The Sydney Film Festival began in 1954, making it one of the longest running events of its kind in the world. The festival runs for two weeks each year in June and showcases Australian, international and alternative films.
The original committee to organise the film festival in Sydney comprised Alan Stout, Professor of Philosophy at Sydney University, as chair, John Heyer, John Kingsford Smith and Sydney University Film Group President David Donaldson. The first festival opened on June 11, 1954 and screened in four halls at Sydney University over four days. Attendance was at full capacity with 1,200 tickets sold at one guinea each.
The festival remained at Sydney University until 1968, at which time it moved to the Wintergarden in Rose Bay. In 1974 it moved to its current main venue, the historic State Theatre in the centre of Sydney. Films are now shown at venues across the Sydney CBD, with films shown at the Dendy Opera Quays, two screens at the Greater Union George Street Cinema Complex, the NSW Art Gallery as well as the State. In 2007 the festival introduced a series of live gigs, shows and cabaret-style screening at the nearby Metro Theatre, to expand the festival beyond the traditional cinema experience, and allow a platform for emerging technological innovations in the world of film.
Members of the audience can purchase a subscription to the State Theatre for the full two weeks but the number of single session tickets, as well as FlexiPasses of ten, twenty and thirty tickets, has been increasing since introduced in 2001. In 2007 a new FlexiPass, the FlexiDiscovery, was introduced for people aged 18–24, to encourage young people to discover the film festival.
Strict guidelines in relation to previous screenings of films means that audiences see films that haven't had general release. Six audience awards are awarded at the end of the festival, as voted for by members of the audience throughout the 12-day event. The prestigious Dendy Awards for Australian short film award $5,000 in five categories.
On 10 September 2007 the SFF announced it had received funding from the New South Wales government to host an Official International Competition, which will reward 'new directions in film' for films over 75 minutes from around the world. To be eligible for the competition films must 'have emotional power and resonance; be audacious, cutting edge and courageous; and go beyond the usual treatment of their subject matter'.
The first winner of the 'Official Competition' in 2008 was the British film Hunger
The 2009 Sydney Film Festival ran to a shortened program from 3 to 14 June, with British biopic Bronson, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn winning the AUD$60,000 cash prize. The inaugural Peter Rasmussen Innovation award was won by Michela Ledwidge.