By Michael Miller
6:27 PM PST, January 12, 2013
By the time Kief Davidson got his Oscar nomination last week, he had gone through all the highs and lows of a Hollywood career: heartbreak, success, hopelessness and out-of-the-blue comebacks.
And that was just between 3 and 5 a.m.
The director, whose short film "Open Heart" will screen next weekend at the Irvine International Film Festival, spent a rough night before Emma Stone and Seth MacFarlane announced the Oscar contenders early Thursday morning. For hours, he couldn't sleep, and when he finally did, his subconscious began playing tricks.
"I was having the same dreams over and over again," Davidson said. "The first one was that I woke up and saw online that we didn't get the nomination, and I was really upset, and then I would wake up and be really relieved that it was just a dream. Then I'd fall asleep again and dream that I got the nomination. But then I would wake up and realize that I was just dreaming.
"Repeat those two dreams over and over again, and that was my night."
When one of those dreams was finally interrupted by a phone call — from "Open Heart's" producer, who ensured Davidson that yes, he really, truly had gotten a nomination — it made up for all the nighttime agony. That went for others on the Irvine International program as well; by the time Stone and MacFarlane read the last nominee, nine of the festival's entries were up for awards.
Sean Fine, co-director of the short documentary "Inocente," got a text from his editor while visiting his son's classroom in Washington, D.C.; the kids joined in the impromptu celebration. Sam French, director of the live-action short "Buzkashi Boys," woke early to hear the nominations, then promptly called his leading actor — a boy who lives in Afghanistan — with the good news.
"He was absolutely overwhelmed," French said. "He's a street kid with no TV, so he has no idea what the Academy Awards are. He asked, 'Is this up for the best Afghan film?' I said, 'No, this is the best film in the world.'"
A taste of Hollywood
For a few minutes every year, they're among the most famous obscure people in the world.
Read over the following list and see if any names ring a bell: Karen Goodman and Kirk Simon. "Smile Pinki." Luke Matheny. Nicolas Schmerkin. "The New Tenants."
Perhaps they're unrecognizable to most moviegoers. But they're among the short films and filmmakers who have won Oscars in recent years, and they graced the same stage as George Clooney, Natalie Portman and other brand-name entities.
Unlike the features that star Clooney and Portman, though, shorts seldom play at the neighborhood multiplex. Occasionally, an animated short will screen before a Pixar feature, and the company Shorts International sponsors a limited theatrical release of Oscar nominees. But when the Academy announced its contenders Thursday, it's safe to say that there was more buzz about Ben Affleck getting passed over for Best Director than about "Redemption" knocking out "Paraiso" for Best Documentary Short.
Next weekend in Irvine, though, the short filmmakers may be the leaders in buzz. In addition to features and a question-and-answer session with veteran director Mark Rydell, the program includes four nominees for documentary short, three for live-action short and two for animated short.
HBO and Netflix screenings aside, events like the one starting Thursday at the Edwards Westpark 8 cinema provide the surest way to view those Oscar hopefuls on the margins. Some of the directors whose work will screen in Irvine said they had been making the festival rounds for the last year, in some cases tallying 20 or more engagements.
"Making short films is an art form in and of itself," French said. "It's different than feature films. You have to press the story into a smaller time frame. You have to make each facet of the story shine more brilliantly. So there's a big challenge in making short films, and I wish people had more opportunity to see them."
'We're aware of who's winning'
It's that same wish that inspired Irvine festival director Kevin Derek to launch his enterprise last year. As a distributor with Melrose Films, Derek had seen the trouble many independent films had finding bookings, and he approached the Westpark cinema, one of Orange County's few art-house theaters, about providing a venue.
The inaugural festival ran for five days last January, hosting a program of live action, animation and documentaries, and bestowing a lifetime achievement award to silent-film actress Carla Laemmle. By the new year, 10 of Derek's entries for the 2013 festival had been shortlisted for the Oscar, and he approached Thursday's announcement with more than a little suspense.
When nine of the 10 made the final list, Derek was pleasantly taken aback.
"I don't believe any other festival has ever had this many nominations," he wrote in an email. "Last year, we had three that were on the short list but never made the final cut."
Will the nominations mean larger crowds? That remains to be seen. Dennis Baker, the director of short film programming for the Newport Beach Film Festival, has booked several films in recent years that scored nominations and even wins. Still, he said, those honors don't appear to translate into more ticket sales; one year, Baker set up a program of all Oscar-nominated shorts and got only a modest crowd.
Regardless, Baker said award-winning films make an attractive part of a program, and festival heads often keep tabs on which ones rack up laurels elsewhere.
"Just like Irvine or any other festival, we're aware of who's winning what," he said. "That's part of what we do. So we're always reaching out to get Academy nominees."
If You Go
What: Irvine International Film Festival
Where: Edwards Westpark 8, 3735 Alton Parkway, Irvine
Tickets and schedule: Visit http://www.irvinefilmfest.com/tickets-3 for program and prices
Information: (949) 800-6163