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Canada’s Top Indie Film Festivals | A Primer 

What is an Indie Film Festival? 

Indie is short for “Independent.” Independent Film Festivals are organized events where the films screened fall outside the control of Hollywood studios. Genres can be wide-ranging, for example festivals dedicated to documentaries or LGBTQ2+ films. Others might focus on the power of short films. For those who enjoy variety, there are also festivals featuring a mix of categories and genres.  

Some Indie Festivals have grown to be quite large, with brand-name sponsors, while others are run on a shoestring budget. There is no one organization or governing body that oversees Indie Film Festivals.  

Indie film festivals trade the glitz and glamour of festivals like the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) for grassroots exposure. While you won’t see A-listers on the red carpet, these events are prime launching grounds for up-and-coming filmmakers to get their work seen. 

 

What Type of Indie Film Festivals are there? 

Indie Film Festivals run the whole gamut, including festivals with films about: 

  • Ethnic groups and nationalities 
  • Human rights issues 
  • The LGBTQ2+ community 
  • Horror  
  • Documentaries 
  • Thriller or mystery  
  • Science Fiction or fantasy  
  • Action or martial arts 
  • Short films 
  • Children or young adults 
  • Animation 
  • Wildlife 
  • Environmental  
  • Student oriented 
  • Women-only directed/produced 

…and much more.

What Are the Best Canadian Indie Film Festivals?

There are so many to choose from, it’s hard to narrow them down. Here are six festivals for your consideration, in no particular order:  

reelworld film fest

The Reel World Film Festival (Toronto, Ontario) 

Now in its 24th year, the Reel World Film Festival is run by the non-profit ReelWorld Screen Institute based out of Toronto. The festival is presented in a hybrid format with in-person and virtual screenings. It is designed to showcase the work of racially diverse and indigenous talent. Entries are open to filmmakers who are Black, Indigenous, Asian, South Asian and People of Colour. 

Toronto Film School film production and acting program students Ho Anderson, Sean Williams, Domenic DeRose, Alisa Simon, Joe Cash and Gerardo Canabate saw their student film The Lotus Eaters become an official selection of the ReelWorld Film Festival.  

You can read more about the ReelWorld Film Festival here. 

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Calgary Underground Film Festival (Calgary, Alberta) 

The Calgary Underground Film Festival (CUFF) is a non-for-profit organization that has been running its annual festival every April at a downtown Calgary cinema since 2003. Various categories include features, documentaries, animations, and shorts, with genres ranging from sci-fi and fantasy to comedies, thrillers and music-related films. CUFF puts a priority on programming films for the festival that “defy convention”.  

In 2021, industry magazine MovieMaker included CUFF in its list of “50 Film Festivals Worth the Entry Fee”.  

CUFF also runs a documentary festival every November. The organizers of the event are not looking for documentaries that make a political statement, rather they curate films that spark critical thinking and a sense of discovery. Viewers can expect works that challenge assumptions, ignite curiosity, and celebrate the power of documentary filmmaking. 

You can read more about the Calgary Underground Film Festival here. 

tinff logo

Toronto International Nollywood Film Festival (Toronto, Ontario) 

The Toronto International Nollywood Film Festival (TINFF) is a multicultural film festival that celebrates diversity and inclusion through film. The festival is open to Canadian and international productions. With a wide range of interesting and unique categories including “Best Movie Poster”, “Best Virtual Reality”, “Best Trailer” and “Best Video Games”, TINFF promises to be a lot of fun. 

Joseph Favalaro, a Writing for Film & TV program graduate, saw his screenplay Letting Go While Holding On become an official festival section at TINFF.  

You can read more about the Toronto International Nollywood Film Festival here.  

The Canadian Independent Film Festival (Montreal, Quebec) 

The Canadian Independent Film Festival (CIFF) champions up-and-coming filmmakers while empowering underrepresented voices through film. Their mission: to transform Montreal into a vibrant hub where international filmmakers connect, share diverse perspectives, and ignite a passion for independent cinema. 

There are over 20 categories including: “Best Feature”, “Best Short Film”, “Best Animation”, and more.  

You can read more about the Canadian Independent Film Festival here. 

Blood in the Snow Film Festival (Toronto, Ontario) 

A not-for-profit festival that began in 2012, the Blood in the Snow Film Festival (BITS) bills itself as a “showcase of contemporary Canadian horror, genre and underground cinema that exists to challenge social boundaries, explore artistic taboos and support and exhibit independent Canadian genre media artists.” 

BITS has become a large festival, thanks in part to sponsorship from many organizations, including Super Channel, Telefilm Canada, Ontario Creates and the Independent Production Fund. BITS presents over a dozen “bloodies” (translation: awards) during the festival, and there is a newsletterNothern Fright Lights—where subscribers can find out the latest news, alumni stories, and exclusive contests related to the festival.  

You can read more about the Blood in the Snow Film Festival here. 

lunenberg doc fest

Lunenburg Doc Fest (Lunenburg, Nova Scotia) 

Lunenburg is a small coastal town in Nova Scotia with a population of less than 2500, yet it has been running this popular festival since 2013. Billed as “Atlantic Canada’s Leading Documentary Festival,” there is an actual category where the award winner is chosen by a poll of the audience.  

You can read more about the Lunenburg Doc Fest here. 

 

Honourable Mention: 

The Temecula Independent Film Festival (Los Angeles, California) 

Although this festival is not based in Canada, it is now completely online with over 20 categories to choose from, ranging from action to drama to comedy, and more. Toronto Film School acting and film production program students Kearsten Johansson, Matthew Luppino, Jyothi Tatter and Harrison Reynolds won “Best Romance Short” at the festival for their film The Blink of an Eye.  

Gary Tang, the festival director, has noted that the festival “is dedicated to fostering and recognizing independent filmmakers.” 

You can read about the Temecula Independent Film Festival here. 

 

What Is the Structure of an Indie Film Festival? 

No two festivals are the same. Some smaller festivals screen their films at one theatre only, others at many. When considering participating in or attending a festival, keep in mind that there is no standard structure; some festivals are all about the films being shown, while other festivals look at the screenings as just one component of many—they may also hold an awards gala, workshops, training modules, round tables, or other events.  

 

How are the Canadian Screen Awards involved with Indie Film Festivals? 

You will notice on some festival sites that they make mention of the fact that they are a ‘qualifying festival’ for the Canadian Screen Awards. The Canadian Screen Awards is Canada’s equivalent of America’s Oscars and Emmys—all rolled into one. They recognize artistic and technical achievement in Canadian film production, English television, and digital media (web series).  

There are certain admission requirements regarding entry. For example, feature documentaries or theatrical short films must be accepted into two pre-approved qualifying festivals to be considered for the Canadian Screen Awards. This is why some Indie Festivals will mention the Canadian Screen Awards on their sites.  

Garry Murdock
Born in Montreal, Garry Murdock is the marketing copywriter for Toronto Film School. He got his start in television production at YTV, and then later worked as a promo producer and commercial director for a number of television networks. He was the supervising producer of Cineplex’s national in-theatre pre-show, providing creative direction and leadership on over 600 produced segments, and directed on-location interviews around the world with Hollywood celebrities such as Steven Spielberg, Tom Cruise, Ben Affleck, Chris Evans, Kermit, Miss Piggy and many more. He has a bachelor’s degree in Radio and Television Arts from Toronto Metropolitan University and a certificate in Digital Marketing Management from the University of Toronto.

Garry Murdock

Born in Montreal, Garry Murdock is the marketing copywriter for Toronto Film School. He got his start in television production at YTV, and then later worked as a promo producer and commercial director for a number of television networks. He was the supervising producer of Cineplex’s national in-theatre pre-show, providing creative direction and leadership on over 600 produced segments, and directed on-location interviews around the world with Hollywood celebrities such as Steven Spielberg, Tom Cruise, Ben Affleck, Chris Evans, Kermit, Miss Piggy and many more. He has a bachelor’s degree in Radio and Television Arts from Toronto Metropolitan University and a certificate in Digital Marketing Management from the University of Toronto.

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