A film still from 2023 participant Fanatic.
PHOTOS COURTESY PALM SPRINGS INTERNATIONAL SHORTFEST
Short films are often given short shrift. Rarely seen and frequently forgotten — can you name this year’s Oscar winner? — they are the seedlings that grow great talent. Case in point: First-time director Quentin Tarantino’s 12-minute short, Reservoir Dogs (1991), grew into his first feature film of the same name a year later before going on to win the International Critics Award at the Toronto International Film Festival and receive a Grand Jury Prize nomination at the Sundance Film Festival.
In a world where people are increasingly consuming short content on platforms like TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube, short films — defined by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences as “an original motion picture that has a running time of 40 minutes or less” — are seldom screened and mostly lauded as an adjunct to major film festivals. But the annual Palm Springs International ShortFest gives the people who create them and the audiences that love them a reason to rejoice.
Now in its 29th year, ShortFest, which runs June 20–26 at the Palm Springs Cultural Center, will show 300 films selected from 6,200 submissions to an audience expected to reach 25,000. Those are impressive numbers considering they are short films and the average daily temperature in June hovers between 97 and 105 degrees, sending shimmering waves of heat rising from the sidewalks. But this is no ordinary festival. Every film that screens is in competition, and 60 to 70 percent of the attendees are filmmakers. These creators join the likes of Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, and Tim Burton, who, before they became household names, honed their craft making shorts. Like your mother told you, “You have to walk before you run,” which is why so many filmmakers demonstrate proof of concept and ability by creating shorts.
A film still from 2023 participant How We Get Free.
Presented by the nonprofit Palm Springs International Film Society, ShortFest began as part of the Palm Springs International Film Festival, which along with Sundance and the Seattle Film Festival, is one of the nation’s top festivals and an important stop on the road to the Oscars. Due to its growing popularity, in 1995 the short film portion branched off from the feature festival.
“The reason it started is the reason that it’s still important: It’s a showcase for emerging talent,” says Lili Rodriguez, artistic director of both the feature and short film festivals. “Many festivals have new filmmakers, and people get very excited about them, but there wasn’t a festival that was exclusively short films.”
In its inaugural year, the stand-alone event presented 80 films, all of which could be enjoyed for a mere $5. According to Rodriguez, “The audience doubled from year one to year two, and it found this nice little niche with filmmakers, industry, and locals. The second year, they included some panel discussions, which eventually became the ShortFest Forum, [featuring] classes, roundtables, and industry ‘speed-dating’ one-on-ones.”
A film still from 2023 ShortFest participant Pipes.
“I usually call shorts a ‘résumé film,’ ” says Ira Deutchman, an independent producer and marketing consultant who founded Cinecom before creating Fine Line Features and Emerging Pictures. Among his feature-length acquisitions and releases are Robert Altman’s The Player (1992) and Gus van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho (1991). “It’s a proof of concept in terms of whether the team of people making the movie are actually capable of making the movie. It’s also a showcase of your talent that can make the difference as to whether you can get work as a film or TV director or as a writer or producer.”
That, along with its status as an Academy Award qualifying festival in five categories — Best of the Festival, Best Live-Action Short over 15 minutes, Best Live-Action Short under 15 minutes, Best Animated Short, and Best Documentary Short — is why filmmakers vie for their shorts to be accepted to ShortFest. Take Rylee Ebsen for example. The former Snapchat executive and granddaughter of Buddy Ebsen, best known for his role as Jed Clampett on The Beverly Hillbillies, brought her film, Boomerang (about an unemployed millennial who is forced to move back home with her dysfunctional parents), to the 2022 festival. “That was my first festival experience, and ShortFest completely changed my life,” she shares. “I met my new managers there. They happened to be at a screening of my short, and I signed with them. Now, I’m attached to two features.”
A film still from 2023 ShortFest participant Menagerie.
“What makes us different are our themed programming blocks of films that help the audience know what the movies are about, generally,” says Sudeep Sharma, ShortFest’s director of programming. “We have evergreen themes like Coming of Age, This American Life, Animation, Documentaries, Horror, et cetera, and then there are more topical themes.”
“ShortFest is a festival for filmmakers,” reiterates Spencer Cook, who along with co-director Parker Smith, won the 2022 Best U.S. Short award for their film, Act of God, about a disabled man, his caregiver, and an elusive $100 bill. Smith recalls, “Getting into Palm Springs made us feel, ‘OK, this film is actually pretty good.’ After winning it, we were like, ‘Maybe we have something here.’ ” Have something they did. The New Yorker video series Screening Room licensed the film, and a feature-length version is in development at the 2023 Sundance Screenwriters’ Intensive.
Filmmaker Omer Ben-Shachar’s touching film, Tree #3, following an Israeli immigrant boy cast as a background tree in a middle-school play who leads a revolution onstage that his drama teacher will never forget, won the 2019 Audience Award for Best Student Short. He sees shorts as a calling card. “I think it’s an opportunity to not just tell a story, but showcase your voice and your tone and the kind of films you want to be doing. ShortFest was the first festival that believed in our short before any other accolades. Palm Springs will always have a place in my heart.”
Kyle Thrash, whose film The Sentence of Michael Thompson recounts the fight for clemency for Michigan’s longest serving nonviolent offender, won Best Documentary at last year’s festival. Thrash echoes what many filmmakers say: “What’s great is that everyone’s there with a short and talking about their material. We’re out in the desert, and it’s hot, and we’re all chilling by the pool during the day and then going to movies in the evening. The industry professionals that they bring in are really impressive.”
A film still from 2023 ShortFest participant The Singles Retreat.
Last year, those industry professionals participated in The Pitch Forum, which Sharma describes as a workshop designed to help filmmakers master the all-important art of selling themselves and their films. “Some people submitted pitches beforehand, and the executives conducted training sessions on how to pitch. Three lucky people got to make their pitch at the forum and received feedback.”
“At ShortFest, potential buyers can directly engage with filmmakers and their representatives to ultimately license shorts and/or talk to the talent about what their ambitions and projects are and secure work in bigger things,” says Sam Toles, formerly the senior vice president of digital and new platforms at MGM and senior vice president and general manager at Vimeo Entertainment Group.
The highest praise often comes from filmmakers like Oran Zegman, whose American Film Institute thesis film, Marriage Material, was acquired by Fox Searchlight and became a finalist in the Student Academy Awards, although it was not accepted by ShortFest. “I’d rank it among the top five festivals in the world. It breeds amazing filmmakers.”
Lili Rodriguez sums it up best: “It’s a filmmakers’ festival — we’re doing this for them. We invite every filmmaker who submitted a film to attend the festival. We give them complimentary badges, so they can go to the movies, the forum, and the parties, because we know that just because your film doesn’t make it, doesn’t mean that it’s not good.”
- READ NEXT: Take a look back at last year's ShortFest.