When John Polson climbed onto a wobbly chair in Sydney’s Tropicana Caffe in late 1992, he unknowingly ignited an idea that would inspire a nationwide interest in short films.
“I was buzzing, people were applauding,” Polson recalls.
As the credits rolled after a screening of his short film Cafe, the excitement of a surprise crowd got the best of him.
“I got up and said ‘hey guys, what a great night, let’s have a festival. Get your movies to me, let’s do this’,” he says.
“It was really that simple.”
Over the next quarter of a century, Tropfest made short films part of Australia’s cultural vocabulary, with hundreds of new films made for the festival each year.
Filmmaking was ‘like a drug deal’
Filmmaking has always been expensive — but for up-and-coming filmmakers, this was especially so in the days before camcorders.
The cost of equipment and film stock throttled creativity, and institutions played a major role in what audiences saw from local filmmakers. Cultural barriers were the norm.
Adam Zwar, co-creator of Wilfred — a short film that was crowned best comedy at Tropfest 2002 — knew these challenges well.
“It was like a drug deal. If you had a contact at Kodak, a guy on Saturday morning would drive around, you’d throw him a thousand bucks, and [he’d] give you film offcuts for ‘cheap’,” Zwar says.
“There were a lot of hurdles.”
But the handheld camcorder changed everything.
Suddenly, aspiring movie directors had inexpensive tools to demonstrate their ideas and potential.
Tropfest gave this untapped well of filmmakers a platform — and a deadline.
“Nothing creative is done without a deadline,” Zwar says.
“And it’s often better if someone else is giving you one.”
Polson recalls an early conversation with Mad Max director George Miller, that helped him see what he’d created.
“[He] kind of got it almost before I did. He said, ‘this is a big deal. You’ve got people who are not getting into the institutions, but have this talent. It might be a good way to see who’s around in Australia’,” Polson recalls.
Zwar was obsessed with getting into Tropfest for this exact reason. Festival success in 2002 put him on the ground floor of the screen industry.
“For a lot of filmmakers who didn’t have the opportunities, it was a light on the hill,” Zwar says.
“It was total meritocracy — if you had a good idea, there was a chance you might just make it, and you could kick-start your career.”
Crowds connect with emerging filmmakers
Tropfest initially centred around the Darlinghurst cafe, Tropicana, where it started. But it quickly ran out of space as surrounding footpaths and streets were closed off, filling with punters.
When a basic overflow venue was set up at a nearby park in 1997, it revealed the festival’s true audience potential.
“I couldn’t believe my eyes,” Polson says.
“There were thousands of people. It was a very different vibe; sitting on the grass, BYO. It just became this social event bigger than what it had started as.”
Just a few years on, Tropfest had claimed its place on the cultural calendar.
It moved to The Domain in 1999, where an audience of 90,000 to 100,000 people enjoyed its unique atmosphere. Satellite screenings ran in capital cities around the country, and free DVDs came with Sunday newspapers.
The unapologetically populist festival found critical mass.
The result: short films by emerging filmmakers were being seen.
“We offer an audience. And an audience is an important part of a career progression. Maybe they rub shoulders with people who can finance their next movie,” Polson says, of finalists.
Alethea Jones, who won the competition in 2012, says back at film school, she was guilty of being a Tropfest snob.
“The criticism from my friends was that Tropfest is considered more of a lighter and more commercial film festival and not a heavy hitter,” Jones says.
“But I have screened at those other festivals, and they didn’t do anything for my career. Tropfest is what you make of it.”
Jones’s first Hollywood feature, Fun Mom Dinner (2017), starred Toni Collette, who was a judge when she won in 2012.
She’s said to be directing the Sony/Mattel Barbie movie, starring Anne Hathaway.
“I’m now working as a director, directly because of Tropfest,” Jones says.
A launch pad for talent
In a 25-plus year history, Tropfest has experienced highs and lows, including financial problems that almost led to the festival’s cancellation in 2015.
But it’s helped countless talented creatives carve a career path that wasn’t possible before its existence.
Along with Zwar and Jones, names including Rebel Wilson, Nash and Joel Edgerton, Sam Worthington and Paul Fenech were all marked by Tropfest, as they worked toward success in film and television.
Wilson also won best actress at Tropfest 2009 for Bargain!
“We don’t create their talent,” Polson says.
“But anyone who thinks Tropfest didn’t impact that world wasn’t watching. We changed the DNA of the industry.
“At it’s best, it’s just this euphoric celebration of what’s coming up in Australian film.”
Tropfest airs on ABC Comedy on February 17, and after on iView.