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.
’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 , 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 , 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.
John Polson, Mel Gibson + Rebecca Gibney at Tropfest 2016