Last week I was in Palm Springs, at the annual Palm Springs International ShortFest. This is, to my knowledge, the largest festival dedicated to short films in America. I was attending in my recently-added capacity as an Associate Programmer for the 2018 Newport Beach Film Festival, scouting projects and making connections with filmmakers. It was my first time attending a festival in an “industry” capacity, and it was immensely valuable to navigate the experience from this perspective; to see people with similar ambitions to mine through the eyes of someone whose mission it is to find great talent and great material.
Some of those muscles from my story executive days are still in there, and it had a few similarities to that unforgettable weekend I spent at a Writer’s Conference in Portland, getting pitched screenplays so relentlessly every moment I was out of my hotel room that I was literally scheduling people to pitch me during my elevator rides. This was not quite so aggressive, but that badge sure made me a target.
I often speak in terms of data, because part of my brain will always work like a massive, 3D monster of a spreadsheet; and I want to use that to move these filmmaking notions of mine forward. Palm Springs is uniquely valuable in that regard – they receive over 4,000 submissions in an average year, and program from 3-400 of them. That’s almost 10% accepted, which for a famous, Academy-qualifying festival, is actually relatively high. On top of that, every short submitted, even if rejected by the festival proper, is made available in what’s known as “The Marketplace” to Industry people like myself, and anyone who buys a festival pass with Marketplace privileges.
The Marketplace is essentially a room with dozens of Macs with headphones. You can dial up any film there that the Festival considered, as well as have access to a master spreadsheet with the filmmakers’ contact information. So even if you’re rejected by the Festival, a filmmaker with enough innate hustle could make the choice to come out anyway with some posters and postcards and any other gimmick they can devise, and try to get as many people as possible to see their movie. And more than a few people I met were here doing just that.
So because of the unusually high acceptance rate, and the guaranteed secondary opportunity to attract eyeballs, an entry to Palm Springs is one of the few genuinely no-lose scenarios for the price out there. And those incentives mean that, at Palm Springs, you have the opportunity to take a more informed sample of the current landscape of short filmmaking around the world than almost anywhere else you could go. I’ve never entered, out of sheer intimidation; now that I see the opportunity for what it is, and have spent several days scouting the competition in-depth, I’m resolving to enter The Dinner Scene for next year, because I think we have a puncher’s chance with it. Perhaps R&R too, if I finish it and it turns out to be a non-disaster.
I never actually went to the multiplex where festival screenings were happening. My festival experience was in that Marketplace, when I wasn’t grabbing snacks or refreshing my coffee at the Filmmaker’s Lounge next door. One set of filmmakers, to promote their film about maple sugar in Canada, had left some maple syrup by the Lounge coffee machine with an invitation to us to sweeten our coffee with it. I took them up on that – repeatedly.
It can feel a bit like punching a clock. I watched over 4 hours’ worth of shorts each day, when I wasn’t meeting with filmmakers, or stealing time away to work at my other part-time job, or check on the evolving sound mix for The Dinner Scene, or review casting submissions for R&R. There were parties every night, never starting until 10pm because of the heat.
Right – the heat. This was brutal. Inhuman on a level of “why is any human even here?” I arrived at 9:45pm on Tuesday night, and it was 109 degrees out. Some nights, right before sunrise, it might dip a bit below 90. On at least two days temperatures topped 120. I start getting physically uncomfortable above about 77 degrees, so this was short-circuiting my body any time I left the confines of a heavily air-conditioned building. Thirty seconds of crossing the hotel parking lot would give my body those weird chill-spasms that are like a physiological red alert. One afternoon mixer was in a restaurant’s party room, one entire wall was exterior glass and the room was very crowded, so all I had time to do was chug a glass of Riesling and then retreat to stand under an AC vent in the men’s room before I legitimately fainted. Made me miss February in Colorado at the Durango Festival – 7,000+ feet up, brisk by day and with nighttime lows around freezing. Much more my climate.
In 5 days I watched over 80 short films. My festival program was marked up like a racing form. I saw an Estonian LGBT coming out story using animated foxes and horses, a sci-fi allegory about loneliness and STD’s done with deliberate 80’s video throwback visuals with a David Lynch-style emphasis on hypnotic dread over narrative, a thoroughly charming 12-minute Australian song-and-dance musical set in a library, an enthralling short documentary about a pair of ping-pong tables in a New York City park that have seemingly saved a few lost souls, and a deranged British short about a homeless schizophrenic on a mission to prove that his street brethren are being kidnapped and processed into artisanal coffee beans in his gentrifying neighborhood. Maybe 5 of the filmmakers whose work I saw feel ready to step into a feature, and one in particular I think is going to be directing Oscar bait within the next 10 years if this town has a lick of good sense.
Some of my favorite moments, though, happened when I got to chat with filmmakers after I watched their shorts, go over what I liked, where they’re going as filmmakers, hear stories of their struggles to get it made, and give them my thoughts on what might help them raise their game. One thing that happens at an event like this is that everyone in the room is bonded by the shared experience of having willed a film project into being. Even if their work was flawed or lazy, they still created something; and just doing that took far greater than average willpower and persistence. I just finished watching Season 1 of GLOW, and it captured something about how if a creative mission is going to be completed, there has to come a moment where someone activates that Closer instinct even when it seems impossible, insane, and pointless to carry on. It put the lady wrestlers and their determination on the level of the damn Magnificent Seven. Great show.
At this level, deciding to make a movie is like that. 99+ percent of the time, you’re going to lose all your money on a short. The acceptance rate at top festivals is brutal. Only a very few filmmakers will actually be able to stepping stone off a short into something better; and they’ll only manage to do that if they work even harder than they did making their short, which probably felt like the hardest thing ever. Why do it? Because whether the film is coming from a city in American or a village in Nepal, film itself is putting us into these places, into these conversations, and I’m still in love with that. Even on short #80 I was still excited when I clicked “Play” – ready for whatever the next storyteller had for me.
Can’t wait to put The Dinner Scene out there; I hope its journey is a good one.