Megabudget tentpoles may dominate the multiplexes and attract big media attention, but short films are still a crucial part of the cinematic ecosystem. That’s why for 20 years filmmakers from around the world have gathered in the poolside attire-required heat of the California desert at the Palm Springs Intl. ShortFest.

Why pay attention to shorts? “It’s the first time you see or hear emerging voices,” says Kathleen McInnis, festival director of ShortFest. “They speak with a strength and a passion and a clarity that’s not compromised as they go into the process of making films at a higher level.” For those in the industry, “You’re going to tap them for what they’re going to do next.”

That’s what happened for such directors as Christopher Nolan, who had an early short in Palm Springs, or Andrea Arnold, whose “Wasp” won the Palm Springs ShortFest prize and then the Oscar for short film before she went on to win the Cannes jury prize for her feature “Fish Tank.” Benh Zeitlin and Jean-Marc Vallee are just a few of the other directors who got a headstart on their careers in the trendy-again town.

Fest highlights this year include “Columbite Tantalite,” directed by Chiwetel Ejiofor; Nick Offerman starring in “The Gunfighter”; Oscar Isaac in the world premiere of “Ticky Tacky”; and Rose McGowan in her directing debut, “Dawn” (pictured above).

Most attendees agree that there’s something special about the exchange of ideas and cultures that occurs when filmmakers from far-flung places such as Lebanon, Japan, New Zealand and Norway start bonding over beers by the pool in the warm desert night.

But there are more benefits for directors than just expanding their horizons; they also get the chance to meet up with industry advisers who find the Palm Springs ShortFest an easy trip from nearby Los Angeles.

As the fest celebrates its 20th year, McInnis says programmers have “had the pleasure of being able to program with celebration in mind.”
This year’s crop of 330 films seems more upbeat, she says, after a few years when somber themes were prevalent.

A record 81 countries submitted films this year. “We continue to have a broader and broader profile,” says McInnis, pointing out that last year there was a huge and unexpected increase in participation, with 544 filmmakers attending.

In addition to meeting entertainment business pros, the filmmakers can screen their films in the market portion of the festival, which offers even more selection.

“You have a great opportunity to showcase your film to industry,” says McInnis, pointing out that outlets like the Tribeca festival and pubcaster KQED select films from both the market and festival.

One surprising thing this year, says McInnis, is how many longer shorts made the cut, with several nearing the 30-minute mark.
“They’re complex stories told really well,” she adds.

Each year, audiences are enthusiastic about the gay-themed programs, the animation and Shooting Stars section featuring well-known names. This year, the festival debuts the History of Us collection, with both documentary and narrative films that look at social conditions in the world at large. There will also be more science fiction in the Futurescapes program and the return of the well-received Seven Deadly Sins program.

Festival Highlights
›  Chiwetel Ejiofor directs “Columbite Tantalite”
›  Rose McGowan makes her directing debut with “Dawn”
›  Nick Offerman stars in “The Gunfighter”
›  Oscar Isaac stars in the world premiere of “Ticky Tacky”
›  Danny DeVito stars in “Today’s the Day”
›  Alex Karpovsky stars in the world premiere of “The Young Housefly”
›  Sophia Loren stars in “Human Voice,”  directed by her son.
›  Taylor Kitsch directs the world premiere of “Pieces”
›  Sally Hawkins and Jim Broadbent star in “The Phone Call”
›  Sarah Paulson stars in “#twitterkills”
›  Jenna Fischer stars in the world premiere of “It’s Okay”