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Small movies, big crowds: The 2024 McMinnville Short Film Festival exceeds expectations

After its biggest and most successful year yet, the wine country film festival looks toward a bright and expansive future.

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Sipiwe Moyo, Molly Ringwald, Peter Grosz, and and Zach Robidas in “Catherine & Michael,” winner of the Best Comedy prize at the 2024 McMinnville Short Film Festival.

Oregon boasts a bevy of local and regional film festivals, and I’ve been fortunate enough to experience pretty much all of them. (Hoping to see you this year, Klamath Falls!) Oddly, the one I attended last month for the first time is also one of the closest, especially now that the Portland International Film Festival is in limbo. Since 2011, the McMinnville Short Film Festival has been happily keeping its vision trained on bite-sized, but full-flavored, movies as it had steadily grown in scope and prominence.

According to Executive Director Heather Older, this was the biggest and most successful yet. “We almost had some growing pains, which is a good problem to have,” she says. With sellout screenings and events (including Sunday night’s awards dinner), the only real hitch was running short on printed programs.

Unfolding over the weekend of February 23 in a multiplex a stone’s throw from the Evergreen Aviation Museum, the 2024 festival screened dozens of titles spread over thirteen blocks, with special showcases for Native American, Oregon, collegiate, and local filmmakers. Directors and cast members are often present for Q&A sessions after each block, and their stories of low-budget ingenuity and persistence are inspiring. Older reports that over 70% of the filmmakers represented were in town for the weekend.

Jane Ferguson and Jackie Mai in “Sew Into You,” the winner of the Best Oregon Filmmaker prize at the 2024 McMinnville Short Film Festival.

Those Q&A sessions aren’t the only way that the festival encourages accessibility and networking. A filmmaker mixer on Saturday afternoon was open to the public, and “Breakfast with a Filmmaker” on Sunday morning offered a chance to chat with Mariana Méndez, a producer of several award-winning shorts and a manager of Oscar campaigns for both features and short films. For full-fledged networking, the place to be was the filmmaker-only mingle held on Friday at the Laurel Ridge Winery as a glorious full moon rose.

Despite being a lowly scribe, I was allowed to hobnob for a time with the talent, which is how I ended up talking with Devin Boss, the Northeast Portland-raised director of Where We Goin’?, the first in a planned series of documentaries about Black “artistry and entrepreneurship” in Portland. Boss profiles the Portland Trail Blazers’ official DJ O.G. One, including a memorable stroll down now-gentrified NE Alberta Street. I also met Katie Prentiss, whose clever comedy Gamer shows the upside of looking at life through pixelated glasses, and Chelsea Jolly, director of With the Tide, a documentary following a group of Native Alaskan teens living in a remote village. Keynote speaker Liz Cardenas, who spoke with ArtsWatch prior to the festival, shared some of her experiences producing the excellent, underseen Oregon-made feature Acidman.

From its origins as a sideline to McMinnville’s annual UFO Festival, MSFF has evolved and transformed alongside the Oregon wine country in which it resides. One witness to that transformation is one of its jurors, director Kyle Marvin, who followed up his impressive feature producing debut The Climb by directing Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda, Rita Moreno, and Sally Field on 80 for Brady. Marvin grew up in the area and recently moved back with his family. He sees the event as a boon both for attending filmmakers and the region generally. “There’s such a personal connection with the staff to all the films. That’s one of the things that make the festival so special,” he said. “It’s hard to create an environment for filmmakers to relax and have the conversations that generate new ideas or camaraderie, and this festival in particular creates just such a space.”

A scene from "Tiny," the winner of the Shawash Ilihi Award for Best Native American at the 2024 McMinnville Short Film Festival.
A scene from “Tiny,” the winner of the Shawash Ilihi Award for Best Native American at the 2024 McMinnville Short Film Festival.

This is Older’s third year in the position, which means she’s overseen the festival’s resurgence following COVID restrictions. “And then last year we got hit with a blizzard,” she recalls, which snarled travel plans for many filmmaker attendees. But 2024’s attendance exceeded even the highest totals from the pre-pandemic era. “The head count for our Native American block quadrupled this year,” she says, noting also that a $10,000 Indigenous Vision filmmaking grant (in coordination with Oregon Film) was announced at Sunday’s ceremony.

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Another new initiative is a screenwriting competition overseen by novelist and screenwriter Jonathan Raymond. “I’m a screenwriter myself, so I’ve always wanted to add this component,” says Older. In addition, “one of the things we’re going to explore next year is using multiple theaters so we can run some blocks concurrently and then repeat the blocks so everybody has a chance to see each of them” without having to absorb several hours of cinema in one day. Having the blocks run consecutively throughout the weekend doesn’t allow much down time for filmmakers or audiences (or festival staff!). Don’t worry that MSFF is going to turn into some sort of wine country, celebrity-obsessed Sundance, though. Older vows that “this will always be an Oregon-accessible film festival.”

Short films often have a hard time getting distribution and finding audiences, but the way Marvin sees it, we ignore them at our peril. “They really are on the very front edge of culture. Because they don’t require a tremendous amount of money, or the other things that put guardrails on some projects, they’re very accessible to younger filmmakers as an entryway into our profession. It’s a very interesting place to view the future of cinema” – a future that, like that of the McMinnville Short Film Festival, looks bright.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Marc Mohan moved to Portland from Wisconsin in 1991, and has been exploring and contributing to the city’s film culture almost ever since, as the manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité; and as a freelance film critic for The Oregonian for nearly twenty years. Once it became apparent that “newspaper film critic” was no longer a sustainable career option, he pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017 and graduating cum laude in 2020 with a specialization in Intellectual Property. He now splits his time between his practice with Vérité Law Company and his continuing efforts to spread the word about great (and not-so-great) movies, which include a weekly column at Oregon ArtsWatch.

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One Response

  1. This was an eye-opener for me as a producer/director. The McMinnville Short Film Festival is one of the few in-person screenings of my work I’ve attended. It did not disappoint, from the prompt and friendly contact helping me deal with the submission process, to sharing experiences with fellow filmmakers, to getting a warm greeting and a swag bag of souvenirs. My local documentary THE TRENT SAUCER was screened as an official selection in 2022. As your article points out, the festival has grown significantly since then, based on the premise to keep it short.

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