Tropfest, the World’s Largest Short Film Festival Crosses the Pacific

Billabout caught up with Tropfest founder, John Polson, about the festival’s journey from Darlinghurst to Manhattan’s Bryant Park.

I was a bit of a problem child. I got kicked out of a lot of schools all over Sydney. I didn’t go to film school or anything, and I was heading in a direction that was more into petty crime than film. A family friend called up one day and said, “Do you want to go for an audition?” I had really never done any acting, but I got my first acting job and I actually did okay as an actor in Australia.

I immediately started to become more fixated on making my own films. I would borrow cameras from the films that I was working on as an actor and I made a short film in my mid-twenties, but I needed somewhere to screen it. I asked the owner of Tropicana Cafe, in Sydney’s Darlinghurst, if I could put a TV in the corner and play the movie. People came out. That was how Tropfest started in 1992/1993 and over the past 20 years, I’ve been sort of running that along with my own career of directing and producing.

In ’99 I was in Mission Impossible II, of all things, and we ended up shooting in LA. Then the following year I moved to New York to shoot a film – Tropfest kept getting bigger and bigger and was already on the way at this point. I was 35 and Tropfest was 7 years old. I basically fell in love with the city and my wife was from Jersey and we sort of settled.

To be honest, for the first few years Tropfest was kind of a pain in the ass. Last year we launched Tropfest Arabia, two years ago I would have laughed at the idea that it was going to be in the Middle East. I’m pretty close to getting Tropfest China going too. Originally it was a burden and costing me money, as in a few thousand dollars that I didn’t have. At first my friends would go around the room with a bucket, but two or three years in I figured out the whole sponsorship thing and that made a difference; it’s 20 years old now.

Tropfest New York kicks off June 21-23. We’ve pulled on some big partners – Citibank, Starz, NBC, WNYC and Hugh Jackman is hosting. So far we’ve got a lot of filmmakers registered and there’s a lot of traffic on the website from the US so I’m optimistic that we will hopefully kick it out of the park this year.

We’ve kept Tropfest format simple, even 20 years on. The films must be maximum 7 minutes, it’s got to be a premiere, so never been seen online or anywhere and it’s got to have the signature item, which changes each year. This year in NY it’s ‘Bagel’, which is obviously an iconic kind of symbol for NYC, but it’s not necessarily meant to dominate the film.

We try to catapult filmmakers careers. And we’ve got a pretty good track record of doing that, but we’ve still got the spirit of fun in it and that comes back to being born in Australia – it’s not taken too seriously. George Miller (Mad Max creator) has been our patron from the start and it’s really about practising the art of making films and getting better at it. Wilfred the TV show came from Tropfest, and Joel and Nash Edgerton have been around Tropfest forever.

Technology has definitely changed the film making game. We’ve had some great films where at like 3 o’clock in the afternoon on a 6 o’clock deadline someone’s decided, “You know what, I’ve got an idea for a film.” Bang, you can shoot it on your iPhone, do it in one shot or edit it, send in the link and suddenly you’re in the competition.

After June’s over I’m going to go and direct a couple of TV shows and pay a few bills for a couple of months. But I have a big vision for Tropfest of the future; essentially we’re building a media channel and hoping to take it global where films come together to compete like the Olympics.

I’m hoping that some Aussies come along, as it’s an Australia-born event. The first half of the night is going to be a celebration of Australian Tropfest, and then the second half is the New York competition. I’m looking at ways of combining the two cultures in a really fun way – I want to pack that park out. There is nothing like getting a picnic blanket and sitting in the park with a glass of wine to watch great films.
As told to Pete Maiden

Congratulations to Josh Leake for Emptys, winner of Tropfest 2012.

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