It’s not easy for any American film festival scheduled in January, with Sundance gobbling up the majority of submissions and ever-multiplying awards shows competing for attention. So around a decade ago, Palm Springs Intl. Film Festival organizers decided to focus a significant part of their program on the Academy season, celebrating Oscar contenders with special awards and screening most of the foreign-language entries.

Under the leadership of chairman Harold Matzner, director Darryl Macdonald and others, attendance more than doubled over the last decade to 130,000 last year, making PSIFF the third most popular U.S. film fest after Tribeca and Seattle.

But a dark cloud is threatening this meteoric rise, as the Academy plans to move the Oscars several weeks earlier to shorten the campaign season, potentially eliminating Palm Springs’ prime spot as the last high-profile stop before Oscar nomination ballots are due (this year on Jan. 14, the second weekend of the 11-day fest).

It’s the biggest challenge PSIFF has faced in its 23-year history. Despite the complicated logistics, organizers aren’t going to let the Academy change ruin the niche they’ve created. “We’ll move the festival up lock, stock and barrel,” Macdonald says, “a couple months earlier, (or whatever) the corresponding period is to when Academy votes are due and when the awards ceremony is held.”

Macdonald tested the waters recently, contacting local hotels and other businesses when a 2013 Oscar move seemed a likely possibility. “They were certainly receptive to the idea, mainly because of what the festival represents to this town: it’s the largest tourist draw Palm Springs has, apart from (its) natural attributes,” he explains. “Now it seems (the Academy isn’t) so quick to make the move, so there’s a reprieve for at least the next year or two.”

This news will come as a relief to many local Oscar voters and the industry that aims to reach them. “There are Academy members who don’t want to drive two hours to weekend screenings in L.A.,” notes vet Block-Korenbrot publicist Melody Korenbrot. “(The festival) offers a chance for them to see the films in the way they’re meant to be seen — with an audience and in the proper format.”

The move would also help ensure that stars invited to receive honors at the fest each year will keep making the desert pilgrimage. The opportunity for them to mingle with Oscar voters will become far more rare when AMPAS’ stricter campaign regulations take effect Jan. 24, eliminating receptions and limiting panels for eligible films. Fests such as Palm Springs and Santa Barbara (held after noms are announced and before final ballots are due) will still be able to hold events with eligible films and talent, an exemption sure to increase their profile and importance.

“We actually sweated it for a while: ‘Is this the death of parties at Palm Springs?’?” Macdonald recalls. “We’d have to purposefully go for an obscure film that has no hope for an Oscar nomination. It would really put a damper on festivals if they weren’t able to choose films that they were particularly excited about and put parties together with those films.”

Another reason moving up with the Oscars is worth the logistical headaches and other potential risks: the star power from PSIFF’s increased number of awards in recent years is a key reason vacationers have made it such a popular destination. Over the past six years, Macdonald says, 70% of fest attendees arrive from outside Coachella Valley.

There’s some evidence of Palm Springs’ impact on Oscar nominations: the last four Desert Palm Achievement Award actor honorees, and three of the last four actress winners, went on to win Oscars two months later. “It does help pick up those extra votes,” says one awards campaign vet.

And for foreign entries, which make up more than 80% of the fest’s slate, it’s undeniably crucial. In 2009, the Japanese drama “Departures” became a surprise Oscar foreign language winner thanks to Palm Springs buzz. (The fest screened all of the entries in its Awards Buzz section for years, but the increased number of countries submitting has led organizers to pare the section down to 40-45 of the 60-plus entries.) Whatever lies in Palm Springs’ future, it’s clear from talking to Macdonald that organizers will do whatever it takes to keep its spot as a pre-nomination Oscar showcase.

“This festival is known for being the one place in the world outside of (the Academy’s L.A.) screening rooms where you can see the largest number of foreign-language Oscar submissions in one place at one time,” he says. “For the festival to lose that as one of its central focuses would really be a shame.”

Palm Springs International Film Festival 2012
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