In 1993, a film graduate named John Polson made a short flick called ‘Surry Hills: 902 Spring Roll’ and approached the Tropicana Cafe in Sydney to screen it for cast, crew and friends. The screening drew around 200 people so, inspired by the turn-out, Polsen decided that a short film festival was the next step. In 1993 the Tropicana Short Film Festival, as it was originally called, was born. Now Tropfest is taking the world by storm.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE TROPFEST TODAY, 19 YEARS AFTER ITS HUMBLE BEGINNINGS?
I think Tropfest has become an incredible platform for emerging filmmakers to get their work seen, and is the most unique festival experience out there. It’s not just about showing films, it’s about making them. It’s as much about driving the production of short film – to encourage filmmakers – as it is about finding new audiences for their work. After launching Tropfest New York a few years back, it was great seeing people embrace that concept over there. My ultimate goal is to have film lovers in dozens of countries around the world experience the Tropfest event – sitting down with thousands of other like-minded people to watch new short films made by budding filmmakers from their own countries.
WHY DID TROPFEST NEW YORK NOT GO AHEAD THIS SEASON? HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT IT NOT TAKING PLACE?
When the global recession hit, one of the main partners I was working with in NY went under. Combined with the whole Wall Street implosion, where many of our sponsors were, suddenly made it impossible to find the kind of money we needed for what is, after all, a free event. With no tickets, sponsorship is our only real revenue. It seems that the mood is shifting now, so I’m hitting the pavement again to see if I can build momentum to remount Tropfest NY in either 2011 or 2012.
YOU NOW HAVE FOUR CATEGORIES: MAIN, MOBILE, MUSIC AND MINOR. DO YOU SEE THE EVENT EXPANDING FURTHER?
We’re always looking at expanding Tropfest. We want to encourage people interested in all aspects of filmmaking, whether it be writing, directing, editing to post-production. This is not just about the directors. A lot of work goes into making a short film and all of these aspects must work succinctly in order for the film to work.
WHO PICKS THE SIGNATURE ITEM/THEME AND IS THERE A PROCESS TO IT?
Each year it’s different, mostly just randomly chosen by the Tropfest staff, often from suggestions that are emailed to us or whatever. Past signature items have included pickle, rock, dice, hook, bug and match, to name a few. The aim of the TSI is simple: to encourage filmmakers to make new films, not just drag out last year’s work. Filmmakers have included the TSI in their film in a number of different ways – some films are based entirely on the TSI while others have only small or hidden references. This year’s TSI is ‘key’.
WHAT DO YOU PREFER MORE; BEING THE DIRECTOR OF FILMS OR THE DIRECTOR OF EVENTS SUCH AS TROPFEST?
I love both. Directing film, of course, brings a satisfaction that I don’t get from Tropfest, but I love the money-raising that Tropfest requires, as well as the organisational aspects. I also love watching the films. Mostly, and without wanting to sound corny, it’s great to do something that’s less about me and more about giving new filmmakers a chance. And I love seeing the crowd there; it gives me a kind of pride that I don’t get any other time of the year.
WHY DO YOU THINK TROPFEST HAS GAINED THE POPULARITY IT DID?
For a lot of reasons. Firstly, we just struck a chord at the right time and in the right place. Video cameras had basically just [taken off] so suddenly anyone could make a movie – not just a few elite with access to lots of money. One of the great things is you don’t need to be a professional filmmaker to get in. Anyone can get in and win – and I think that’s why people have embraced the competition. It’s a reason to create new work and the most effective way for emerging filmmakers to get exposure for their work in Australia.
ANY ADVICE TO ASPIRING DIRECTORS?
Keep making films, creating new ideas, and new stories to tell. Most importantly, keep practicing your craft. I encourage anyone with an interest in film to enter this year’s competition. Tropfest is a great way to get your work seen by thousands of people around the world. You don’t have to have a lot of money or the most advanced filmmaking equipment to make a great film. In fact, the winner of Tropfest New York a couple of years back shot his whole film for $50. Partly as a result of that, we now have mobile category, Telstra Mobile Masterpieces, and the winner receives a free trip to the Sundance Film Festival plus $5,000 cash.
FINALLY, JOHN, WHAT ARE YOUR TOP 5 FAVOURITE FILMS, NOT NECESSARILY IN ORDER?
Dog Day Afternoon, Cool Hand Luke, King Of Comedy, Kramer V. Kramer, Waiting For Guffman.
Movie Extra Tropfest takes place in Sydney from February 20th, 2011.
For entry or event information visit www.tropfest.com/au