Hope everyone had a lovely holiday weekend! Happy (belated) 4th!
A few weeks ago, I was asked by old friend and fellow programmer Landon Zakheim to participate on a panel at Palm Springs ShortsFest. It has been a few years since I attended this festival and the idea of having a little weekend LA escape seemed like a great idea.
Unfortunately, a heat wave took over the city that weekend so it was a little less than comfortable. Yes, the desert is hot in the summer, but this was a completely different story. Temperatures sat between 115° and 118°F. By 10:00PM the lowest it reached was around 95°F – practically balmy in comparison to the day. All this to say, my dream of sitting poolside with a mocktail for an afternoon went out the window. That and navigating festival events became a nightmare. I never wanted to leave whatever air-conditioned space I was lucky to be in at the time.
E and I drove east from LA on a Friday afternoon wading out the traffic (and multiple car accidents along the way). After checking in to the festival, we swung by the pool where our friends, Zoe and Amanda, from the San Francisco Film Society were lounging under a big umbrella. We lasted an hour in the heat before calling it and heading to our own hotel to check in.
We met Zoe for dinner later that evening and when we discovered the restaurant was not at all crowded, we had to figure out post-meal adventures to kill two hours before the night’s festival party. First stop: the nearby casino. Casino’s are not my thing, but I’m game for taking a walk through one. My hometown has several casinos, so I’m attending one is nothing exciting for me and I’ve never been interested in gambling my hard-earned funds. Sitting at my first (penny) slot machine, I put in a dollar and lost 90¢ in 20 seconds on one bet. How were we ever going to kill time here? Zoe, E and I continued to walk around and played a little on different machines. Once I doubled my initial $5, I stopped gambling and cheered them on. E played another $6 and lost, so our household almost broke even in the end.
Leaving the casino, Zoe led us through the heat to The Tonga Hut, a local tiki bar. This spot was much more our scene: dark, cool and laid back. We ordered a round of drinks (a virgin pina colada for me) and played many of the games the bar had on hand. While she may not have won at the casino earlier, Zoe ended up being the Uno champion, beating us many times over.
We made our way to the ShortsFest party that evening at the Ace hotel. The party room slowly began filling with shorts filmmakers and an already warm room became hotter as most guests wanted to stay inside. We chatted with filmmaker Gillian Wallace Horvat and watched a filmmaker awkwardly corner actor Steven Weber next to us, bending his ear for an hour. As the night wore on, the room became warmer and it seemed best to call it a night.
Saturday morning, we grabbed breakfast at Cheeky’s and took a quick dip in the pool (that felt like bath water, but cooler than 98°), which was still empty and quiet by all accounts at our party-hotel.
We made our way to the ShortsFest HQ for my panel: Meet the Programmers moderated by Variety film critic, Peter Debruge. This particular panel is held yearly at the festival, to give filmmakers from the festival and the market an opportunity to hear insight and advice from those programming on the circuit. The main question is always, “what do you look for in a film?” Here we had an hour to talk about that and our respective processes of programming with each festival we represented (Sundance, San Francisco, Cleveland and Dallas/Denver/SIFF).
The difficult part about a panel like this is the spectrum of experience of those in the audience. Some have been to a few festivals, some have only finished their first film. There’s also a lot of variables involved with each festival and programmer. Each one of us have different taste and each festival a slightly different process based on how established they are or the structure and makeup of their staff.
One key point we made was the importance of story and the filmmaker’s intent. The film needs to speak for itself and every choice that goes into it needs to be intentional. That creates a clear and unique voice. For example, if a filmmaker chooses to make it in black & white (especially since so much of it is video and we know you didn’t shoot film), there needs to be a clear reason behind why you choose to do that artistically. What does that mean to the story? Is it creating a particular tone or message that the dialogue or action does not? We can always tell if it’s just a haphazard decision in an attempt to stand out.
Rejection is part of the process and we spoke to how often programmers see short films they may like, but are not programmable: they are not suited their particular audience or don’t fit within the scope of the particular shorts block (even when not programming blocks thematically). What may work for an audience in Texas may not work with an audience in Seattle or San Francisco. You may only need one or two family drama stories, but you have five to pick from. There was also the age-old question of whether filmmakers should receive feedback if rejected and how not to email the festival with a nasty reply. People like to work with other nice people. Don’t be a jerk is an easy rule to follow.
It really doesn’t matter if you include a cover letter on your application. You don’t have to email us to check if we got the film as long as you sent it through the official channels (know that the system created to collect films by these established organizations works, because undermining that only shows a lack of trust). In the end, what does matter: if you told the story as concisely and to the best of your ability as possible. Doing your research, both for the film and where it will have the best audience. Learn about the festival you’re submitting to, who programs it and what they’ve shown in the past – does your film seem like a good match? It all comes back to the intention you have set from the beginning with whatever story you feel compelled to tell. Doing that hard work upfront will usually take care of the rest.
After the panel I was able to chat with a few filmmakers and give advice where I could, before grabbing a late lunch. We cooled down in our hotel room again before heading to another festival party. Sadly, that event was in a small un-air conditioned room. I quickly downed two lemonades and staying for all of five minutes before bailing. The heat was unbearable and I don’t understand how there was not a fan running somewhere in that room. We avoided the 117° heat and sat in our hotel room, watching as the pool was crowded with late twenty-somethings drinking and dancing. It was dehydrating just to watch them.
We tried to eat dinner at The Rooster and the Pig, but with five small parties ahead of us and the wait outside on the patio that plan failed as well. In the two minutes we considered waiting for a table, I started to feel sickly and a fleeting thought of “this is what heat stroke feels like” crossed my mind. So we quickly left and found the closest In-n-Out, drove through and watched the sunset from our car.
By 9:30pm, the hotel pool crowd had gone back to the rooms so we decided to take a dip. The temperature had dipped as well (to a mere 99°F!) which made the air breathable outside for the first time that day. Couples slowly emerged from their room one by one, dressed up to go out to the local bars. While we intended to make it to the festival party that night at 10:00pm, the day’s heat had worn us out emotionally and physically, so we decided to stay in. Just as well, as our friend attended the party and said they were charging for water. BIG party foul, festival. Good grief. We made the right decision.
While this festival wasn’t the most enjoyable thanks to the weather, it was memorable. Hopefully six years won’t pass again before I can return to Palm Springs ShortsFest. While I’m not a fan of the market (I don’t think many industry actually attend it to make it worthwhile for filmmakers), the festival’s forum can be educational for those shorts filmmakers new to the circuit.
Do you think our panel advice is helpful? What other tidbits would you like to hear about?