From humble beginnings, John Polson’s short film festival has grown into a national and international phenomenon, writes Rosemary Neill
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,
WE ACTIVELY PROMOTE THE IDEA THAT YOU DON’T NEED TO SPEND 10 GRAND OR 100 GRAND TO MAKE A FILM
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)