continue to have residual power around their Audience Award which has received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture every year since 2012.  Their runners-up also become telling as proven by films like “Call Me by Your Name,” “Spotlight,” and “Philomena” that narrowly missed.

This year, they’re back with a vengeance.  With over 200 films screening, they have the next big things from Felix van Groeningen (“Beautiful Boy“), Nicole Holofcener (“The Land of Steady Habits“), Dan Fogelman (“Life Itself“), Marielle Hellar (“Can You Ever Forgive Me?“), Peter Hedges (“Ben is Back“), Jason Reitman (“The Front Runner“), and more.  Looks like their Oscar heat is back and better than ever.

Telluride1. Telluride Film Festival
PLACE: Telluride, CO (Aug. 31-Sep. 3)

“You never know until you get there but there’s always that guarantee that the lineup will be special and full of prestige.”  This was said by awards publicists that have attended the last four Telluride Film Festivals.  In the mountains of Colorado, dreams happen.  The last several Best Picture winners have all stopped there before going on to run their seasons and we will pay close attention this year.

Based on the announcements of TIFF and Venice, you can already anticipate some of the world premieres that will occur.  Fox Searchlight is rumored to bring the Melissa McCarthy drama “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” while Robert Redford‘s final screen performance will occur in David Lowery‘s “The Old Man & the Gun.”  Amason looks to bring “Cold War” while Sony Pictures packs a one-two punch of “The Front Runner” with Hugh Jackman and “White Boy Rick” with Matthew McConaughey.  Palme d’Or winner “Shoplifters” also looks to be the #1 pick by our own Mark Johnson to show up.

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Written by Clayton Davis

Clayton Davis is the esteemed Editor and Owner of Born in Bronx, NY to a Puerto Rican mother and Black father, he’s been criticizing film and television for over a decade. Clayton is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association where he votes and attends the kick off to the awards season, the Critics Choice Awards. He also founded the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association, the first Latino-based critics’ organization in the United States. He’s also an active member of the African-American Film Critics Association, New York Film Critics Online, International Press Academy, Black Reel Awards, and the Broadcast Television Journalists Association. Clayton has been quoted and appeared in various outlets that include The New York Times,, Variety, Deadline, Los Angeles Times, FOX 5, Bloomberg Television, AOL, Huffington Post, Bloomberg Radio, The Wrap, Slash Film, and the Hollywood Reporter.


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