Fun Film Fest Towns

Lights! Action! Vacation! These movie-loving towns have lots to offer after the final reel.

Martin Scorsese speaking at the Palm Springs Film Festival (Photo by Bill Newcott)

Weekly Newsletter

The best of The Saturday Evening Post in your inbox!


Regular movie theater attendance may be on the decline these days, but it seems like there are more film festivals than ever springing up in towns and cities across North America. Here are some locales where even the most rabid movie lover will have as much fun outside the theater doors as they do when the lights go down.

Mountainfilm (May)

Telluride, Colorado

(Photo by Bill Newcott)

“I think we have some sort of festival here every week,” a longtime Telluride resident told me. That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but then again, my eyes did begin to glaze over as I perused the list of annual festivals held in this small town nestled high in the Rockies. Among them are a bluegrass festival, a Yoga festival, a baseball festival, a jazz festival, and a mushroom festival. And the list goes on and on.

The granddaddy of them all is the late-summer Telluride Film Festival, during which the village is overrun with the cream of Hollywood, on hand to promote their upcoming end-of-the-year Oscar-ready projects. (Of course, since the mountains surrounding Telluride are dotted with lavish vacation homes of the rich and famous, for many celebs, attending the festival involves little more than pulling the Tesla out of the garage.)

For regular folks like us, though, the Telluride Film Festival can be more frustrating than fun: The town’s undeniably quaint venues, like the 238-seat, century-old Sheridan Opera House, are charming but tiny, and the influx of humanity can make the old frontier town’s main street seem less like a cultural event and more like an anthill.

That’s why I love Telluride’s other film festival: Mountainfilm, held each May. Unlike the September event, which has a decidedly mercenary vibe, Mountainfilm’s expressed mission is to inspire audiences “to make a better world.” This year’s festival lineup was a perfect case in point: The biggest hit was Between the Mountain and the Sky, a truly inspiring documentary about Maggie Doyne, the New Jersey woman who started a home for orphaned children in Nepal and went on to “adopt” more than 100 of them. Doyne was on hand for the screening, and the way people lined up to meet her you’d have thought they were waiting to greet Taylor Swift.

This make-the-world-a-better-place spirit spills out of the screening venues and into the streets of Telluride. Each day of the festival, hiking groups head into the mountains to take in the spring air at 8,750 feet above sea level. You can rent a bike and ride past fields of wild elk and nearly to the foot of Bridal Veil Falls, at 365 feet the tallest free-falling cascade in Colorado.

Best of all, you can take in a screening at Telluride’s Town Park, although it’s hard to decide whether to watch the screen or soak in the last rays of sunset glowing red on the peak of 12,000-foot Red Mountain. Either way, it’s a great show.

The Palm Springs International Film Festival (January)

Palm Springs, California

(Photo by Bill Newcott)

Here’s the closest this list will actually get to Hollywood: Palm Springs has been a playground of the movie world’s elite for nearly a century, and it’s hard to imagine a small city film festival that draws such high-voltage star power (last January the A-list included Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, the cast of Barbie and Oppenheimer, and Leonardo DiCaprio, for starters).

But there’s a definite home town feel to the Palm Springs shindig: Screenings are held all over town, in high schools, the community center, and strip mall multiplexes. When the locals line up along the red carpet, the sense is less that they’re stargazing than welcoming the celebrities to their burg.

Besides the movie lineup, Palm Springs has a lot of high desert attractions to draw you out of the dark. There’s the world-famous Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, where you just might find a layer of snow high above the desert. At the south side of town, tucked inside Tahquitz Canyon, the Indian Canyons trails thread their way past waterfalls and along palm-shaded streams.

The film festival offers its share of parties, but you might just want to spend the cool of the evening browsing the shops and galleries along Indian Canyon Drive. Hotel offerings range from ritzy (the Omni Rancho Las Palmas Resort, a bit east of downtown, offers a sweeping vista of Mount San Jacinto) to the retro (the Orbit In, where, the management boasts, “The ’50s never went out of style”).

Toronto International Film Festival (September)

Toronto, Ontario, Canada

(Photo by Bill Newcott)

The biggest town on this list is also Canada’s most populous city, but there’s no other place, big or small, that identifies so thoroughly with its signature film festival.

For most big cities, film festivals are somewhat localized affairs: Sure, the movie fans are around here somewhere, but beyond theaters and some event venues, life goes on pretty much the same as always.

To which Torontonians say: “Take off, Hosers!”  Beginning with the first Thursday after U.S. Labor Day, it seems like every person in town turns their focus on the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), the 11-day orgy of movie mania that unfolds in a multi-block area downtown.

The streetcars stop running on King Street to accommodate an unsurpassed street party featuring live music and booths offering free samples of everything from whisky to chocolate to face makeovers. You can’t dine at a restaurant within a five-mile radius of the theater district without hearing buzz about the latest TIFF sensation (or running into a Hollywood legend or two trying to avoid the crowds).

Featuring hundreds of films from scores of countries, TIFF always has screening tickets available, often at the last minute. While standing in line, it is almost obligatory to nosh on a greasy tangle of poutine — the decidedly Canadian street food consisting of fries and cheese curds smothered in brown gravy.  The best in town is reputedly at a walk-up spot called Nom Nom Nom, but the most easily obtained is at Smoke’s Poutinerie, which has shops all over the place.

Toronto has more than its share of ritzy downtown hotels, but just a 15-minute walk will get you a seemingly endless supply of bed-and-breakfasts in treelined neighborhoods near the picturesque University of Toronto.

Various Film Festivals Throughout the Year

Rehoboth Beach, Delaware

(Photo by Bill Newcott)

This sleepy little beach town had its start as a Methodist camp in the 1800s, and while it draws a multitude of tourists during the summer, the off-season belongs to the Rehoboth Beach Film Society, which hosts no fewer than five film festivals.

The big one is the Rehoboth Beach Independent Film Festival, held each November, featuring a full slate of independent films from around the world. But the town’s devoted film community won’t let it go at that: There’s also the Pride Film Festival (June), the African American Film Festival (February), the Jewish Film Festival (February), and the Regional Film Showcase (May), offering works by filmmakers based in the local tri-state area.

Local venues often open their doors for the festivals, but most screenings are at The Cinema Arts Theater, owned by the festivals’ nonprofit sponsor (full disclosure: I once served on the society’s board of directors). And make no mistake: Rehoboth film festivals are among the beachiest anywhere: It’s just a short drive to the boardwalk, where seagulls, emboldened by more than a century of experience, will divebomb for a taste of your Thrasher’s French fries. On nearby, windswept Cape Henlopen, you can stand on the highest sand dune for hundreds of miles around, look across Delaware Bay to Cape May, NJ — and maybe catch a glimpse of the Cape May-Lewes ferry, now celebrating its 60th year.

Middleburg Film Festival (October)

Middleburg, Virginia

(Photo by Rodney Brown)

There is no reason in the world for this teeny Northern Virginia horse country town (population 650) to be hosting a world-class, four-day film festival. The place doesn’t even have a movie theater.

Well, there’s at least one reason: The festival was created in 2013 by billionaire Sheila Johnson, co-founder of the BET cable network and a film enthusiast who uses her clout to draw not only top-shelf movies, but also personal appearances by the likes of Greta Gerwig, Kenneth Branagh, Emma Stone, and Meg Ryan, who often stay on the horse ranches of Middleburg’s well-heeled gentry.

Johnson also owns Middleburg’s Salamander Resort, where many of the festival’s screenings take place (a local community center and the National Sporting Library & Museum also host films).

A picturesque, one-hour drive west of Washington, D.C., Middleburg is among the area’s most walkable small towns. Between screenings, amble down to Washington Street and stop in at Scruffy’s Ice Cream Parlor. Order the chocolate raspberry. You’re welcome.

Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *