The biggest film festivals in the world have evolved into significant events in the rich history of cinema. Initially, they were conceived as artistic gatherings to celebrate the art of filmmaking and provide a platform for showcasing new and innovative works. Today, their influence is unrivalled.
The primary purpose of the world’s largest film festivals is not only to exhibit films but also to foster cultural exchange, encourage emerging talents, and facilitate networking within the film industry. These gatherings offer an unparalleled opportunity for filmmakers to gain exposure, secure distribution deals, and garner critical acclaim. They are platforms where groundbreaking films are premiered, innovative storytelling is celebrated, and diverse voices are heard.
These festivals not only showcase feature films but also documentaries, short films, and experimental works, providing a comprehensive view of the current state of cinema. The inclusion of various genres and formats ensures that the biggest international film festivals remain at the forefront of artistic innovation and cultural relevance.
Measuring the largest film festivals can be done using a number of metrics, including attendance figures, the number of countries represented, prize money, media coverage, or even the economic impact of the area in which it is held.
For this article, even though the metric may be slightly harder to quantify, the biggest film festivals in the world are being ranked by prestige and historical significance. Here are some of the largest film festivals in the world as well as the largest documentary film festival.
Sundance Film Festival
Location: Utah, USA | Established: 1978
America’s largest independent film festival is one of the biggest film festivals in the world. The first event, known as the Utah/US Film Festival, was created in part to attract filmmakers to the state of Utah, as well as to showcase American-made independent films. It screened a number of iconic films including Deliverance, A Streetcar Named Desire, Midnight Cowboy and Mean Streets.
The 2023 event screened 99 films, chosen from almost 16,000 submissions, and some of the most famous films of the 1990s and 2000s were premiered at Sundance, including Reservoir Dogs, Four Weddings and a Funeral, The Usual Suspects and Napoleon Dynamite.
Toronto International Film Festival
Location: Toronto, Canada | Established: 1976
The first edition of the Toronto International Film Festival – otherwise known as TIFF – took a selection of films from the largest global film festivals and screened them to Canadian audiences. Since then, TIFF has developed into one of the world’s biggest film festivals in its own right.
More than 200 films were screened at the 2023 event, and the winner of the People’s Choice Award, the most popular film as voted for by the moviegoers themselves, was American Fiction, directed by Cord Jefferson.
Like Venice, the awards at TIFF are seen as a barometer of opinion, and indicative as to the outcome of the Oscars. Past winners of the People’s Choice Award have included Life is Beautiful, Slumdog Millionaire, Green Book, and Belfast.
Berlin Film Festival
Location: Berlin, Germany | Established: 1951
Showcasing around 300 – 400 films, the Internationale Filmfestspiele Berlin, often known as the Berlinale, is one of the largest film festivals in the world. It’s also one of the biggest by attendance, with almost 450,000 visitors in 2023 for the 73rd edition.
About twenty films are chosen to compete for the festival’s top prize, the Golden Bear. Unlike other festivals, where there’s an organising committee who sit on the judging panels, the chair of the jury in Berlin is an internationally recognised star of the cinema. Past chairs have included luminaries such as Frank Capra, Gina Lollobrigida, Frances McDormand, Meryl Streep, and M. Night Shyamalan. The chair for 2024 is Lupita Nyong’o.
Venice Film Festival
Location: Venice, Italy | Established: 1932
As well as being one of the world’s biggest film festivals, the Venice Film Festival is the world’s oldest. The first film ever shown was Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, directed by Rouben Mamoulian, at the Excelsior Palace Hotel.
Film screenings take place at the famous Palazzo del Cinema and the festival’s best film is awarded the Golden Lion, or the Leone d’oro. Venice is also considered to be a good barometer of the Oscars, hosting premieres of a number of recent Academy Award winners including Birdman in 2014 and Spotlight in 2015, Roma in 2018, and The Whale in 2022.
Cannes Film Festival
Location: Cannes, France | Established: 1946
One of the so-called ‘Big Three’, along with Venice and Berlin, the invitation-only Cannes Film Festival is one of the world’s biggest international film festivals, and arguably the most prestigious.
Established in 1946 and originally called Le Festival International du Film, there’s around 5,000 movie screenings of which around 200 compete for the coveted Palme d’Or, widely regarded as one of the most prestigious in the film industry.
Past winners have included Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, and Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.
The World's Largest Documentary Film Festival
Over the last three decades or so, general, theme, or genre-specific documentary film festivals have provided a platform for non-fiction writers, producers and directors to create new perspectives on any number of important issues.
Some of the biggest and most well known include HotDocs from Canada, the Sheffield Doc/Fest from the UK, Dok Leipzig in Germany, and Scandinavia’s biggest documentary film festival, CPH:Dox.
The world’s largest documentary film festival is the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), which was established in 1988. In 2023, IDFA screened almost 300 films to 245,000 visitors.
There are a number of different categories, including Best Feature-Length Documentary, Best Short Documentary, Best Student Documentary, and the Beeld en Geluid award for Best Dutch Documentary.
The Curtain Call: The Legacy of the World's Largest Film Festivals
The biggest international film festivals play an indispensable role in the cinematic landscape, showcasing a kaleidoscope of artistic expressions while influencing global film culture.
These festivals, with their rich history, diverse film selections, and glamorous locations, not only serve as pivotal platforms for filmmakers to showcase their work but also act as barometers for the latest cinematic trends and innovations. They facilitate critical discussions, forge industry connections, and provide a window to the world’s diverse narratives.
As the biggest film festivals in the world continue to evolve, they remain central to the celebration of the art of filmmaking, reflecting the ever-changing dynamics of the global film industry and the enduring power of storytelling through the lens of the camera.