McMinnville Short Film Festival is long on innovation

This weekend's eighth annual event includes 50 films from around the world

On any given day, Coming Attractions Theatres’ multiplex in McMinnville screens 10 films. But this Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 9 and 10, in the theater’s 208-seat auditorium, you can see 50 – and you don’t have to sit for 18 hours straight to do it.

This weekend’s 8th Annual McMinnville Short Film Festival is a considerably larger and more polished affair than when it began with a single screening that included “movies” clearly shot on iPhones. This year’s crop comprises high-quality shorts shot by professionals on high-end equipment with full production crews. Portland is represented well, obviously, but an impressive international showing includes movies from Israel, Russia, Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain, Canada, and Germany. Each of the four screenings runs from 80 to 110 minutes, no film runs more than 20, and you can talk to many of the filmmakers at the end of each show.

A common thread that emerges from talking with both filmmakers and festival attendees is that once they go, they’re likely to return. “I have been to the McMinnville festival, and I’m a fan,” said Tim Williams, who heads the state agency Oregon Film. “I love that they get so many filmmakers there, I very much enjoy their keynote speakers, and I love that it is in the middle of wine country, which means there’s good food and drink in your free time.”

Nancy and Dan Morrow spent years running a successful and eclectic video store in McMinnville. Today, they’re helping keep film alive by hosting the McMinnville Short Film Festival.

How did this happen? Why did it happen here?

The festival is the brainchild of Dan and Nancy Morrow, who until a few years ago owned the coolest video store in Oregon outside Movie Madness in Portland. Operating out of a house built in 1908 across Oregon 99W from Linfield College, the Morrows over 15 years built Movietime Video into an essential resource for hard-core film buffs. Sure, they had the latest Hollywood blockbusters and mainstream fare, but they also packed the shelves with foreign and art films, cult classics, Americana gems from the TCM Vault, and manga.

The TV wall alone was astonishing and offered the same breadth and variety available in every other section. Not only could you get Game of Thrones or The Sopranos, but you also could find throwbacks like Adam-12, Perry Mason, or even Tenspeed and Brownshoe. (Full disclosure: For a couple of years, I did some freelance writing for the store.) When Movietime shut its doors in April 2016, joining the nationwide wave of locally owned indie video-store closures, it felt like a funeral. (They have since converted the building into The Gallery at Ten Oaks, which features work by Oregon artists.)

The Morrows started the festival in 2011, building on the experience of a film competition they’d sponsored earlier that year for McMinnville’s UFO Festival. One screening was held in the local community center. Year by year, the event grew. Submissions started to climb and the films kept getting better. They partnered with Coming Attractions so audiences could see the work on a big screen. Screenings were added. The festival also booked speakers; in 2015, filmmaker Will Vinton gave the keynote address.

“Domestic Violence in Rural America: Survivors’ Stories” is a documentary from Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Blue Chalk Media.

Thanks to shot-in-Oregon films such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Wild (and, of course, TV shows including Grimm and Portlandia), most Oregonians are familiar with the state’s $1.4 billion film industry. But lesser known is a relatively tiny appendage of the industry: film festivals, which screen films that haven’t been released commercially. A couple of years ago, Oregon Film teamed with Travel Oregon to study festivals, and one of the more startling numbers that emerged from the University of Oregon analysis was the sheer number of them. Statewide, movie buffs were flocking to nearly 80 festivals each year, from Portland to Ashland, and from the Coast to Eastern Oregon.

The Morrows got into the festival circuit more or less on the front end of the wave. “When we started eight years ago, I think there were only seven or eight in the state,” Nancy said. Since then, they’ve jumped aboard the online submission portal called FilmFreeway, which they say has helped both fuel the festival boom in general and increase the McMinnville festival’s reach. “That’s made a huge difference,” Dan said. “We’re reaching an international community of filmmakers.”

“It’s quickly becoming one of my favorite festivals,” said A.J. Gordon, a Portland-area producer who has two films in this year’s festival. “One of the great things is how filmmaker-centric it is. They put a lot of care and attention into providing a great venue and hosting events within a casual setting that brings everyone together without any stuffy pretentiousness. They curate a wildly eclectic mix of shorts across all genres from makers ranging from students to pros. So the general viewing experience is so much fun, because you truly don’t know what will play next.”

British actor Alexis Debus plays a writer who cannot write unless certain conditions are met in Wade Shotter’s “I Will Not Write Unless I Am Swaddled in Furs,” one of several entries from overseas in this year’s McMinnville Short Film Festival.

The diversity of styles, subject matter and stories is all over the cinematic map, even within supposedly similar genres. The festival has been curated to ensure that no matter what screening you attend, you’re sure to get a plentiful helping of virtually everything. I had a chance to screen a dozen or so, and in my random sampling, there wasn’t a bad egg in the bunch. The documentaries, like the barely 7-minute short Domestic Violence in Rural America: Survivors’ Stories from Brooklyn, N.Y.-based (with an office in Portland) Blue Chalk Media and Reintrification out of Portland, are particularly strong. Another, I Will Not Write Unless I Am Swaddled in Furs, is an extremely well-made and hilarious look at writer’s block; it’s sure to be a crowd favorite.

What’s so intriguing about a festival is that if you buy a ticket, you’re literally going where very few, if any, audiences have gone before. These aren’t creations you can find on YouTube. “The way that film festivals work is, the majority of them will show a film at their festival if it’s not publicly up for review,” said Portland filmmaker Justin Zimmerman. “What’s neat is you’re having an exclusive experience. When you go to a festival, especially one that’s programmed correctly, you’re seeing a wealth of amazing stuff that only you get to see. And that’s an exciting proposition.”

The McMinnville Short Film Festival is clearly a hit with the filmmakers I talked to, and the result has been an audience full of filmmakers and their friends, families, crews, etc., but not many from outside the film community. The Morrows are cognizant of that and hope to draw in more local people who simply like to watch movies.

“We seem to have a knack for working with the artists — you know, making the artists happy,” Dan said. “Now we’re trying to get an audience to see all this fantastic content that the artists are producing.”

Portland filmmaker James Westby will be the keynote speaker at this year’s McMinnville Short Film Festival.

Speaking of festival content, you should also know that the keynote speaker is Portland filmmaker James Westby, who will speak at Sunday evening’s awards dinner. Westby’s cinephile-centric movies include Film Geek, The Auteur and Rid of Me, and he’s had his work screened at the Tribeca Film Festival, Palm Springs International ShortFest, and many others. He is currently editing a documentary/comedy/musical hybrid, At the Video Store, in which Portland’s Movie Madness figures prominently.

For a complete listing of all 50 films, screen times, other events and ticket information, visit the McMinnville Short Film Festival website. You can also check out past festivals to get a flavor of the Q&A sessions that follow the screenings.

ARTS JOURNAL: I read an astonishing graphic novel last week, Christophe Chabouté’s critically acclaimed 2017 masterpiece Alone, about a hermit who has spent his entire life in a lighthouse, and the two fishermen who keep him stocked with food and supplies without ever seeing or knowing anything about him. The first time I saw it in a bookstore I flipped through the mostly wordless pages and assumed it was a dark, macabre tale and put it aside. I’m glad I gave it another chance. Simply beautiful, black-and-white artwork and a wonderful, humane story, expertly told.

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This story is supported in part by a grant from the Yamhill County Cultural Coalition, Oregon Cultural Trust, and Oregon Community Foundation.

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