Film Festival in Scenic Port Townsend

If you like movies but have never been to a film festival, you’re in for a treat. There’s nothing quite like 3-days of a visual and musical feast shared with other film lovers. Even the lines outside the theatres are entertaining as filmgoers share their opinions between screenings.

Port Townsend Film Festival
Over 300 local volunteers help make Port Townsend’s Film Festival a great experience for visitors.

Scenic Port Townsend, Washington may be one of the best towns in the world to quench your thirst for film. The Port Townsend Film Festival shows over 80 films on a three-day weekend in late September each year. Unlike film festivals in other cities, this quaint historic town on the waterfront is completely walkable. And, because it’s a beach town, it’s completely casual. You’ll fit right in wearing your most comfortable polar fleece or old sweater.

Northwest Maritime Center
Northwest Maritime Center

Tourists have long loved this beautiful 1880-era village (population 10,000); itself a stage setting that has been used for several films. Adjacent to Olympic National Park, a World Heritage Site, the town sits at the end of a peninsula that juts out from the mainland into Puget Sound. Its main street has stunning views of both the snowcapped volcanic peaks of the Cascade Range to the east and the jagged and dense Olympic Mountains to the west.

The town’s history itself reads like a movie script: In the 1800s, Port Townsend was the rough and tumble destination of cargo sailing ships dependent on a deep-water harbor and wind. Investors were eager to build up this port as the demand for goods grew. They hired architects and builders to construct a business district with local brick and stone.

Their dreams shattered when steamships, no longer needing wind power, could chug the length of the Sound to Seattle. When the railway terminus was built in Seattle, investors fled Port Townsend. Except for a few loyal residents, the city limped along until the 1970s. Then, historic preservation of the crumbling old buildings began in earnest.

Today, Port Townsend’s National Historic District is a thriving tourist-friendly town. It has a picturesque boat harbor, fine restaurants, boutique hotels, spas and shops, all within eight square blocks.

The outlying town, three miles square, is as accessible as Port Townsend’s downtown. From downtown visitors can hike through well-tended neighborhoods to Fort Worden State Park. The park, a former century-old military fort with restored white clapboard buildings, was the setting of “Officer and a Gentleman,” filmed here in the 1980s. It sits on 503 acres of wooded trails, beaches and campgrounds. It’s also accessible from downtown via a sandy beach walk that ends at the picturesque old lighthouse at Point Wilson.

Point Wilson Lighthouse at Fort Worden
Point Wilson Lighthouse at Fort Worden

The Port Townsend Film Festival, now in its 18th year, curates hundreds of films annually to select over 80 to screen in late September. Selections include films on the festival circuit (such as Sundance, Cannes and Toronto) and films submitted to the festival.

Over 60 filmmakers come to this festival each year to talk about their work with audiences. The Festival welcomes them with a parade through town, a big community dinner in the street, and a party each night. Most parties take place in the Festival Bar in a 1930-era building on the city’s wharf.

Port Townsend Film Festiva
Filmmakers and audiences alike relax and take the weekend off, enjoying conversation between films

The Festival screens movies for three full days, from 9 a.m. until 11 p.m., in eight theatres. The Rose Theatre is a former vaudeville theatre in the heart of town. Upstairs is the Starlight Room with crystal chandeliers and stunning views. One of the theatres is set up on a closed street with straw-bale seating and free, kid-friendly movies under the stars. Other theatres are created in historic buildings, with seating for 66 to 250.

Port Townsend Film Festival Outdoor Movie Venue
Port Townsend Film Festival Outdoor Movie is in the heart of the historic district on the waterfront.

This year’s Port Townsend Festival is Fri.-Sun., Sept. 23-25, 2016. Order passes online or by calling the Festival office at 360-379-1333. Full Festival passes are $220 and include a salmon dinner on Friday night and you choice of 80 films. Gaining in popularity are Director passes, $650, that include concierge service (no lines!) and a significant tax deduction. Patron passes are $1500 and are all inclusive, with a Saturday afternoon cocktail party with the Festival’s special guests. Guests in the past have included such luminaries as Cary Grant and Patricia Neal; in the past few years independent film director John Sayles attended, as did Bruce Dern, Chris Cooper and Beau Bridges.

Special guests for 2016 include director Charlie Soap Cherokee Word for Water, animator David Tart Toy Story and actress Karen Allen who returns to Port Townsend with her new film, Year by the Sea. More special guests will be announced before the festival.

The complete festival program, along with the lineup of special guests and attending filmmakers, posts on the website in late July. Because hotels fill up early in the season, make reservations now. For lodging options, see visit Enjoy Port TownsendVisit Jefferson County has answers to your questions about travel.

Port Townsend Ferry Terminal
Port Townsend Ferry Terminal

Port Townsend is north of Seattle, Washington, via the Bainbridge Island ferry. The ferry departs from downtown Seattle for a 30-minute cross, and then is a one-hour drive. From the British Columbia mainland, reach Port Townsend via the Coupeville ferry. Ferry reservations are recommended. From Victoria, British Columbia, reach Port Townsend via the M.V. Coho car ferry. Port Townsend is a 45-minute drive from the ferry landing at Port Angeles.


Peter Caranicas | Managing Editor, Features | Variety

“I attended the Port Townsend Film Festival for the first time in 2014 and was more than surprised and delighted by the range of its movies, the quality of its panels and the devotion of its attendees. The outdoor screenings fostered a sense of community among the filmgoers. The mix of documentaries, features and shorts was a feast for the mind as well as the eyes, and the presence of indie icon director John Sayles and his partner Maggie Renzi was a real coup for the fest organizers. The event’s venue – in the heart of a historic and picturesque Victorian downtown, surrounded by majestic landscapes of the Pacific Northwest – offers the perfect backdrop for a relaxed atmosphere. I know of no other event that establishes such a productive dialogue between audiences and filmmakers and connects the passions of film creators with the enthusiasm of film lovers.”

Jan Halliday
Jan Halliday

Travel writer Jan Halliday has covered the west coast of North America, from Alaska to Mexico, for newspapers, magazines and guidebooks. Her articles focus on educational vacations and detailed itineraries based on readers’ special interests, with recommendations for good food, lodging and sightseeing along the way. For a decade she explored Native American culture and art, and is the author of “Native Peoples of the Northwest” and “Native Peoples of Alaska: A Traveler’s Guide to Land, Art and Culture” (Sasquatch Books). She has lived and worked in New York, Arizona and Oregon. She currently resides near Seattle.

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