Brief en­counter

From hum­ble be­gin­nings, John Pol­son’s short film fes­ti­val has grown into a na­tional and in­ter­na­tional phe­nom­e­non, writes Rose­mary Neill

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Front Page -

John Pol­son started the short film fes­ti­val Tropfest 20 years ago, and it’s turned into a long, and long-dis­tance, love af­fair

IT started with a dodgy short film and a tele­vi­sion set in an un­pre­pos­sess­ing Ital­ian cafe near Syd­ney’s King’s Cross. In 1993, John Pol­son was a skint, 20-some­thing ac­tor with a tragic bank bal­ance and a burn­ing de­sire to find an au­di­ence for his short movie, a mock­u­men­tary about the food de­liv­ery busi­ness in­spired by the Cops re­al­ity show.

‘‘ It was ridicu­lous, in other words,’’ quips Pol­son, his self-dep­re­ca­tion in­stantly dis­arm­ing. ‘‘ The best thing about that film was that it started Tropfest.’’ Tropfest is the short film com­pe­ti­tion-cum-fes­ti­val Pol­son founded, al­most on im­pulse, two decades ago. It now bills it­self as the world’s big­gest fes­ti­val for short films and, in a sin­gle night, at­tracts a na­tional, live au­di­ence of up to 150,000. It of­fers prizes worth more than $100,000, is screened at vast out­door venues around the coun­try and of­fers ex­pe­ri­enced and ama­teur film­mak­ers the sort of au­di­ence ex­po­sure of­ten en­joyed by chart-top­ping rock bands.

Now a sea­soned Hol­ly­wood film and TV di­rec­tor, Pol­son will this week­end pre­side over his 20th Tropfest, which has evolved from a ca­sual, grass­roots event into a na­tional cul­tural phe­nom­e­non; a fes­ti­val de­voted to an un­fash­ion­able art form that nev­er­the­less at­tracts a mass au­di­ence and has helped launch the ca­reers of many lead­ing ac­tors and film di­rec­tors.

These days, Pol­son, 46 and a fa­ther of two young daugh­ters, is largely based in the US. Speak­ing down a faint phone line from his home of­fice in Brook­lyn, New York, he says in his still-broad Aus­tralian ac­cent that when he was start­ing out, he ‘‘ never had any idea’’ that Tropfest would grow so big. In­deed, he of­ten felt pro­foundly am­biva­lent about his fledg­ling fes­ti­val.

‘‘ To be hon­est,’’ he con­fides, ‘‘ for the first three or four years it was a bit of a bur­den. As much as I had fun do­ing it, I re­ally wanted to be an ac­tor and di­rec­tor . . . It be­came this thing around my neck. It also cost me an arm and a leg. I mean, I was a strug­gling ac­tor.’’ (In those days, buck­ets were passed around, but the au­di­ences’ coin do­na­tions rarely cov­ered costs.)

But then, Tropfest’s ori­gins could hardly have been more hum­ble. In the early 90s Pol­son couldn’t af­ford to hire a cinema to screen his short film, ‘‘ so we went to the Trop­i­cana, the lo­cal cafe where I used to hang out. I put a TV in the corner, ba­si­cally, to show my friends.’’ About 200 peo­ple showed up for the cafe screen­ing. Chuffed at the turnout, Pol­son urged his film­maker friends to pro­duce their own short movies, which he promised to screen at the cafe in a few weeks’ time.

Nine films were duly shown and about 1000 peo­ple flocked to the Trop­i­cana to see them. ‘‘ Of course,’’ re­calls Pol­son, ‘‘ 1000 peo­ple couldn’t fit into the cafe, they were spilling out on to the road and the cops came and traf­fic couldn’t get past. There was chaos.’’ A news crew turned up. The Trop­i­cana Short Film Fes­ti­val — since re­named Tropfest — had ar­rived.

‘‘ It sort of grew from there,’’ Pol­son says in what must be one of the un­der­state­ments of the year. This week­end, tens of thou­sands of film fans are ex­pected to gather at out­door venues in ev­ery main­land state cap­i­tal (as well as in Surfers Par­adise, Wol­lon­gong and New Zealand) to watch Tropfest’s 16 short­listed movies, which have been culled from an en­try pool of about 700. The live screen­ings will be broad­cast si­mul­ta­ne­ously on payTV chan­nel Movie Ex­tra.

Pol­son is of­fer­ing an ex­panded, three-day pro­gram in­clud­ing a film­mak­ing sym­po­sium at which the cel­e­brated screen­writer and pro­ducer Charles Ran­dolph ( Love and other Drugs) will give the key­note ad­dress. But as al­ways, the main event will be to­mor­row’s screen­ing and judg­ing of the fi­nal­ists’ films be­fore a sea of movie­go­ers sit­ting on pic­nic rugs and low-slung, fold­ing chairs, at sites rang­ing from Surfers Par­adise beach to Melbourne’s Sid­ney Myer Mu­sic Bowl, where it has moved this year to ac­commo- date a larger crowd. As well as be­ing the big­gest, Tropfest must surely be the world’s most demo­cratic film fes­ti­val. Ad­mis­sion to the out­door screen­ings is free, and any­one can en­ter the com­pe­ti­tion, pro­vided their film is less than seven min­utes and cre­ated specif­i­cally for the fes­ti­val.

Some past fi­nal­ists and win­ners have made their films on mo­bile phones for a few dol­lars (there is now a sep­a­rate Tropfest prize for such movies). Pol­son says of this: ‘‘ We ac­tively pro­mote the idea that you don’t need to spend 10 grand or 100 grand to make a film. We don’t re­ally judge you based on pro­duc­tion val­ues . . . we look for story and char­ac­ter and great mu­sic and all sorts of other stuff.’’ There are also Tropfest awards for film com­posers and for films made by chil­dren.

Pol­son adds that Tropfest’s pur­pose to­day is the same as it was in its Trop­i­cana days — to give young film­mak­ers a leg up. ‘‘ If you’ve got tal­ent, that’s all you re­ally need — you don’t need a big bud­get, you don’t need your dad to be best friends with [in­dus­try power­bro­kers],’’ he says with con­vic­tion. ‘‘ You just need tal­ent and maybe a lit­tle bit of luck. In my opin­ion, it’s the best launchpad in the world for a young film­maker’s ca­reer. The other pur­pose, of course, is to pro­vide our au­di­ences with a great night of en­ter­tain­ment.’’

De­scrib­ing him­self as Tropfest’s ‘‘ creative stew­ard’’, he still plays a key role in choos­ing the short­listed films, ac­knowl­edg­ing that

‘‘ I’ve also got one eye, al­ways, on the au­di­ence’’. This year’s fi­nal­ists ex­plore sub­jects as di­verse as ma­ter­nal grief, war and colour blind­ness. Among them are ac­tor and film­maker Matilda Brown, who starred in the 2003 film Martha’s Coat; Damian Mclin­don, who di­rected the new-age self-help video The

Se­cret; and Tropfest’s youngest short­lis­tee in the main cat­e­gory, schoolgirl Eva Laz­zaro, 16, who starred in the Fox­tel se­ries, Tan­gled.

As Tropfest quickly out­grew its orig­i­nal venue, so Pol­son’s am­bi­tions pro­pelled him be­yond Australia. He has di­rected Amer­i­can films in­clud­ing Swim­fan and Hide and Seek (star­ring Robert De Niro and Dakota Fan­ning). Both opened strongly at the box of­fice de­spite be­ing gen­er­ally dis­liked by crit­ics. His last fea­ture, Ten­der­ness, a melan­choly thriller fea­tur­ing Rus­sell Crowe and Laura Dern, was re­leased in 2009.

He has also pro­duced and di­rected well­known Amer­i­can TV shows such as The

Men­tal­ist, The Good Wife and Flash For­ward ‘‘ I love di­rect­ing, I love mak­ing movies, I love mak­ing tele­vi­sion. I’m a bit of a multitasker,’’ he says.

Af­ter years spent cementing his di­rect­ing ca­reer, Pol­son is turn­ing en­tre­pre­neur, and hop­ing to rad­i­cally ex­pand Tropfest’s in­ter­na­tional pres­ence. He is work­ing with a small team to re­launch Tropfest New York in June. Sources have told Re­view that deals to stage the first Las Ve­gas Tropfest in June and the in­au­gu­ral New Zealand Tropfest for Kiwi film­mak­ers in 2013 will be an­nounced this week­end. This fol­lows the stag­ing of the first Tropfest Ara­bia late last year, partly an at­tempt to raise the cul­tural pro­file of an of­ten mis­un­der­stood re­gion. Pol­son is also in talks aimed at tak­ing Tropfest to China.

Asked if Tropfest Australia, which is largely funded through cor­po­rate spon­sor­ship, has grown into a prof­itable busi­ness, he jokes that ‘‘ mak­ing money is a loose term. We’re pay­ing for Tropfest and pok­ing our head out [above water] enough to try a new ter­ri­tory. We’re not kick­ing back and hav­ing a staff re­treat in the Ba­hamas.’’

Re­flect­ing on the fes­ti­val’s ex­tra­or­di­nary tra­jec­tory, he sounds more like a re­al­ist than a booster: ‘‘ It’s like try­ing to build any­thing. You go through some phases where it’s very dif­fi­cult and you think you’re never go­ing to get there. But at the mo­ment, it’s hard to go into a meet­ing and not come out with a great re­sult.’’

It was a dif­fer­ent story in 2000, when the event was al­most can­celled due to lack of spon­sor­ship. Pol­son ex­plains: ‘‘ The big kids came to town — the [Syd­ney] Olympics. Sud­denly ev­ery­one wanted to spon­sor the Olympics and no­body wanted to know about any­thing else.’’

Four weeks out, he was fac­ing a $250,000 bud­get hole, but hap­pily, some of his high­pow­ered con­tacts (Ni­cole Kid­man, Tom Cruise, Rus­sell Crowe and Lach­lan and Sarah Mur­doch) came to the res­cue. ‘‘ Tropfest owes a lot to those peo­ple. With an event like this, if you miss one year, you’re kind of dead in the water,’’ he says bluntly.

Kid­man has been a judge at Tropfest, as have other Hol­ly­wood heavy­weights in­clud­ing Salma Hayek, Sa­muel L. Jack­son, Keanu Reeves and Ewan Mc­gre­gor. Ge­of­frey Rush is a judge this year.

Many Tropfest fi­nal­ists and win­ners have gone on to forge no­table ca­reers in film. The com­pe­ti­tion’s alumni in­clude the film di­rec­tors and ac­tors Rowan Woods, Clay­ton Jacobson, Joel Edger­ton, Elissa Down, Gre­gor Jor­dan and Sam Wor­thing­ton.

NSW Cen­tral Coast film­maker Ja­son van Gen­deren says Tropfest ‘‘ has ab­so­lutely been the thing that has given me a launchpad in terms of be­ing known in the in­dus­try. It is def­i­nitely a call­ing card these days for any­one com­ing up in the film­mak­ing busi­ness. It’s a door opener.’’ In 2008, van Gen­deren won Tropfest New York with

Mankind is No Is­land, a poignant film about big cities’ in­dif­fer­ence to­wards the vul­ner­a­ble, which he shot on his mo­bile phone. It’s been up­loaded to Youtube, and has gar­nered more than one mil­lion views.

Van Gen­deren was run­ner-up at last year’s Tropfest Australia. His en­try, The

Un­spo­ken, was a nar­rated trib­ute to his 83-year-old fa­ther, who was dy­ing of can­cer. This year he is one of three fi­nal­ists in the Mo­bile Mas­ter­pieces cat­e­gory, which of­fers a $5000 prize and a trip to the Sun­dance Film Fes­ti­val. His lat­est en­try, The 53rd Hour,



draws on his life as a di­vorced fa­ther. Filmed on his iphone, it de­picts the end of his chil­dren’s fort­nightly ac­cess vis­its; the grim, dif­fi­cult hour when he feels their ab­sence acutely.

Asked whether Tropfest’s phe­nom­e­nal pop­u­lar­ity is para­dox­i­cal, given that short films are rarely shown at the cinema, Pol­son, sud­denly sound­ing world-weary, replies:

‘‘ Cinema op­er­a­tors wanna play ads.’’ Some de­trac­tors main­tain that as Tropfest has ex­panded and its spon­sor­ship has grown, it has lost some of its bite. Pol­son re­sponds philo­soph­i­cally: ‘‘ Any­thing that gets this big has a lot of crit­i­cism, but that couldn’t be fur­ther from the truth. I choose the [fi­nal­ist] films my­self but it doesn’t even en­ter my mind who the spon­sors are.’’

The re­cent suc­cess of Tropfest Ara­bia con­vinced him that the fes­ti­val he once found a bur­den has un­tapped po­ten­tial. In fact, he re­cently turned down an of­fer to di­rect an am­bi­tious Amer­i­can chil­dren’s TV se­ries be­cause he had Tropfest meet­ings lined up in the Mid­dle East and China.

‘‘ My agent thought I was out of my mind, not tak­ing the se­ries,’’ he says can­didly.

‘‘ One of the things I love about Tropfest is that it’s un­charted ter­ri­tory. There’s lit­er­ally no com­pe­ti­tion . . . Each day you wake up and you have to kind of fig­ure out the road map your­self.’’

Tropfest’s main event takes place to­mor­row in Syd­ney, Wol­lon­gong, Melbourne, Can­berra, Ade­laide, Perth, Bris­bane, Surfers Par­adise and New Zealand.

John Pol­son and film­maker Gre­gor Jor­dan in 1996 out­side the Trop­i­cana Cafe, Dar­linghurst, where it all be­gan

Tropfest New York 2008 win­ner Ja­son van Gen­deren, left, with pro­ducer Shane Em­met

Tropfest 2011 Melbourne screen­ing at Fed­er­a­tion Square (above) and Ni­cole Kid­man at Tropfest 1996 (left)

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