Are film festivals busiest during the first weekend?

As I write this, it looks likely that the Cannes Film Festival 2021 will take place in Cannes, France. In most years, that would be a rather inane comment but in our nearly-post pandemic world, it’s far from a certainty.

There will be an online component to the festival and market but an indeterminate number of film makers, film fans and film professionals will be pounding the Croisette in a few weeks.

This prompted a Cannes-bound reader to get in touch, asking if it’s true that the best time to attend a film festival is in the opening weekend.

Over the past few years I’ve run a number of surveys of film festival attendees, collecting tips and tricks to get the most out of festivals. One such question I’ve asked has been “On which days are you planning to attend?”. Using this data, I have put together charts for four of the largest major film festivals, revealing which days are the busiest.

Cannes International Film Festival and Marche du Film

We’ll start with the most famous festival and the one which was the catalyst for this article – Cannes.

Over 80% of attendees who responded to my survey said they were planning to attend on the first Saturday and Sunday of the festival. This is in sharp contrast to fewer than 30% on the second Saturday and barely 20% on the second Sunday.

Note: On the charts below I have highlighted the weekdays in blue and the weekends in orange.

Berlin International Film Festival and European Film Market

The pattern for the Berlin International Film Festival is very similar, albeit that the top two days were the first Sunday and the Monday right after, with the first Saturday coming in as the third busiest day of the festival.

Toronto International Film Festival

Toronto had much better attendance on the day before and after the first weekend, but the first weekend was still top choice for most people.

Sundance International Film Festival

Last but by no means least is Sundance, where our pattern abides.

By now you may have spotted a second pattern, namely that festivals tend to start on Wednesdays or Thursdays. This is no doubt connected to the ‘first weekend’ idea, with festivals wanting a couple of days to ramp up before things get really busy.

Oh, and one last pattern – the second weekend is dead. I have a friend who attended his first Cannes on the second weekend and was confused as to where everyone was! He said it was like a ghost town, despite there officially being three days left on the festival schedule. There were screenings but no parties, no market activity and few attendees left to network with.

Not all attendees are created equal

Before we end, I did want to acknowledge that these charts have treated all festival attendees equally – something the industry absolutely does not do. At almost all film festivals there are be layers of hierarchy, each with differing levels of importance, access and events. Each festival will have a different formula for whom they fete and whom they forget, but among the things which are prized at festivals are:

  • Artistic prowess, such as nominated filmmakers or winners of festivals past.
  • Industry position, such as being accredited as an Official Buyer at the film market or having produced a film in the past couple of years.
  • Deep pockets, either literally paying for expensive passes (the Sundance all-access pass for just the first week will cost you $4,000) or being able to provide funding to films and events.
  • Famous faces, with the most famous names having an entirely different festival experience to us civilians.
  • Professional press, with such passes normally allowing for extra access but in some cases actually reducing their access to private industry events and previews.

Each of these cohorts may have a slightly different festival schedule. As an example, when I surveyed Cannes attendees, I noticed that film buyers were much more likely to front-load their trip, looking to do business right from day one of the market.

Further reading

If you are planning to attend one of these festivals, they you may find the following articles useful:

Notes

The data for today’s piece came from a series of surveys I have run, asking festival attendees about their up-coming trip to each film festival. The Cannes, Berlin and Toronto festivals were in 2016 and Sundance was 2019. These were the years I had the most data for, although the same patterns around found in other years for which I have data.

Epilogue

It’s impossible to say for certain if the pattern we’ve seen today will continue after the pandemic dies down and events return to regular order. My personal feeling is that whatever happens to the size of the attendance the first weekend will continue to be the busiest. This is because (a) film folk are creatures of habit; and (a) the pattern is a function of everyone needing a widely-agreed rule of thumb to ensure they get the most out of their expensive trip.

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