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Q&A: Liz Cardenas, McMinnville Short Film Festival keynote speaker, on loving movies, the effects of streaming, and staying busy

The 13th annual festival runs Feb. 23-25 with something for everyone -- more than 100 films will be screened in 90-minute blocks.


Film producer Liz Cardenas says resilience is key to success in the film industry. "Don’t talk about making films,"she says. "Make films."
Film producer Liz Cardenas says resilience is key to success in the film industry. “Don’t talk about making films,” she says. “Make films.”

The 13th annual McMinnville Short Film Festival lands this weekend, kicking off three days of screenings, workshops, and socials starting Friday morning. With more than a dozen 90-minute screening blocks Feb. 23-25, there really is something for everyone in this year’s batch of more than 100 films. It concludes Sunday evening with a dinner and awards presentation from 6 to 8:30 p.m. at The Bindery in downtown McMinnville.

Of course, many filmmakers will be in attendance, ready and willing to take questions after the lights come up — one of the primary draws of a film festival. We spoke to one, the always busy Liz Cardenas. Her Oscar-qualifying short Burros was screened at last year’s festival, but she wasn’t able to attend that year. She stayed in touch with the festival’s executive director, Heather Older, and next thing she knew, she’d been invited back to be this year’s keynote speaker at the awards ceremony.

Cardenas grew up with her Hispanic father who immigrated to the United States from Mexico City and her Irish-American mother from the East Coast, spending formative years in Chicago and Michigan. With a B.S. in broadcast journalism from Texas Christian University, her first career was journalism, and she worked as a reporter for the Dallas Morning News. Until she gravitated to filmmaking.

Today, she’s an award-winning producer, writer, director, and actor, with nearly 30 short films in her credits and a slew of other distinctions, such as being selected by The Gotham Group to participate in the 2023 Cannes Producers Network at the Marché du Film at the Festival de Cannes, getting a producer nomination at the 2023 Film Independent Spirit Awards, and winning the 2022 Film Independent Spirit award for best first feature for the film 7 Days.

Under the auspices of her Ten to the Six Pictures, Cardenas has two features and one documentary in post-production and five features in various stages of development, including one she wrote, one she’s set to direct, and one based on the short film Burros. She also has a series in development about a Latino trans teen in Texas inspired by another of her short films, Imago.

Cardenas splits her time between Los Angeles and Dallas, Texas. The following interview was conducted by email and was edited for length and clarity.

Liz Cardenas poses on set with 6-year-old Amaya Juan, the star of 2022's "Burros," produced by Cardenas.
Liz Cardenas poses on set with 6-year-old Amaya Juan, the star of 2022’s “Burros,” produced by Cardenas.


Tell us why you are a filmmaker. How did that seed sprout and grow?

Cardenas: I love movies, always have. So, an appreciation and respect for the art form and a desire to tell stories that connect people, spread empathy, are uplifting or make people not feel so alone, are informative or even simply entertain, is why I’m a filmmaker.

But to be honest, I always wanted to be an actor. It just seemed foreign to me as a real pursuit.

When I realized I didn’t want to be a reporter anymore – conflict is great in film, but constantly writing about it in real life wasn’t for me – I started writing screenplays, and then I stumbled into producing. On a small indie film as an actor, I started helping with production, and I got a producing credit. I loved the empowering feeling I had actually making things happen.

My skill set as a reporter translated to producing, which I’ve been doing for years now. And I’ve continued to write and act, and I’ve also directed two short films along the way and have plans to direct my first feature.

What were the big artistic influences in your early years?

My father loved movies and took me to them all the time when I was growing up, sometimes having no clue what we were going to see!


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Any films in particular?

I always tell people my favorite film is Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. It was the first film my dad took me to at an arthouse theater in Kalamazoo. He explained how it was different than the normal cineplex. It was an amazing experience. I fell in love with Grace Kelly and James Stewart and I loved the film. I wanted to be in movies and be a part of making movies.

Rear Window turns 70 this year; I understand it’ll be rolled out for an anniversary screening in theaters this summer.

When I saw Rear Window years later on the big screen, I thought it really stood the test of time. I appreciated how it was suspenseful, funny, and romantic, all at the same time, and although it was shot in one location, it never felt stagnant or boring. I thought about how limitations and challenges in filmmaking often force you to be more creative.

And then, as I’ve grown as a producer — what I’ve had the most success at — I’d have to acknowledge the impact my producing mentors and supporters have had on me and my career, such as Angela Lee, Rebecca Green, Maida Lynn, Karin Chien, and Mel Eslyn. Film Independent, Sundance, and The Gotham, through various labs, fellowships, and programs, have also supported me and helped my career.

Tell us how the McMinnville Short Film Festival got on your radar, and your first encounters here. I know you had Burros here in 2023.

It was right around the time of the Indie Spirit Awards, and I was nominated for the Producer Award in 2023, so I couldn’t make it to McMinnville. But I reached out to Heather Older, and we started corresponding. I was bummed that I wasn’t able to see [last year’s keynote speaker] Peter Billingsley [who returns this year as a judge]. Heather connected us, and Peter and I have had several Zooms, we email, and we talk about projects and life. I feel like he’s become a friend! Then Heather asked me to be this year’s keynote speaker. I was honored and thought how cool it was to be following in his footsteps, though not an easy act to follow!


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What has been the single biggest change in the industry over the span of your career that’s had a direct impact on your work?

Streamers. The streaming model has affected theatrical releases, pay structures, bonuses, the ability to have a “hit” film, filmmakers’ visibility and exposure – so many things, really. The way one thinks about distribution has completely changed. It’s more important than ever to stress to filmmakers, when thinking about making your feature, that the end point isn’t completion and its festival premiere; it’s distribution and how you’re going to get your film to audiences and how your investors are going to recoup their investment.

How do festivals fit into the industry picture now? Do they still matter?

Festivals are still important. If nothing else, they’re a place for emerging filmmakers to meet and develop friendships and potential collaborations. Big festivals and premieres can help you sell your film and gain attention, and smaller regional festivals can help you build an audience. I also think traveling with your film as much as you’re able, if you’re able to at all, can be invaluable to seeing what else is being made and getting a feel for what audiences are responding to. All of it helps with exposure – to other people and films and for you and your film.

Unfortunately, the independent film landscape is a tough place, and it’s getting increasingly difficult to raise money for your film, as well as to sell your film. I think the industry needs a change, and I think the way filmmakers view distribution needs to be adjusted. Filmmakers need to think outside the box, be more inventive when it comes to selling and releasing their films, and they need to be more proactive and take more ownership. But that doesn’t mean festivals are not beneficial.

Let’s discuss the elephant in the room: The film and television industry shut down last year, with the SAG-AFTRA strike. How did that affect your working life? What did you have to hit “pause” on?

I will say as both a producer who has several projects on their plate in various stages of development and someone who is working on their own writing and getting their directorial debut off the ground, I remain busy no matter what. Especially since I am in the independent film space. I was super busy in the height of COVID, even! I delivered a movie to Lionsgate in the spring of 2020 and shot a feature in September of that year. Very little slows me down! The strikes made it so you had to handle things more delicately and be more strategic. Yes, I had to pause on some things, but then I pivoted my focus to others. It definitely slowed me down, even if it didn’t totally stop me.

How do you feel about the deal that came out of it? What are you hearing from colleagues, the rank-and-file?

I remember briefly hearing people having mixed feelings about it afterwards. But I think, overall, the reaction was positive. As far as the specifics of the SAG-AFTRA deal, I’m not really in a position to speak on it formally here, as I need to study the finer points more, and regarding my colleagues’ views, I haven’t been able to have many conversations with them about it. Honestly, I was so focused on editing my film, the one playing festivals, and trying to sell it, and getting my feature off the ground at that time, and then it was the holidays!


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You’ll be meeting a lot of young filmmakers this weekend, and of course, they’re all looking to veterans like you for counsel. What do you tell them?

I’ll be addressing it in my speech! But I will say one thing: Have a growth mindset.

What do you mean?

All the obstacles, all the mistakes, all the failures – and know that there will be many – are an opportunity to learn and grow. You need to be resilient in this business. You can’t be afraid of failure or risks. Create. Don’t talk about making films. Make films. If you can’t make your bigger feature, pivot, do a smaller one, and save the bigger film for next. Even if it’s a one-day shoot with some of your talented friends with hardly any money. I’ve done that to stay creative and have fun. And I gained so much from those experiences, as well as from all my failures and rejections.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

David Bates is an Oregon journalist with more than 20 years as a
newspaper editor and reporter in the Willamette Valley, covering
virtually every topic imaginable and with a strong background in
arts/culture journalism. He has lived in Yamhill County since 1996 and
is working as a freelance writer. He has a long history of involvement in
the theater arts, acting and on occasion directing for Gallery Players
of Oregon and other area theaters. You can also find him on
Substack, where he writes about art and culture at Artlandia.

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