Palm Springs ShortFest Celebrates Brevity

To all the filmmakers and audience members en route to the Palm Springs Intl. Festival of Short Films — or ShortFest, if you’re into the whole brevity thing — spare a thought for executive and festival director Darryl Macdonald and the rest of his programming team. As soon as the Palm Springs Film Festival wraps in January, the group begins its mammoth task of whittling down a 330-short film festival out of more than 3,300 submissions. This year the fest runs June 16-22.

“From Feb. 1 through late May, we’re pretty much watching short films until our eyes bleed, looking for that one in 10 that really stands out above the rest,” he says. “But even when you start to burn out, it just takes that one film that blows you across the room, and your batteries are recharged and you want to keep watching.”

One of the biggest events of its kind, the annual festival is set to screen 54 curated short programs over the course of seven days, with 77 world premieres, and star wattage like Bryce Dallas Howard, Kristen Wiig, John Cusack, Jimmy Kimmel, Zachary Quinto, Kate Mara and Matt Groening appearing before or behind the camera in various films.

In spite of the large numbers of boldfaced names on the press releases, Macdonald insists that celebrity appeal has no bearing on programming, and in fact highlights the enthusiasm that comes from newcomers as a central selling point.

“At a feature film festival, the short filmmakers tend to get lost,” Macdonald says. “Whereas at a short film festival, they’re the main course. And so many filmmakers come here like raw talent; they haven’t been jaded yet — they’re still fresh, still naïve, still hopeful, still incredibly creative.”

All the same, attracting filmmakers and audiences to the middle of the desert in the middle of the summer can’t be the easiest task, yet this year they expect an audience of more than 20,000. Filmmaker interest is no doubt goosed by the fact that playing the ShortFest confers eligibility for the short film Oscar. Last year’s edition saw more than 500 filmmakers personally attend.

“A decade ago, there was less than half that number, maybe 200,” he says.

Just as onerous as programming the lineup, however, is slotting each film into a specific package. Macdonald says it’s key to keep the short film packages, well, short — never more than 90 minutes, with no more than six to eight shorts — and to find thematic throughlines to group them together. (“Identity Crisis,” “Idiots Delight” and “Communication Breakdown” are a few of the programs on offer this year.) Ideally, each package includes a breadth of styles and moods, taking viewers on a dynamic arc just as a feature film would.

“We try wherever possible to include a range of genres and styles of filmmaking,” Macdonald says. “In a package of four dramas, we’ll add in an animated film and a few comedic films to build a flow into the program.

“And even our thematic packages are often semi tongue-in-cheek, or at least not to be taken at face value. We have a tendency to build packages where the title of the package can be interpreted in a number of ways. We also have packages like WTF?! where we can throw in anything, just as long as you’ll stand back at the end and say, ‘What the f–k did I just see?’”

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