Gone Troppo

We talk to JOHN POL­SON, founder of TROPFEST – aka the largest SHORT-FILM FES­TI­VAL in the world – on hit­ting the almighty “BRICK WALL” that fell to pave the way for the most tri­umphant of COME­BACKS.

Collective Hub - - / FILM - WORDS RE­BECCA HAN­LEY

’Twas a frosty evening in 1993 when a fledg­ling film­maker named John Pol­son rounded up a bunch of mates to cosy up and watch his lat­est short film at Syd­ney’s Trop­i­cana Caffe. Un­be­knownst to him, this night would be the cat­a­lyst for a jour­ney span­ning a quar­ter-cen­tury (and count­ing) that would see him launch Tropfest, which mor­phed into the largest fes­ti­val of its kind in the world. Rebel Wil­son, Joel Edger­ton, Rus­sell Crowe and Cate Blanchett are just some of the fa­mous alumni who have taken part in Tropfest; which put up to a mil­lion bums on bean­bags in its hey­day.

John, who has since gone on to forge a formidable ca­reer both be­hind and in front of the lens, re­ceived the ul­ti­mate shock in Novem­ber 2015 when he dis­cov­ered that the com­pany li­censed to over­see the day-to-day op­er­a­tions of Tropfest had ef­fec­tively ‘lost’ around AU$500,000 – and de­spite hav­ing raised more than AU$1 mil­lion the pre­vi­ous year, would be un­able to stage that year’s event, due to run the fol­low­ing month. John al­leged fi­nan­cial mis­man­age­ment by Tropfest Fes­ti­val Pro­duc­tions, which has run the fes­ti­val since 2002 – and was doubt­ful whether Tropfest would ever see the sil­ver screen again.

Cue the ul­ti­mate pivot. With some phe­nom­e­nal busi­ness ad­vi­sors, an im­pas­sioned so­cial me­dia cam­paign by fans, an an­gel spon­sor, a shift from a li­censed model to a not-for-profit model, the ap­point­ment of a board (in­clud­ing the likes of Mad Max di­rec­tor Ge­orge Miller), a new lo­ca­tion in west­ern Syd­ney and a hefty dose of hind­sight, he pulled off a phe­nom­e­nal come­back.

So, on the eve of Tropfest’s 25th an­niver­sary cel­e­bra­tions, we speak to John from his base in New York, where he is cur­rently ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer on TV se­ries Ele­men­tary, about re­ceiv­ing the worst email imag­in­able, har­ness­ing the courage to em­brace change and why you should al­ways view your busi­ness as a liv­ing, breath­ing en­tity.

I NEVER IN MY WILDEST DREAMS THOUGHT IT WOULD COME TO THIS.

All I wanted to do that night back in ’93 was just screen a movie I’d made. It was sup­posed to be for 10 or 15 peo­ple who had worked on it, but I guess ev­ery­one told their friends and by the time I got there with a TV screen and a video player, there were like 200 peo­ple cram­ming into the cafe to see what all of the fuss was about. At the end of the night, en­cour­aged by a few friends, I got up on a chair and I set a dead­line for what be­come known as Tropfest.

IT FELT LIKE 24 YEARS OF HARD WORK GO­ING DOWN THE DRAIN, AND IN NOT A VERY GLAM­OROUS FASH­ION.

I said, “That was my film, how about ev­ery­body else makes films and I’ll see you back here in three months and we’ll watch them?”

IT WAS GOOD TIM­ING

in the sense that films were just be­com­ing much more ac­ces­si­ble to make on video cam­eras, which were just start­ing to get sold. They were still very ex­pen­sive, but you could get them. Pre­vi­ously, mak­ing a short film could lit­er­ally cost a cou­ple of hun­dred thou­sand dol­lars [and] sud­denly you could buy a video cam­era for AU$2000 and go and make a movie for al­most noth­ing… that’s where Tropfest hap­pened and that’s why we got so many en­tries in the early days.

IT HAS HAD A HUGE IM­PACT.

Ob­vi­ously I’m bi­ased, but I think most peo­ple in the film in­dus­try would agree that if you could rewind his­tory and erase Tropfest from 25 years of Aus­tralian film in­dus­try, it’d be a pretty big black hole.

I’VE NEVER TRIED TO TAKE CREDIT FOR SOME­ONE ELSE’S TAL­ENT,

we’re not a film school – I mean, in some ways we hope­fully in­spire peo­ple to make films and you could ar­gue that the more films you make, the bet­ter you get – but we don’t try to take credit for that tal­ent. At the same time, what we do take credit for, unashamedly, is giv­ing that tal­ent the big­gest au­di­ence, re­ally, any young film­maker or new film­maker can have on the planet, pe­riod. If you have 90,000 peo­ple watch­ing the short film at Tropfest out­doors, watch­ing one film on one screen, that’s the big­gest screen­ing of a film, pe­riod.

TROPFEST WAS A LI­CENSE MODEL [INI­TIALLY],

in other words, we li­censed a com­pany [Tropfest Fes­ti­val Pro­duc­tions] to run Tropfest and they had to run it un­der cer­tain guide­lines: it had to be a film fes­ti­val, it had to be one night, it had to be this, it had to be that, but re­ally they ran the busi­ness of Tropfest. They raised the money, they spent the money, they even so­licited the films – even though I was in­volved in watch­ing the films and choos­ing the films, but be­ing on the other side of the planet… I li­censed the busi­ness and the event out to an­other com­pany to run it.

IN NOVEM­BER [2015], I GOT AN EMAIL SAY­ING, “WE DON’T HAVE THE MONEY TO PUT THE EVENT ON.”

Which of course was an in­cred­i­ble shock and dev­as­ta­tion. [Tropfest 2015] was due to hap­pen in De­cem­ber, so one month be­fore the event… I was forced to go pub­lic and say, “Hey guys, I don’t know if there is go­ing to be a Tropfest. I know there is not go­ing to be a Tropfest in De­cem­ber, I don’t think there is ever go­ing to be a Tropfest again.” It was a ter­ri­ble feel­ing… On a per­sonal level, it felt like 24 years of hard work go­ing down the drain, and in not a very glam­orous fash­ion. It wasn’t like I got up and an­nounced, ‘Hey, this has been fun but we’re go­ing to let it go.’ It ran into a brick wall, is what hap­pened.

THE REAL THING THAT KEPT ME TICK­ING

and try­ing to get it back on the rails was all the film­mak­ers that [Tropfest] had helped over the years and will help in the fu­ture. When I got that email, all the films were al­ready in; the film­mak­ers had spent their money, their time, their en­ergy to cre­ate a great film, and now I’m be­ing told we’re go­ing to de­stroy them – which was just the worst feel­ing in the world. I’ll never for­get when I found out the news; we’d just se­lected the 16 fi­nal­ists. As soon as I found out the news that th­ese guys didn’t have the money to put the event on, I made the call to the guy who was sup­posed to an­nounce to the film­mak­ers that they’re fi­nal­ists. I said, “Please don’t make those calls be­cause I’ve just had some ter­ri­ble news and I don’t know if there’s go­ing to be a Tropfest. I don’t want you to tell [them] be­cause then they’re go­ing to hear there’s no Tropfest,” and he said, “I just made the calls, ev­ery­body knows.” I was like, “Oh my god, what do we do?” >

EV­ERY­BODY, TO MY SUR­PRISE, WAS UP IN ARMS

and got on so­cial me­dia and it be­came this huge story. Then for­tu­nately for us, CGU In­sur­ance heard about it, called us and said, “We would like to spon­sor the event and make sure this Aus­tralian icon doesn’t die.” In do­ing that, the event did go ahead in Fe­bru­ary [2016], ob­vi­ously de­layed. The li­cense com­pany? The agree­ment was sev­ered and they were fired.

WE MOVED FOR­WARD.

That [busi­ness] model, to be fair, had worked pretty suc­cess­fully for a lot of years – but when it broke, it re­ally broke badly. So I was forced to do some soulsearch­ing: ‘Well, how do I keep this event alive from the other side of the planet, given what’s just gone on here?’ So I en­listed the sup­port of [busi­ness man­age­ment con­sul­tants] Ernst & Young to come on­board and help me re­struc­ture the com­pany and give me the ad­vice on what the op­tions were. They came up with the plan to be­come a not-for-profit Aus­tralian com­pany called Tropfest Aus­tralia Lim­ited. It’s got a board and I’m the chair of the board. We have a se­nior man­age­ment team now and we run like a much big­ger, much more pro­fes­sional busi­ness. There’s no li­cense; Tropfest Aus­tralia Lim­ited, the non-for­profit com­pany, runs the event it­self, it doesn’t hire any­one to run it – and that’s been ba­si­cally the ma­jor part of my work for the last year, try­ing to pick up the pieces and put it back to­gether again.

HIND­SIGHT IS 20-20.

Tropfest is 25 years old, not a lot of com­pa­nies can say that, so we made a lot of right de­ci­sions along the way, too. But, for what­ever rea­son, the com­pany that was meant to be run­ning it got into all sorts of trou­ble and that’s just the way it went down. None of this would’ve hap­pened if I lived in Syd­ney, but I’m also try­ing to build trust there and I’m try­ing to make sure I have free­dom on my own and this is where my ca­reer is meant [to be] for me. Do what’s in your heart but, re­ally be mind­ful, if you’re pas­sion­ate about some­thing, you should stay very close to it and make sure things are go­ing the way they should be.

YOU CAN’T EX­PECT OTHER PEO­PLE TO TAKE CARE OF YOUR BABY IN THE WAY THAT YOU WOULD.

If you build some­thing up and it sup­ports you, you can’t just trust and be a bit naïve, frankly, and think, ‘Well, th­ese guys have got it fig­ured out, we’ve got an agree­ment in place.’ You re­ally can’t do it. That’s what I’m do­ing, mov­ing for­ward with a new com­pany. I’ve seen every­thing there is and there is full trans­parency.

I ASKED AROUND A LOT ABOUT THE BEST WAY TO PUT [THE BOARD] TO­GETHER.

Ob­vi­ously you want a di­verse range of tal­ents, you want some­one who spe­cialises in law, some­one who spe­cialises in mar­ket­ing, pub­lic­ity… all the ele­ments that go to mak­ing up a suc­cess­ful fes­ti­val. Then

YOU HAVE TO BE, NOT JUST ADAPTABLE, BUT YOU HAVE TO EM­BRACE CHANGE AND LEAD CHANGE AND BE PRE­PARED TO ROLL THE DICE.

you want to en­cour­age re­ally hon­est, ro­bust, re­spect­ful, pas­sion­ate de­bate where peo­ple ex­press dif­fer­ent views. You don’t want to be too com­mit­tee­like, be­cause Tropfest is re­ally, at the end of the day, a bit of a rene­gade event. It’s not part of cor­po­rate in­fra­struc­ture or a gov­ern­men­tal in­fra­struc­ture, it’s its own en­tity and it’s got its own char­ac­ter. Of course we can al­ways im­prove on that, we’re al­ways look­ing for ways to im­prove and re­fine that, but we don’t want to lose that ei­ther.

THE PIC­TURE RIGHT NOW LOOKS RE­ALLY ROSY FOR TROPFEST,

which I’m so ex­cited about, be­cause only a year ago I lit­er­ally thought it was dead. I thought it was just a mat­ter of me an­nounc­ing it. It was my big se­cret, that I’m the only per­son that knows that there is no way Tropfest is go­ing to pull out of this tail­spin… and then CGU came on board and the rest is his­tory. We’re fi­nally at a point, hav­ing had this big board meet­ing today – which is our sec­ond board meet­ing of feel­ing re­ally ex­cited – [where] we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us, but we’ve also got a lot of work be­hind us.

I THINK THERE IS NOTH­ING MORE IM­POR­TANT [THAN BE­ING ADAPTABLE IN BUSI­NESS].

Mov­ing to Par­ra­matta [in West­ern Syd­ney], I can’t tell you how many peo­ple were ner­vous about it, be­cause [Tropfest has] been at a cer­tain place for so long, but I think if you’re go­ing to be a real leader and an en­tre­pre­neur and you’re go­ing to have a brand do well, you ac­tu­ally have to be coura­geous and em­brace changes in a way that cel­e­brates the brand. When Tropfest started at the cafe, a cou­ple of years later I re­alised, ‘The cafe’s not big enough, we have to close down the street,’ and ev­ery­one was like, ‘Well, how are you go­ing to do that? You’re never go­ing to fill the street and it’s go­ing to

look pa­thetic be­cause you’re go­ing to close the whole street and there’s only go­ing to be 200 peo­ple there.’ But we did it and then we moved to Rush­cut­ter’s Bay Park and ev­ery­one thought that was crazy, ‘It’s all about the Trop­i­cana Caffe, how could you leave?’ So you have to be, not just adaptable, but you have to em­brace change and lead the change and be pre­pared to roll the dice… You want to mix it up. Par­ra­matta is such an in­ter­est­ing place in Syd­ney; it’s chang­ing; it’s cul­tur­ally in­ter­est­ing and the ge­o­graph­i­cal cen­tre of Syd­ney. I’ve al­ways claimed Tropfest is for the grass­roots of Syd­ney, why do we want to be in some of the wealth­i­est real es­tate in Aus­tralia?

YOU’VE AL­WAYS GOT TO RE­MEM­BER WHO YOU ARE…

I do soul-search­ing lit­er­ally ev­ery day on Tropfest and make sure that ev­ery de­ci­sion, big and small, to as much ex­tent as pos­si­ble, is made with this one eye on what Tropfest has al­ways been, which is the grass-roots, unique, rule-break­ing plat­form for a young sto­ry­teller and film­maker. If you can keep that in the back of your mind with ev­ery de­ci­sion, then you can hope­fully stay on track and stay on the brand and keep your in­tegrity alive.

YOU CAN’T DO EVERY­THING.

What you can do is know your busi­ness as well as you pos­si­bly can and then you should have an ex­pert or two ex­plain to you what you don’t know, prefer­ably some­one in­de­pen­dent. I mean look, I know a lit­tle bit about ac­count­ing but I’m not an ac­coun­tant; I know a lit­tle bit about legals, but I’m not a lawyer. You can’t do every­thing, but you should do your home­work and you should re­ally be across every­thing as much as you phys­i­cally, pos­si­bly can.

I THINK PEO­PLE STILL RE­ALLY WANT TO HAVE A COM­MU­NAL CEL­E­BRA­TION.

I’ve had plenty of peo­ple say to me over the last few years, ‘Oh, now that there’s so­cial me­dia, Tropfest is go­ing to be hurt be­cause who is go­ing to bother to come when they can watch every­thing on Net­flix.’ It’s just not true, I think it’s quite the op­po­site. Peo­ple spend so much of their lives now on­line, on Face­book, think­ing they’re with their friends. It’s ironic that it’s called so­cial me­dia be­cause re­ally it’s soli­tary me­dia. Then Tropfest comes along and peo­ple want to come down and rub shoul­ders with real peo­ple and like them in the flesh, not just flick the ‘like’ but­ton on them. Our job is re­ally to try and stay cur­rent and make sure that we roll with the punches, so to speak. Tropfest is like a liv­ing thing, it’s not the same today as it was last year or the year be­fore. The core of it is and hope­fully the char­ac­ter of it is, but the sort of ex­pres­sion of it has changed as tech­nol­ogy changes, and I think we’ve done a pretty good job of it.

Si­mon Baker + Mel Gib­son at Tropfest 2016

John Pol­son, Mel Gib­son + Re­becca Gib­ney at Tropfest 2016

John Pol­son, 2016 Tropfest win­ner Spencer Susser + Mel Gib­son

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