Pass the Popcorn: Expert Tips for Film Fest Rookies

by Kara Cutruzzula |June 7, 2018

Do you hear that? It's the big screen calling your name.

If you're hunting for a novel vacation idea, desire a deeper dive into cinematic culture, or both, then consider the film festival. These wide-ranging events held all over the U.S. not only offer a peek at award-season contenders before they land in the theaters, but attendees also learn about the craft first-hand from writers, actors and directors. Plus, all the action lets you see a host city through a whole new lens.

But how to best navigate the line-up? Are back-to-back screenings the way to go? And just how do you get into those festival parties? Here's everything you need to know — with insights from film festival pros — on how to make your first festival experience smooth from start to fin.

older couple enjoying a movie

Lend a hand

If your budget is tight, consider volunteering. Festivals need plenty of hands-on-deck, and they offer passes in exchange for working at venues or assisting with registration.

For example, the Seattle International Film Festival offers one film ticket voucher for every two hours of volunteering. Ask about volunteering in advance of the festival, which would free you up to watch, not work, when the festival comes around.

Volunteering will also plug you deeper into the festival, making it less a one-off event than the start of something you can return to again and again.

Learn about the process

Along with screenings, festivals often have talkbacks with talent, Q&A sessions and interview series with stars. These offer behind-the-scenes insights into the filmmaking process. Last year, the Austin Film Festival's most popular panels included one with award-winning film stars and a conversation about the challenges female artists face while writing in Hollywood.

"You might get to see how a specific director views art," says Smith. "You hear about their successes and failures and it humanizes the filmmaker because they're talking with someone they've worked with." They might tell battle stories or reveal insecurities. Smith recalls an interview she saw at the Tribeca Film Festival, presented by AT&T, where a high-profile American actor walked onstage and said, "'Wow, all of these people are here to listen to us talk, don't they know that we don't know what we're doing?' It was so endearing," recalls Smith.

Check the lineup

Once you've picked your point on the map, have a look at the lineup in advance. Festival organizers create comprehensive websites with a film summary guide (usually sortable by category or genre), a calendar of events, and ticket and pass details.

Be aware of what's showing so that when tickets go on sale you're prepared to buy them. "I comb through and read the synopsis [of each film] to see if it's something that'll resonate with me," says Smith. She adds that trying to see everything and fill your days to the max "is a bit like playing Tetris."

Buy tickets

Most festivals have purchase options for screenings from single to multiple-ticket passes. Consider how many films you're likely to see; it might be more cost-effective to buy a pass or badge, which usually comes with early sign-up registration and priority access at the screening itself.

Scout your options. Many festivals have apps that help you navigate on-sale dates and times so you can set an alert. Festivals may begin selling badges two months prior to the festival. Tickets for individual screenings, usually called general admission, often go on sale closer to the festival date, and buzz-worthy screenings tend to sell out in advance. No ticket? Hop in the standby line which typically opens every morning during the festival.

Smith suggests buying a multi-ticket package and splitting it with a friend. This will usually guarantee access to a certain number of general screening tickets, and also gives you early ticket selection so you're able to choose your films before tickets go on sale to the public. Packages don't always offer a huge discount compared to buying individual tickets, but the choice of films will be better.

In addition, purchase tickets in advance to the festival award winners (like Best Screenplay, Best Short Film and Grand Jury prizes) which are typically considered "special" or "premium" events not included in packages. You won't know which films you'll be seeing, but you can't go wrong with the winners.

Plug into the party scene

Most party invites travel through word-of-mouth. "There are a lot of parties where your name has to be on the list," says Smith, but not all are so tricky. A conversation you strike up in a bathroom line could end with you getting an invite to a party later that night.

At the Austin Film Festival (AFF), networking events mix attendees with auteurs. "Not only are you immersed in panels all day, but then you get to actually mingle and speak with writers and filmmakers during the networking events," says Samantha Levine, marketing director for AFF. No snobbery allowed, either. "There are no velvet ropes or VIP areas at our event, and all registrants, panelists and filmmakers come together to celebrate the story."

Stay fueled up

Not just on popcorn or gummy candy, either. Many festivals collaborate with food trucks and local star chefs. At the AFF, a Film & Food Fundraising Party joins filmmakers, producers, celebrities and foodies to enjoy cocktail and cuisine from 20-plus notable Austin chefs, says Levine. They also throw a Texas barbecue supper featuring world-famous barbecue open to registrants with a producers-level badge.

Another culinary and silver screen collaboration is the New York Food Film Fest. Held annually in the fall, it's a weekend of food-focused film screenings with complementary events like a midday Sunday brunch.

Plan your downtime

As entertaining as movies are, no human can sit in a dark theater for 12 hours a day. Most festivals take place in the heart of a city, so take advantage and explore local restaurants, shops or, as a counterpoint to all that sitting, go for a hike or long walk around the city. You'll be refreshed and ready to take on the rest of the fest.

Park City

Must-See Festivals

Sundance Film Festival

The Park City, UT, mainstay is a must for indie film lovers — or anyone who loves to ski, as the event kicks off festival season in the resort town in the midst of snow season. It's also known as a career launchpad, and a place to spot new talent.

South by Southwest

Film, music and digital fiends descend on Austin for this multidisciplinary event. Films run the gamut from indies to blockbusters, and if you want to dig into the tech and music worlds, you're in luck — all three festivals happen at the same time.

Tribeca Film Festival, presented by AT&T

Get a taste of New York at this big downtown bash that draws high-profile independent titles and plenty of bold-faced names thanks to its ideal location.

Seattle International Film Festival

Over 145,000 attendees descend on the largest festival in the U.S., which typically runs over three weeks. Bigger is better — if you're looking for hundreds of films, shorts and documentaries gathered from around the world, this Washington fest is a good bet.

Telluride Film Festival

Premieres are the name of the game here. Hardcore film fans and industry folks flock to Colorado every Labor Day to see dozens of films before anyone else in the world.


Currently hosted in Duluth, MN, this fall festival is a love letter to television, premiering dozens of new shows and offering networking opportunities and contests for writers to pitch the next Mad Men.

Austin Film Festival

This not-at-all-intimidating fest provides an inside look at writing and filmmaking for aspiring and professional writers and film fans. Plus, killer barbecue!

Kara Cutruzzula

can listen to writers and actors talk about their craft all day. Her writing has appeared in Newsweek, The Daily Beast, Vulture and other venues.

The content reflects the view of the author of the article and does not necessarily reflect the views of Citi or its employees, and we do not guarantee the accuracy or completeness of the information presented in the article.