Downtown Bend is a magical place in mid-October. Walking the city sidewalks on a cool autumn evening, the neon lights of the historic Tower Theater light up the bustling crowds below, where people wait eagerly with tickets in hand. These crowds are there for a reason: the BendFilm Festival, which will celebrate its 14th year October 12-15.
The BendFilm Festival is on its way to becoming a little Sundance. While Portland and Eugene have their own fests, Bend is Oregon’s destination festival for celebrating independent film. BFF director Todd Looby says the four-day event now draws about 5,000 people and fills more than 8,000 seats.
Set in a breathtaking mountain city setting—not unlike Park City, Utah—festivalgoers can attend a day screening, go for a hike or a paddle, and come back to town for a premiere and a director’s talk in the evening.
“Everything is right there,” Looby says. “If you want to take a break and get outside and contemplate the movies you’re seeing, you can walk right out of town along the river or head to a trail. You come back renewed for the next one.”
The screenings, discussions, and filmmakers’ talks are also sprinkled across Bend’s charming city center, making it an intimate way to get to know the town. Venues range from the 75-year-old crown jewel, the Tower Theater, boasting 460 seats, to the comfy McMenamins Old St. Francis School Theater and the cozy Tin Pan Theatre.
Looby says McMenamins is “one of the best places to see a movie in town,” with couches, loveseats, and a full food and bar menu. He describes Tin Pan as a boutique art house theater. “It’s a really intimate way to see a movie.”
The one venue off the beaten track is the Volcanic Theater Pub, the only theater on the west side of the Deschutes River. Looby says this is a pocket of Bend well worth checking out. “We show more of our eclectic films at that venue,” he says.
One of the perks of setting a film festival in a small city is that festivalgoers get to rub shoulders with filmmakers and crew all weekend long, whether it’s on the street or at a pub or cafe. If you have a question about a film, you can ask the director over a beer.
“Filmmakers get a lot of feedback,” Looby says, and that has been a really positive aspect of the festival, attracting more filmmakers every year. “And because our audience is so well versed in cinema, you get these really engaging conversations that happen after the screening.”
Looby says the BendFilm Festival team is still curating this year’s festival program and going through submissions—they received more than 1,100 films this year, and each submission must be viewed twice. The final program will be available in early September.
For first-time festival attendees, Looby has some advice.
“Go through the schedule—our guide will be online for Eugene folks,” he says, adding that getting a pass instead of individual tickets may be the easiest way to go. “Focus on just a few films that jump out at you and then go see them.”
He continues, “One of the best things you can do while you’re in line [for a film] is start a conversation with someone else in line. People will give a breakdown and tips of where to go.”
Looby notes that the BendFilm Festival website (bendfilm.org) also provides a “48 Hours in Bend” itinerary that suggests restaurants, coffee shops, and breweries to visit as well as other activities you can do outside of the festival while you’re in town.
“There’s so many film festivals worldwide,” says Looby, who’s been to his fair share. “This place is really unique—Bend as a town and a community.”