The Next Picture Show Film festivals are more popular than ever, but you don't need an in with Gwyneth to attend one.
By Ed Welles

(FORTUNE Small Business) – When you hear people talk about film festivals, you probably conjure up images that make them seem off-limits to mere mortals--Harvey Weinstein of Miramax puffing on a cigar while discussing his latest business conquest, or flashbulbs following Nicole Kidman up the red carpet at Cannes, where the dress code for evening screenings is strictly black tie.

In fact, over the past few years film festivals have been more about the proletariat and less about the paparazzi. Between 1995 and 2000 the number of annual festivals around the world rose from 450 to 683, according to Bruno Chatelin, an editor at, which tracks the festival circuit. Other estimates put the current number as high as 1,000 (though there's no official count). Regardless, on any given day, somewhere on the planet a film festival is in full swing and open to the public.

In addition to the big names like Cannes, Toronto, and Sundance (which is held in Park City, Utah, every year--Jan. 16-20 in 2003), there are a growing number of offbeat options. Finland stages the Midnight Sun festival north of the Arctic Circle every summer. (The theaters offer a sanctuary from the 24-hour daylight, and films are screened around the clock.) Closer to home, just about every good-sized U.S. city offers its own version. In August, Austin holds the QT Festival, which celebrates Quentin Tarantino and allows the bad-boy director sole control over which movies are shown--ensuring a lineup devoid of romantic comedies. Missoula, Mont., stages two festivals each year, and Telluride, Colo., has three. Philadelphia even puts on a Reject Festival, airing films that weren't accepted elsewhere (for others, see "Coming Soon").

Behind the growing trend is basic economics. "Festivals have proved to be a good recipe for promotion," says Chatelin. They're an efficient way for smaller, independent films to create buzz and find an audience. The lore of Hollywood is filled with overnight success stories. In Sundance to Sarajevo: Film Festivals and the World They Created, by Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan, director Ed Burns talks about how dramatically his life changed when The Brothers McMullen came out of nowhere to win the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 1995. "Nothing has been the same since," Burns says. "The lights went down, the movie starts, and the audience starts laughing. And then afterward agents, production companies, and distribution companies--right then and there--the bidding war begins."

For us movie fans, festivals might not transform our lives as radically, but they do offer an engaging--and often inexpensive--way to see films not likely to make it to your local multiplex. It was that cultural quest that took me to the 24th annual Aspen Filmfest this past fall.

I flew into Denver and headed west by Jeep through the mountains on the four-hour drive to Aspen, waking the next morning to snow--perfect weather for a movie or three. My first stop was the local arts center, for a chat with Filmfest director Laura Thielen. She was responsible for coming up with this year's program, overseeing a committee of 15 local volunteers ranging from a Jungian analyst to a building contractor. They sorted through about 200 submissions to decide which 24 movies would make the cut (at least three committee members had to see each movie). "Aspen is designed to be an audience festival, as opposed to being industry-driven," Thielen told me. That meant I wouldn't be seeing the Weinsteins launching bidding wars in bars or people dressed in black alighting from stretch SUVs.

Aspen Filmfest got its start in the late 1970s around Ellen Hunt's kitchen table, when she and a group of neighbors, frustrated at not being able to bring quality films to town, decided to put on some shows of their own. The event has since developed a reputation for striking a balance between original works by unknown directors and classic films with established stars. (One constant, by the way, is Hunt, who still chairs the Filmfest board.)

From Thielen's office I wandered over to the festival's main venue, the Wheeler Opera House, a 19th-century stone building owned by the city of Aspen and listed on the national historical register. Hushed and elegant, with thick carpeting and rich paneling, the 450-seat Wheeler was notably free of the buttery reek of popcorn. Instead, beer and wine were served. Tickets went on sale at the box office a week before the festival began, but most of the films didn't sell out; I could walk up at any time and buy a ticket for one of the 24 movies for just $9.50. (Compare that with Sundance, where a complex scheme of color-coded passes offers eight levels of exclusion, and an Express Pass, which doesn't even ensure your entry to every film, will set you back $2,500.)

Each day's program at Aspen began at noon and typically included four films, ending around 11 p.m. Even at showtime there was rarely a scramble, and I could usually make my way to a favorite seat up in the balcony. Thielen told me her objective was simple: "I want to take people on a journey." So each day's movies were grouped around a certain theme.

My journey that first day began at noon with Seven Days in Teheran, a feature on political repression in Iran made for just $75,000 by an Iranian exile, now a waiter in Paris. The afternoon movie, Rabbit Proof Fence, was about Australia's draconian racial laws in the 1930s, when the state forcibly removed mixed-race children from their aborigine mothers to "civilize" them. Based on a true story, the film tells how three sisters walked across 1,500 miles of outback to return home. (Rabbit Proof Fence would be voted best feature of the festival.)

Between those two films, Thielen showed an American classic from 1969, They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, which starred Jane Fonda and focused on dance marathons during the Depression. Thielen's theme for that first day was human desperation in the face of impersonal political and economic forces. Heavy stuff, but she ended on a lighter note--the last film of the night was Steamboat Bill Jr., a Buster Keaton silent comedy from 1929. Made on the eve of the Depression and during the advent of talkies, the film is considered one of Keaton's finest, though it bombed at the box office when first released. For a modern touch Thielen imported an acoustic band to create a live soundtrack for the film.

I had feared that three movies in one day might amount to sensory overload, but there was ample time between films not merely to stretch but also to step out for a walk and explore the town. During my stay Aspen was blessedly off-season and momentarily affordable. My room at the Hotel Aspen went for one-third the usual rate of $360, and the restaurant across from the opera house, Caffe Torino, had crossed out its summer menu prices and replaced them with new figures 25% lower. And the hikes, as always, were free.

The next day Thielen shifted genres by showing two contemporary documentaries. The first, OT, told of inner-city students in Compton, Calif., struggling to stage Thornton Wilder's Our Town at their high school, where no play had been performed in 24 years. The second, Tribute, followed the fortunes of so-called tribute bands, which imitate a single group like Kiss or Queen right down to their makeup and stage antics, even though members of the tribute bands are typically middle-aged guys with day jobs and mortgages.

Both directors were first-timers, and both were at the festival to promote their films. After Scott Kennedy, the director of OT, finished answering questions from the audience, he set up shop in the lobby to sell i love compton T-shirts. Kennedy shot the film in 2000 and spent the next 18 months editing, a period he described to me as "like living in a box." OT won Best Documentary at the Los Angeles film festival, and it would do the same at Aspen, but Kennedy had yet to find a distributor for it.

Rich Fox, the director of Tribute, was in a similar situation, though he had spent five years making his picture. Audiences loved it, but to release the movie commercially a distributor would have to pay hefty sums on the rights to all those Kiss and Queen songs in the soundtrack, and no one had yet committed.

True to its trademark of balancing youth and established star power, the Aspen festival paid tribute to Sidney Pollack this year for a long Hollywood career in which he directed 18 films, produced 30, and acted in eight. Pollack jetted in for the occasion, piloting his own plane, and took the opera house stage in a black leather jacket, jeans, and cowboy boots. After a video of clips from his greatest hits, such as Tootsie and Out of Africa, Pollack took questions and told stories about how he got his start 40 years ago by directing TV Westerns for $75 a week.

Afterward, at a $100-a-plate dinner, Pollack was surrounded by Aspen's culture mavens, while I sat at a nearby table with Scott Kennedy of OT (who, I couldn't help noticing, piled his plate high with food from the buffet line, perhaps as insurance). Kennedy had been working on music videos and commercials for ten years now, and OT was his effort to break out. "It's hard to make the next step," he said. "It's very hard to get the man to open up the wallet."

That was probably the essential film festival experience--a legend at one table telling stories to admirers, while 15 feet away a hopeful upstart with a labor of love and no distribution deal loads up on free food. After dinner, as Kennedy and I left the warmth of the restaurant, I wished him luck. I was weary after having already watched two films that day, but down the block the well-lit opera house beckoned. The late show was about to start, and there was one more movie I wanted to see.