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Apr 3, 2024 by Julie Brown

Longer Reads: How to Win the Film Festival Game

There are hundreds of festivals in the outdoor space alone. Here's how it all works.

Behind every award-winning documentary, bestselling book, or polished essay is a hidden crush of work, often solitary and isolating, when the creator is staring at a cursor on a blank page or sifting through hours of B-roll on Adobe Premiere, wondering how this is all going to come together. Momentum builds one word or frame at a time until the arc of a story reveals itself. Revision leads to fine tuning. Then, the time comes to let it go and share the project with an audience. No matter the medium, that moment is always like gathering yourself for a leap into some dark pool of water far beneath your feet.

“Part of the process of letting go is releasing any thoughts of how you or your piece will be received,” writes Rick Rubin, in his book, “The Creative Act.” In the case of documentary films, the letting go happens as the theater lights dim and the story unfolds in front of a live audience.

This moment is one that Australian filmmaker Charlie Turnbull knows well. In 2018, Turnbull’s documentary “Bikes of Wrath” screened at 5Point Adventure Film Festival’s premiere, in Carbondale, Colorado. It was the first film he’d made and 5Point was his first film festival. “I was very, very nervous,” Turnbull says.

Turnbull’s film follows five cyclists who, inspired by John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, “Grapes of Wrath,” retrace a route established during the Dust Bowl, when people fled bankrupt and ecologically devastated farms in Oklahoma for promises of work and a better future in California’s Central Valley. That year, “Bikes of Wrath” screened at 40 film festivals across the United States and internationally, winning multiple awards, including 5Point’s Spirit of Adventure Award.

Turnbull remembers 5Point as unique among the film festivals he attended. At the Carbondale premiere, 5Point transforms a gymnasium into a theater large enough for 800 people. The audience includes filmmakers and also adventurers, athletes, photographers, artists, writers, students, and environmentalists. After the credits rolled, Turnbull went on stage for a question-and-answer session. It was those interactions, combined with a grassroots, communal, welcoming spirit that encompasses the entire five-day long festival, that made 5Point so memorable.

5Point is an annual reunion of filmmakers. But you also never know who you’re going to meet and what opportunity will present itself in the future.  —Charlie Turnbull

Colorado's 5Point Festival began as a climbing specific showcase but has since moved on to include a range of adventure and eco films.

The 5Point film festival launched Turnbull’s career as a filmmaker in a very tangible way. A year and a half after “Bikes of Wrath,” Turnbull took a job on staff at 5Point, as the festival’s director of programming. Now, in addition to his filmmaking career, he’s the one curating the few dozen films that showcase at 5Point every year.

The film festival circuit is a pivotal stage in the lifecycle of a documentary—and the arc of a filmmaker’s career. Festivals are an exchange of ideas, a chance to share your work with new audiences and then take a seat in the theater to watch the work of your peers. Between films, whether you’re in the lobby of a theater or walking down a street in a mountain town, film festivals offer up chance encounters that build professional networks. If your film wins awards, those accolades are a door opener to future opportunities with brands and studios who are often in the audience looking for creatives to partner with.

Once a venue for local alpinists to share films from trips, Telluride's Mountainfilm now sees 800 annual submissions. Photo courtesy Mountainfilm.

“Festivals are critical for sharing your work and connecting with others. I think they’re central to filmmaking,” says Mike Ferrell, a writer who co-founded TopTop Studio with filmmaker Nick Kalisz. TopTop’s film “Ascend,” which followed Vasu Sojitra, Emilé Zynobia, and Zahan Billimoria as they set out to ski Mount Moran and reshape the conversation around disability in the outdoors, was an official selection at the Banff Film Festival and Telluride’s Mountainfilm and later earned the coveted Vimeo Staff Pick. Those elite recognitions put TopTop, an up-and-coming production company, on the radar of big brands in the outdoor industry, leading to more opportunity and more films.

For filmmakers, the value a festival offers evolves with your career, says Stuart Derman, co-founder of the Wasatch Mountain Film Festival. For those just getting started, the networking piece can place you on a project that will turn a passion into a reliable, rent-paying job. Mid-career filmmakers might see live screenings as a valuable opportunity to get feedback on their project, to continue learning the craft of narrative storytelling and how to hold an audience’s attention.

“In today’s world, we’re so focused on digital content. We see the view numbers. We see the engagement metrics, but it doesn’t feel real,” Derman says. “That emotional reaction to that one part that you edited in a specific way, it’s hard to get that kind of feedback online.”

Derman created the Wasatch Mountain Film Festival in 2014 with his friend, Shane Baldwin, when they were both students at the University of Utah. They approached the creation of the Wasatch festival from the audience’s side: “How can we start the best event we can, to get the public there?”


A panel discussion at the Wasatch Film Festival.
TopTop's Mike Ferrell wrapping a shoot in Peru.
A TopTop brand campaign. Photo Scott Ellison.

The adventure film festival scene boomed from 2000 to 2015. But it was 2019, when “Free Solo” won an Oscar for Best Documentary, that Derman sees as a watershed moment in adventure filmmaking. Derman credits that moment for bringing mainstream exposure to outdoor adventure filmmaking, which has spurred more good work. “That was the first time an adventure film got an Oscar. It completely validated this entire genre,” Derman says.

Of course, technology has made the act of movie making easier, too. Drones, GoPros and mirrorless cameras—even the iPhone— all lower the barrier to entry. Participation in outdoor recreation has also spiked, pushing the culture into the mainstream. Then, FilmFreeway came online.

There are more than 400 film festivals in the action/adventure documentary category on FilmFreeway, an online platform that makes it easy for filmmakers to submit their work to festivals. A few are the big, recognizable events, like the festivals in Banff and Telluride. Other festivals are affiliated with grassroots and environmental advocacy work, like Winter Wildlands Alliance’s Backcountry Film Festival or, in California, the South Yuba River Citizens League’s Wild and Scenic Film Festival. There are also film festivals rooted in specific sports, like the Fly Fishing Film Festival or the Trail Running Film Festival. 

Thanks to FilmFreeway, it’s easier than ever to submit your work to a film festival. Just upload your project, select the festival, click submit, and pay the fee. But that easy access and utility also means that film festivals receive more submissions than ever. Turnbull says 5Point receives 300 to 400 films each year, out of which, just 10 percent make the final cut. Telluride’s Mountainfilm received almost 800 submissions this year, says Sage Martin, Mountainfilm’s executive director.

Those submission fees add up, an expense that often comes out of their own pocket with no guarantee they’ll make it into a festival. It’s a tough game that filmmakers of all levels, even established documentary and mainstream filmmakers with deep résumés, play.

You have to be real strategic about where you spend your money.  —TopTop’s Mike Ferrell.

Film Festivals boomed in the adventure space in large parts because of the community appeal of storytelling. A scene from 5Point.

The good news is that, in the age of media over-saturation and way too much handheld screen time, audiences are hungry for captivating stories and opportunities to watch movies in a communal setting. Film festivals give people that warm, fuzzy feeling of celebration, inclusivity, and awe. In the outdoor space, a festival is like church but for skiers, climbers, environmentalists, cyclists, travelers, and the rest.

Sometimes, a story about an adventure travels only as far as a small campfire. Other adventures—the ones with high-stakes risks, unexpected beauty, and deeper meanings about life, culture, and the planet—become stories that speak to vast audiences, and in turn, become powerful agents of change. This is the seed where adventure film festivals began. Like Telluride’s Mountainfilm, which began in 1979 when a group of local climbers booked the historic Sheridan Opera House for a night of climbing and mountaineering films. It was a step up from the slideshows climbers used to share upon return. No one likely foresaw that it would help launch a golden age of documentary film.

Today, Mountainfilm’s grown to the point that it transforms the entire town of Telluride over Memorial Day weekend. And while its roots are still in the outdoors, Mountainfilm’s programming has also evolved, growing far beyond climbing films to encompass documentaries about environmental activism, culture, and social justice.

“We look for these inspirational stories, because our mission is to inspire audiences to create a better world,” Martin says. “A common thread that runs through all of our films is a celebration of indomitable spirit. Someone doing something extraordinary. That’s the source of inspiration.”

The MountainFilm panel discussions are as big a draw as the films.
In an age of media consumption in silos, theaters are even more relevant.

That shift has proven to have scale: Adventure films were once the domain of stoke and adrenaline. But the genre has grown up as audiences crave deeper, more captivating tales. “It can be funny or it can be sad or it can be reflective, but whatever it is, it has to be compelling,” Turnbull says.

There’s no secret or specific formula that makes a film compelling, Turnbull adds. It could be a charismatic character or a deeper meaning with broader appeal. But great action is still relevant too. A short mountain biking edit that’s well shot, with music inlaid properly can still serve its purpose—getting people on bikes in nature has value.

Like most film festivals, Mountainfilm sources submissions on FilmFreeway, but there are other ways to get noticed by festival staff, Martin notes. Mountainfilm staffers frequent other film festivals to see what’s out there, and they also have relationships with distribution companies who clue them into films that would be a good fit. For new filmmakers, one of the best ways to get involved is to apply for a grant. Last year, Mountainfilm gave away $60,000 to young, budding filmmakers. “A lot of those films come back around to premiere at Mountainfilm,” Martin says.

Depending on their size, film festivals can also be intimate. Turnbull encourages filmmakers to reach out to him directly if they’re working on a film they want to submit to 5Point.

We’re keeping track of so many films, I like it when filmmakers email me and say, ‘here’s where we’re at with the project, this is when we expect to submit it,’ that information is handy. —5Point’s Charlie Turnbull

The Backcountry Film Festival helps with local fundraising to protect access to and conservation of winter wildlands.

That hands-on touch of the scrappier festivals is a serious upside. Ten years since its founding, the Wasatch Mountain Film Festival is still entirely volunteer powered and catering more than ever to the filmmakers’ needs, hosting workshops for beginning and mid-career creatives. Derman says he logs about 100 hours a month to produce the event, which will be held in the fall this year. The payoffs are the life-changing moments that happen when you bring people together, he says. “We’ve had people meet at the festival and later get married. We’ve had people who join up on outdoor projects. I love seeing people come together and building these relationships that changed the trajectory of their lives.”

The Backcountry Film Festival is small, but mighty. It started in Boise, Idaho, in 2005 as a chance for the nonprofit Winter Wildlands Alliance to bring its community together, celebrate the start of winter, and spread the word about the advocacy work they do for human-powered backcountry snowsports. Almost 20 years later, the Backcountry Film Festival has more than 100 screenings, in places wherever snow falls, from California to Maine, and around the world.

“It felt like a response to something that people wanted and needed, and still do,” says Melinda Quick, events and marketing director at Winter Wildlands Alliance and the Backcountry Film Festival.

Another way the Backcountry Film Festival stands out is that they don’t charge a fee for filmmakers to submit, and they package the festival in a turnkey style at a very low cost for nonprofits and other environmental groups to use at their own fundraisers. Every year, through ticket sales, raffles and concessions, the Backcountry Film Festival raises somewhere between $180,000 and $200,000 for all the local nonprofits that host its screenings, which goes to work protecting wild country.

Each autumn, the Backcountry Film Festival is the center of a huge fundraiser for backcountry skiers in Portland, Maine. Hosted by Granite Backcountry Alliance (GBA), a nonprofit that creates and maintains backcountry ski glades in New Hampshire and Maine, the film festival is one of the few occasions when a normally fragmented backcountry ski community gets together. The money raised at the festival all goes back into the work of maintaining backcountry ski glades and managing hundreds of volunteers. GBA hits play on the Backcountry Film Festival, but they add their own flair to the party with potlucks and beers from local breweries. One year they came up with a Chevy Chase themed Christmas party. “The vibe was classic Mainer, backwoods skiing, mixed with tacky ’80s Christmas,” says Samantha Trombley, GBA’s marketing manager.

While the Backcountry Film Festival’s curation is mostly set in the West, Trombley says the overarching values and messages in the films apply to backcountry skiers everywhere, and when that one East Coast film does play, it’s got the rapt attention of the 700-strong audience. “These stories are really integral to what it means to be a backcountry skier in New England,” Trombley says. “It’s so funny. I haven’t been to an actual movie in quite some time, but I’ve been to so many film festivals.”

A few years after the pandemic, film festivals are making a comeback. Sure, you can watch a lot of these films at home, from your couch, on a pocket-sized screen. But doesn’t the TikTok feed leave you wanting? Watch a 15-minute film on YouTube or Vimeo, and don’t you wish you had someone to talk about it with after? Instead of an algorithm selecting what film to watch next, would you rather have a staff of dedicated creatives who spent an entire year curating the next film in the queue? In addition to helping to find funding and distribution for good work, these are just some of the upsides of what a film festival offers. It’s why people who are hungry for inspiration and connection are demanding these in-person experiences. We want to catch up with our friends in the concession line. We need exposure to new communities and opportunities to learn about environmental activism, all in that comfortable mountain town setting. We love the chance to run into our heroes—celebrities, filmmakers, activists, athletes—on the street between films. And we need audiences to watch our work and tell us to keep going and continue creating.