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Walla Walla Movie Crush: A film festival to swoon over

By Vicki Hillhouse

It’s time to roll out the red carpet. Walla Walla’s annual festival of short films comes in for a close-up July 7-9, 2023.

Walla Walla Movie Crush is a weekend marathon of cinematic shorts. Shown in clusters at Gesa Power House Theatre, the films are meticulously curated into themed blocks.

The movies include a mix of narratives, animation, live-action, documentary, music videos and more. Each block also offers a little time for conversations about the films, sometimes with visiting moviemakers.

This year is the seventh for the festival whose name plays both on an infatuation with film and the community’s world-class wine production.

Behind the event are its co-founders, Artistic Director Warren Etheredge and Executive Director Nancy Dragun. Here, Warren shares about the event through his own lens.

What is Walla Walla Movie Crush?

The Walla Walla Movie Crush, I’d argue, is the most intoxicating showcase for American short cinema anywhere. It is a three-day weekend extravaganza of short films, providing 17 to 18 hours of programming in hourlong thematic blocks. Over the course of three days, we generally present somewhere around 100 films, give or take.

How did it start?

I have been a programmer/curator for a number of film festivals. Nancy Dragun, my partner, and I wanted to do a festival for a long time. But we needed the right spot.

Nine years ago, I came to Walla Walla to do some work for the Red Badge Project, of which I’m a founding faculty member. (The Red Badge Project teaches storytelling skills to vets coping with post-traumatic stress. Instructors return throughout the year to the Walla Walla Vet Center.) It was my first time in town, and I fell in love with Walla Walla.

Seven years ago, an opportunity fell into my lap about doing a special event at the Power House Theatre. I thought, “This might be the place to do the festival.” The theater is a huge chunk of it. The city is a huge chunk of it. And the people are a big part of the Walla Walla Movie Crush.

Are the Red Badge Project and Walla Walla Movie Crush connected?

The Red Badge Project and the Movie Crush are singular entities. But the Movie Crush would not have existed were it not for Red Badge. In turn, the Movie Crush donates a portion of our proceeds to the Red Badge, specifically in Walla Walla. There’s no official linkage, but there’s a very definite ingrained bond.

When it started years ago, Red Badge had made a commitment to come to Walla Walla once per quarter, and it sort of evolved over time and got reduced. During COVID, I started doing all these Red Badge sessions via Zoom. It struck me that I love the veterans in Walla Walla, and why not bring those back. We started meeting on Zoom every other Saturday. 

How has the Movie Crush changed over the years?

It hasn’t changed much, except that it’s gotten better. The difference that someone would see between year 1 and year 7 coming up would be the quality increases every year because I see more work every year. I’m averaging just over 2,000 shorts watched every year. This year it’s closer to 2,300.

The first one, Nancy and I put together in less than three months. Now, having done it a number of years, I think it runs more smoothly. We’re constantly trying to tweak the experience for what’s best for the audience.

Each year feels incredibly different to me because even in those hourlong blocks, it really does undulate. The audience reaction and conversation changes. For example, we’ve had hourlong packages around a topic, like gun rights or gun violence. Depending on how you look at it, when those things come up you can feel a shift in the audience. It’s not about taking a particular stand on it. To me, it’s a positive shift in that I feel the responses are more thoughtful. 

One of the unspoken goals of the Movie Crush and what I love about thematic programming is you can see a live-action film and documentary and musical trying to cover those topics from multiple angles, trying to get the audience to see nuance. 

Why is Walla Walla a great place for this event?

One of the reasons Walla Walla is so important is because not only is it a great city with great food, wine and theater, but the demographic makeup is diverse.

Nancy and I travel to a lot of different festivals. Ours is especially rare in that we’re single venue and single screen. It’s like a three-day sleepaway camp. We keep the audience together. There are so many things to do within immediate reach of the Powerhouse. It’s not like a festival in Seattle or New York or Los Angeles, where the crowd and filmmakers automatically disperse because there’s 10,000 things to do miles away. There’s no sense of unity in that.

Here, you walk around town and recognize other people who are attending the festival. That’s something you can only get in a smaller, tighter-knit community. And really, for me and Nancy, the food and wine is really a big deal. We’ve gone to some other festivals that we like but are in food wastelands.

Any changes coming for the future?

Ideally, after this year we’ll become an Oscar-qualifying festival. If that happens, I think we’ll see a shift — not in terms so much of how things are laid out, but it’s going to have a different air. We already boast an incredibly high number of filmmakers attending. We won’t have to work as hard to find 2,000-plus shorts.

We did, back in 2021, institute a new sort of Hall of Fame for short-filmmakers. We’re going to have another inductee in 2023, and chances are more people will recognize this individual. We’ve always had good juries in terms of Oscar winners, Oscar nominees. I think we’re going to see more people of that caliber.

What else makes the festival unique?

We have something called the “Iron Ass Jury.” This is a special designation for the people who sit through every single short over the weekend. That group decides on the Audience Award, one of eight award categories. The group has grown to around 25 or so people. 

Want to learn more about the festival?