The Istanbul Film Festival was first presented as a film week in the summer of 1982, within the framework of the International Istanbul Festival. In 1983, under the title “International Istanbul Film Days”, 36 films were shown in one month.

Beginning in 1984, the event became a separate activity and was shifted to April. In 1985, with the incentive of Şakir Eczacıbaşı, two competitive sections, one national and the other international, were included in the Festival program. The grand prize of the festival, the first ever Golden Tulip, was given this year to Michael Radford for his film 1984. The first grand prix of the National Competition was awarded to A Sip of Love directed by Atıf Yılmaz. Accredited by FIAPF (International Federation of Film Producers Associations) in 1989 as a “specialised competitive festival”, the “film week” thus was renamed the Istanbul Film Festival. The festival since 2016 awards the Golden Tulip to a film that reflects “new perspectives in cinema.”

Between 2007 and 2020 the Human Rights in Cinema section of the festival programme became competitive; its monetary award endorsed by the Council of Europe fund Eurimages, bestowed only at the Istanbul Film Festival. In January 2010, upon the death of İKSV chairman and co-founder of the festival, Şakir Eczacıbaşı, the International Golden Tulip Award started to be given in his memory, with the support of the Eczacıbaşı Group. In 2013, in memory of writer, director, producer Seyfi Teoman, the Festival established the Seyfi Teoman Best Debut Film prize. In 2015, a documentary competition, and in 2016 a short film competition were set up for films produced in Türkiye–both awarding cash prizes. With around 50 local films in its line-up, the Istanbul Film Festival presents the widest showcase for Turkish productions. In 2022, Young Masters became a competitive section, best film being selected by the Youth Jury composed of film students.

A member of the advisory board and programme advisor since 1983, Vecdi Sayar quit his post in 1995. In 1995, co-founder of the festival and İKSV executive Onat Kutlar was killed in a terrorist bombing. The first director of the Festival was Hülya Uçansu (1983-2006), followed by Azize Tan (2006-2015) who handed over the post to Kerem Ayan in 2015.

In 2006, celebrating its 25th year, Istanbul Film Festival established the Meetings on the Bridge programme–a co-production market aiming to provide a launch pad for co-productions while bringing producers, directors, scriptwriters, and representatives of institutions from Türkiye and Europe together. Within the frame of the Meetings on the Bridge programme, a Feature Film Project Development Workshop was initiated in 2008, and a Work in Progress workshop in 2012. In 2011, the Turkish-German Co-production Fund was formed by collaboration of the Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg and Hamburg Schleswig-Holstein film funds. In order to establish and strengthen relations with filmmakers from neighbouring countries, the “Neighbours” platform was launched in 2016.

The Festival features an international competition, provides a broad showcase for recent Turkish film productions, and thus represents a rewarding medium where Turkish and foreign filmmakers get together. The Festival draws a special interest to world classics, presenting retrospectives, and curated sections included in its programme which comprises close to 200 titles, making it the most comprehensive film festival in Türkiye. With admissions exceeding 80,000 in 2023, it is also considered the biggest film festival and the longest-running international film festival in Türkiye.

The Festival, whose aim is “to encourage the development of cinema in Türkiye, to help Turkish cinema attain international recognition and to promote films of quality in the Turkish market”, has also introduced international institutions and organizations like EURIMAGES to the Turkish market.

Numerous filmmakers, actors and actresses visited the festival at its past editions, such as actors Ian McKellan, Claudia Cardinale, Catherine Deneuve, Gérard Depardieu, Harvey Keitel, John Malkovich, Charles Dance, Jeanne Moreau, Greta Scacchi, Sophia Loren, Patricia Arquette, Stephen Dorff, Barbara Sukowa, Jane Birkin, Lior Ashkenazy, Moe Dunford, Gaspard Ulliel, Félix Maritaud, Maribel Verdu, Isabél Zuaa, Travis Fimmel; filmmakers Bernardo Bertolucci, Chantal Akerman, Fatih Akın, François Ozon, Paul Schrader, Tsai Ming-liang, Park Chan-wook, Neil Jordan, Jane Campion, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Bertrand Tavernier, Carlos Saura, Nanni Moretti, Theo Angelopoulos, Paul Cox, Abbas Kiarostami, Jerry Schatzberg, Yusuf Şahin, Emir Kusturica, Elia Kazan, Nikita Mikhalkov, Ken Russell, Roger Corman, Pivio, István Szabó, Krzysztof Kieślowski, Nagisa Oshima, Ettore Scola, Michelangelo Antonioni, Peter Greenaway, Stephen Frears, Gus Van Sant, Alexander Sokurov, Jerzy Skolimowski, Marco Bellocchio, Klaus Maria Brandauer, Tony Gatlif, Todd Solondz, Elia Suleiman, Béla Tarr, Claire Denis, Claude Lanzmann, Leos Carax, Terence Davies, Ann Hui, Costa-Gavras, Peter Weir, Mike Figgis, Carlos Reygadas, Bille August, Milcho Manchevski, Marin Karmitz, Pawel Pawlikowski, Rolf De Heer, Lone Scherfig, Christian Petzold, Raoul Peck, Asghar Farhadi, Rodrigo Plá, Volker Schlöndorff, Barbara Miller, Florin Şerban, Shirin Neshat, Nora Fingscheidt, Guillaume Nicloux, Catherine Corsini, Lynne Ramsay, Bent Hamer, Nadav Lapid, and Gaspar Noé.

The Istanbul Film Festival has, over the past 42 years, presented Istanbul audiences with a total of more than 6,276 films, showcasing the cinema of 111 countries, and attracting a total audience number of 4,420,548. 

The Festival, since 1984, takes place in April.