Begun in 1994 as a launching point for young filmmakers, the Palm Springs International Short Film Festival now rides a wave forged by an explosion in the short-film industry.
One reason, says festival Director Darryl Macdonald, is increasing access to technology (video cameras and computers) and an increasing number of distribution channels for short products — including cellular phones, computers, Web sites, DVD sales and rentals, and cable TV providers. They all eagerly seek new content and opportunities to offer content not available from competitors.
"Also, the availability of college and university film programs has increased dramatically in the last decade," Macdonald says. "It’s leading to a new generation of talented storytellers who are utilizing the media of film and video to express themselves — and doing it in a more sophisticated way."
To some degree, the 12th annual event is a stripped-down film festival wrapped in refreshing innocence — a version devoid of several trappings that often accompany feature festivals. And that, in turn, is one of the bigger reasons why the Palm Springs International Short Film Festival has surged.
"This festival is devoted purely to the art form and to the young filmmakers involved, rather than revolving around the paparazzi appeal of big names and world premieres," Macdonald says. "It’s more art for art’s sake. There’s an innocence about it that’s very different from most major film festivals. Not everyone is chasing the Holy Grail of a theatrical launch or theatrical release. And that creates an atmosphere that infects filmgoers."
It is an event embraced by a growing number of filmmakers and other industry types. They take advantage of the festival’s assortment of workshops, panel discussions, seminars, networking opportunities, and a concurrent film market for all 2,400 of the projects submitted for screening.
The 2006 lineup presents variations on such topics as family, coming of age, love, relationships, and this year’s surprise serving: "zombie" projects. The latter group includes Zombie Prom, which Macdonald describes as a hilarious romantic musical in the vein of Grease.
"Family is always a favorite topic," Macdonald says, "exploring sibling rivalries, dysfunctional families, new family structures, familial love, and the demise of the traditional nuclear family. Coming of age is a category that’s been perennially hot and is especially strong this year." Other expected highlights include comedy, thriller, and science fiction genres that Macdonald says have impressed the screening committee, along with animation work he describes as "exceptional and more abundant than in other years."
"We’re also seeing more African-American voices emerging, producing films dealing with the contemporary black experience in America," says Macdonald, who also applauds remarkable projects from U.S.-based film schools, including University of California, Los Angeles; Loyola Marymount University; Florida State University; and American Film Institute. This year’s lineup includes winners from the Sundance, Cannes, Toronto, Venice, and Berlin film festivals. Documentaries include Pluck, a take on the cultural movers and shakers in New York in the 1950s and ’60s. An odds-on favorite at the festival office is My Mother’s Hairdo, a memoir set in the ’50s and starring Joyce Van Patten.
"A key reason for [the Palm Springs festival’s] stature in the industry is our track record for showcasing winners," Macdonald says. "Among the media and within the industry, the event has a strong reputation for first-rate programming." As evidence, he notes that in the festival’s first 11 years, 49 of the films unspooled here went on to receive Academy Award nominations — with several winning an Oscar. Of films shown at the festival in the last three years, three — Wasp, Ryan, and Two Soldiers — received Oscars.
This year’s festival screens 330 films, ranging from live action to documentaries to animation, as the elite selected from more than 2,400 submissions. That’s about the same number as was submitted in 2005, which was 10 percent more than in 2004. Macdonald expects attendance, which has increased in each of the last two years and topped 15,000 in 2005, to increase 15 percent this year.
"Attendance and interest by the industry has served to certify this as the most important short-film festival in North America," he says, noting that the latest data shows 20 percent of festival patrons are Californians who live outside the Coachella Valley and another 20 percent are from other states. "And I do think it truly enlivens the community."
Appeal within the industry has grown in part because the event offers $70,000 in prize money and filmmaking goods and services. "We promote incentives and special-prize categories for student filmmakers," Macdonald says. "And we actively solicit entries from film schools throughout the country and all over the world."
As a nonprofit event staged under the auspices of the Palm Springs International Film Society, the festival has a $200,000 budget funded through ticket sales (45 percent); film-submission fees (35 percent); sponsorships, foundation grants, and donations (15 percent); and merchandise and advertising sales (5 percent).
Calling the festival "a vital showcase for the voices and visions of a new generation of filmmaking talent," Macdonald suggests the event has attracted considerable attention to the short-film format.
"We want to facilitate this emerging talent any way we can so they get to the next step. The festival has helped resurrect this art form as a viable format," he says. "But obviously I want to have the most exciting short films showcased. We’ve proven there is a large and avid audience for it. "
Palm Springs International Festival of Short Film rolls Aug. 24 to 30 at Camelot Theatres in Palm Springs. For schedule and ticket information, call (760) 322-2930.