Tropfest – John Polson’s amazing vision

Tropfest – John Polson’s amazing vision

Tropfest is Australia’s most prestigious short film festival and one of its most iconic cultural events. It is also the largest short film festival in the world. At home, Tropfest is recognised for its enormous contribution to the development of the Australian film industry by providing unique platforms for emerging filmmakers through its events and initiatives, and new and expanded audiences for their work.

Tropfest places strength of idea above production value or slickness, and anyone can enter. Scores of films made for and screened at Tropfest have gone on to gain commercial distribution. And literally dozens of Tropfest filmmakers have had local and international careers launched as a result of their work being seen in front of thousands of people – including many of the most respected professionals in the film world

John Polson, the award-winning actor and director (Swimfan, Hide and Seek, Tenderness) started the ‘Tropicana Short Film Festival’ (as it was originally known) after an informal screening of his own short film “Surry Hills: 902 Spring Roll” at the Tropicana Cafe in Victoria Street, Darlinghurst.  Almost immediately, this one-night event took on a life of its own, largely because of the enthusiasm of a whole new breed of young filmmakers that were hanging around the Tropicana Café at the time, looking for something to pour their creative energy into.

“There are two things I know about good ideas: They almost never happen overnight and they’re almost never borne of a single person. – Certainly, that’s how it was for Tropfest – I made a short film when I was 27 and, unable to afford a cinema, decided to screen it at the Tropicana café in Sydney where much of it was shot. The film was pretty average but the night was an undisputed triumph. Dozens and dozens of people crammed into the café, trying to get a glimpse of the screen I’d borrowed for the occasion. Expecting around 20 cast and crew to show up, I arrived on the night to find 200 people there, waiting to see my movie.

Inspired by the turn out, John decided that a full-fledged short film festival was the next step. Though the popularity of the festival has grown exponentially each year and seemed to attract the cream of Australian and international film personalities, the ever expanding festival was masterminded from a small, swelter house office in the heart of the Kings Cross creative community. With Polson at the helm, using the help of friends and committed staff (often volunteering their time), the small operation worked to keep up with the momentum of the festival. Tropfest aligned itself with sponsors who continue to provide support for Australian filmmakers and bring incredible value each year to the event for audiences.

Throughout it’s history the central aim of Sony Tropfest has remained the same. That is, to stimulate the production of short films and then provide an audience for the work of Australia’s emerging filmmakers. Twenty years on – Tropfest in Australia attracts a live national audience of more than 150,000 people on a single night. The event is hosted at Sydney’s Domain in the Royal Botanic Gardens, with live satellite links to outdoor locations in major cities including Melbourne, Canberra, Perth, Brisbane, Hobart, Adelaide and Surfers Paradise.

Tropfest Australia 2011 was by far the largest Tropfest ever staged, and reached a national audience of approximately 1,000,000 people (not including the internet)

Tropfest distinguishes itself from other events by being a ‘content generation’ platform, rather than merely an exhibition platform.

The annual short film competition is open to anyone who wishes to enter – regardless of their background or experience. 16 Finalists are selected from an entry pool of an average 700 annual entries and compete for more than $150,000 in prizes and includes international trips to develop film making careers and ‘work experience’ with top filmmakers. As a result, Tropfest has become known as the undisputed premiere launch pad for film making careers, although to date this has been most notable in Australia, where many commercial and critical successes are directed by Tropfest alumni.

Tropfest films are unique in that they have all been made specifically for Tropfest, will premiere at Tropfest and include the Tropfest Signature Item (or TSI), which changes each year.

The “TSI” for Tropfest 2012 is — “Light bulb”

So what was it that grabbed us all that night ? – I believe, without realizing it, we were tapping into something that’s inside all of us: the basic human desire for story. People need stories. Cavemen would come back after a big hunt, frustrated that they weren’t able to convey the emotion and excitement of what they’d been through, so they’d tell stories – paint pictures – so that others could feel like they were right there with them. Stories about other people give context to our own lives. They’re used for entertainment, for teaching, and for passing on knowledge and wisdom. The technologies we use today may be new, but storytelling itself is anything but”

Tropfest Short Film Festival 2012 Sunday will be held on the 19th February, 2012

John Polson …. Here’s a story for you: a guy makes a short film and 150,000 people show up. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it !

Whilst the main event takes place in Sydney, live satellite events are staged around Australia as well as being broadcast on television and webcast live to viewers around the world. Tropfest events now take place in cities around the world including London, Berlin, Toronto, Bangkok, Beijing, Aspen and still expanding eg Tropfest Arabia etc .

In 2007 Polson launched a New York version of Tropfest, which took place under the umbrella of Robert De Niro’s Tribeca film festival, but now Tropfest NY, as it’s called, runs as a stand-alone event in October.

Tropfest is free to attend. The festival itself is an outdoor celebration complete with live music and entertainment, public catering and bars, red carpet arrivals and the highly anticipated film screenings followed by an awards ceremony. The support and involvement of film personalities from around the world has become one of the trademarks of the festival.

The festival attracts a wide degree of media coverage but it is the casual, grass roots nature of the event, rather than its high profile, which ensures the continued support of its patrons and guests

The competition is taken very seriously and is considered the winner’s ticket to a successful career in film or television – Notable Alumni include Alistair Grierson, Clayton Jacobson, Joel Edgerton, Nash Edgerton, Peter Carstairs, Rob Carlton, Jonathan Emmerling, Elissa Down, Rowan Woods, Robert Connolly, Sam Worthington, Leon Ford, Justin Drape, Tim Bullock and many more.

The winners are selected by a panel of judges made up of well known Australian and international film directors, actors, screen writers and producers, in addition to the previous year’s winner. Tropfest judges have included industry heavyweights such as: Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Julianne Moore, George Miller, Billy Crudup, John Woo, Bryan Singer, Sam Jackson, Naomi Watts, Toni Collette, Elijah Wood, Salma Hayek, Baz Luhrmann, Ewan McGregor, Darren Aronofsky, Will Smith, Bryan Singer and many others !

Other Tropfest programs include –

  • Trop Jr, a short film making competition and festival for kids under 15,
  • Women in Film
  • TFP –  which gives past finalists the opportunity to develop their first feature or television series
  • Max Tropscore, a film scoring and synching competition, and
  • Mobile Masterpieces, a competition specifically focused on short films created using mobile phones

Trop Jr entries close on Thursday 5 January, 2012, and kids can enter online at To be eligible, young filmmakers need to create a film that is no longer than seven minutes, as well as featuring the Trop Jr Signature Item for 2012 – JUICE.


Tropfest 2012 will be the 20th anniversary festival ! So once again ask filmmakers of all backgrounds and levels of experience are invited to get out there and start making short films for the festival.

Entry Guidelines For Tropfest Australia 2012:

  • Your film must be made specifically for Movie Extra Tropfest Australia 2012
  • The festival must be your film’s first public screening, including online
  • Your film must be no longer than 7 minutes (including titles and end credits)
  • Your film must contain the Signature Item for 2012 – LIGHT BULB

Entries close on Thursday 5 January 2012 at 6pm (Australian Eastern Daylight Time)

The 20th year TSI was chosen specifically because Tropfest is all about the importance of the central idea in film.

Tropfest’s 20th Birthday competition will be hotly contested, with organisers predicting the biggest year ever. More than 700 entries are expected from Australia and overseas. For the second year running, entries will be received online in partnership with YouTube and overseas finalists will be flown from their home city to attend the event in Sydney.

Tropfest is known for having one of the most successful Channels on YouTube, having attracted almost 10,000,000 video views for its films in a relatively short time period.

Filmmakers and fans alike will also be able to participate in a host of spin-off activities and events Tropfest is adding to celebrate 20 years of putting the spotlight on filmmaking talent. Organisers have three days of filmmaking celebrations planned, taking the Festival from the traditional one-day event to a full Tropfest weekend. There will be parties, screenings of Tropfest gems from the past, and special film industry events, with full details to be announced soon



1993 After 200 people turn up to a short film showing at the Tropicana Café, John Polson decides to hold a short film festival. Nine films are screened to a thousand people. Prizes include a year’s supply of coffee.

1994-5 The Tropfest Signature Item (TSI) is introduced. Screenings are split into an open section and a competition section.

1996 Victoria Street, Darlinghurst has to be closed off to accommodate the festival. Full-scale screens are erected.

1997 Rushcutters Bay Park becomes the principal venue. John Polson receives an AFI Award for his contribution to the Australian film industry.

1998 Tropfest goes national, viewed via satellite in all states. Huge crowds prompt another shift of venue. Tropnest, a screenwriting development project is born.

1999 The Domain becomes the central venue for Tropfest. Crowds are now 50,000 strong.

2002 Tropfest attracts 611 entries and 95,000 watch in Sydney’s Domain, along with 3,000 in cafés along Victoria St.

2003 A new record of 723 entries.

2004 Crowds up to 133,000 nationally, including 7,000 patrons in Canberra.

2005 And still it grows. 792 entries.

2006 Festivities are prematurely brought to a close in Sydney due to a massive electrical storm. Trop alumnus Peter Carstairs is the recipient of the first Tropfest Feature Program funding, and receives $1 million for his film September.

2007 Tropfest films are taken to national television, online and to mobile phones. Eight new live regional venues across Australia join the live broadcast on festival day through the AFC Regional Digital Screen Network


Past winners Roll















Animal Beatbox – Tropfest 2011 winner TSI = key

An incredibly popular choice on the night, the film has gone on to screen at numerous international festivals, including Palm Springs International ShortFest, and Aspen Shortsfest, where it won the ‘Special Jury Recognition’ prize in 2011.

What is the true call of the wild? Here we travel down a very special river and are introduced to a wide variety of the animal kingdom who all contribute their name for the sake of music.

Directed by Damon Gameau

Tropfest Jr winner 2011 TSI = dice

A seemingly average teenager turns into a highly trained special operative after receiving an order from headquarters. Watch as he uses his full repertoire of skills and abilities to complete his task. Yet not everything is as it seems. While watching this film, don’t presume anything.

Directed by Simeon Bain

Shock – Tropfest 2010 winner Best Comedy

A broken Man awakes to be confronted with his life, and the choices he’s made. His past,present and future collide as he faces the inevitable…

Directed By Abe Forsythe

Be My Brother – Tropfest 2009 winner TSI = spring

A young man’s charm and charisma challenges the prejudices of a stranger at a bus stop.

Directed by Genevieve Clay

Marry Me – Tropfest 2008 winner TSI = the number 8

Little girl likes little boy. Little boy likes BMX bike. Something has to give.

Directed by Michelle Lehman

An Imaginary Life – Tropfest 2007 winner  TSI = sneeze

For an imaginary friend… Living an imaginary life… There’s nothing worse than being forgotten.

Directed by Steve Baker

Carmichael & Shane – Tropfest 2006 winner TSI = bubble

A single father has a unique approach to raising his two year old twin boys- pick a favourite.

Directed by Alex Weinress & Rob Carlton

Australian Summer – Tropfest 2005 winner   TSI = umbrella

Two men. One alleyway. An entire world to explore.

Directed by Luke Eve

The Money – Tropfest 2004 winner TSI  = hook

Damien has done something he shouldn’t have – he’s about to face the toughest question of his life.

Directed by Gary Eck

Buried – Tropfest 2003 winner   TSI = rock

Sometimes, disposing of a body can be a real pain in the arse.

Directed by Tim Bullock

Lamb – Tropfest 2002 winner TSI  = match

A father and his blind son struggle to survive on a drought stricken land.

Directed by Emma Freeman

The Lighter – Tropfest 2001 winner    TSI =  horn

Directed by Patrick Hughes

Old Man – Tropfest 2000 winner TSI = bug

Directed by Robin Feiner & Jesse Gibson

Uno Amore – Tropfest 1999 winner   TSI  = chopsticks

directed by Anton Perry about two babies falling in love

Intolerence – Tropfest 1998 winner   TSI  = kiss

written and performed by Austen Tayshus

Deadline – Tropfest 1997 winner TSI  = gherkin

Directed by Nash Edgerton

Happily Ever After – Tropfest 1996 – 2nd place   TSI = teaspoon

Written, directed by, and starring Daniel Krige.

Tropfest 1995 finalist TSI = coffee bean

Saker in Love – Tropfest 1994 3rd place   TSI = muffin

Tropicana Short Film Festival winner 1993 –   No TSI

directed by Stephen Feneley and Micheal Saker

The winning entry at the inaugural 2008 NY awards was ‘Mankind is No Island’, and was filmed entirely on a mobile phone at a total cost of $59.

Interview 2011 Arabia





“…directing is my love. I love having input into what the themes of the movies are, the beginning, middle and end…”

About John Poulson

Born: September 6, 1965 – Sydney, Australia

John Polson was born at Paddington Women’s Hospital, Sydney to Marie Francis and Ron Polson, a piano player and jazz singer respectively.

At 15, he was expelled from high school for a second time – for setting a few things on fire, some pranks and leaving a provocative nude photo on a teacher’s desk.

In his early years his ambition was to become a saxophone player, but he was seduced by acting at age 17.

He performed in the theater for the next few years but soon moved into television and film.

John Polson has been a Sydney-based actor-director since 1983, starting in the theatre.

He has won and been nominated for numerous acting awards for the mini-series Vietnam and Barlow and Chambers, and the feature films Blood Oath, The Sum of Us, Idiot Box, The Boys and others.

john polson blood oath 1994

In 1990 he played Hamlet for the Bell Shakespeare Company

Nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Award in 1990 from the Australian Film Institute for his performance in Blood Oath, he was once again nominated for The Sum of Us (1994).

He won the award for his role in The Boys (1997). John was directing short films by his mid-twenties and was the creator of Tropfest in Sydney in 1993.

Creating his first short film “An Evening with Herman” in the early 1980s, John has since garnered worldwide attention with feature films such as his directorial debut “Siam Sunset” in 1999 (starring Linus Roache), which won awards at numerous film festivals around the world (including the Cannes International Film Festival).

Perhaps best known to American audiences as the wise-cracking helicopter pilot in Mission Impossible II (2000). He also directed the US feature films “Swimfan” (starring Jesse Bradford, Erica Christensen) and “Hide and Seek” (2006 ) (starring Robert De Niro, Dakota Fanning), both of which opened at Number 1 at the US box office.

Director John Polson filmed Tenderness ( Russell Crowe and Laura Dern) , an Indie thriller, in New York in 2008.



Today, in addition to his feature film work, John flexes his creative muscle on the small screen as a producer and director on shows such as FRINGE, THE MENTALIST, THE GOOD WIFE and FLASH FORWARD.

It is a busy time for Polson, soon to start work on the film adaptation of Peter Temple’s award-winning novel Truth in Melbourne. John is also currently developing a number of other feature projects as both director and producer in the US and Australia.

He is mostly based in the US but visits Australia several times a year

‘Mankind is no island’ is a film shot entirely on a cell phone, using found signage on the streets of NY and Sydney to tell a touching story from the very heart of two cities.

Directed by Jason van Genderen
Winner of Tropfest NY 2008!

SMH 2008 – February 16, 2008 / Alexa Moses

Polson the Tropfest tsar is a far cry from the Polson of more than 20 years ago. Back then, the show-offy, stubborn son of musicians had been kicked out of high school twice for episodes that included setting things on fire.

Then he discovered acting. A family friend, agent Robyn Gardiner, signed him on as a client when he was only 16.

“I would not have normally taken a risk on a young kid with no training but I’d seen him perform at family dinners like kids do and there was something charismatic about him even as a kid of 12,” Gardiner says. “Obviously over the years, having gained recognition as an actor, producer and director has given him the confidence and maturity he didn’t have as a teenager … he is now much more focused and disciplined. Maybe a little more patient.

“Then again,” she adds, “maybe not.”

Polson performed opposite Nicole Kidman in the 1987 TV miniseries Vietnam and after a memorable turn in the film The Boys, directed by Rowan Woods, played a helicopter pilot against Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible II.

However, Polson’s career hasn’t always been on a shooting-star trajectory. He decided to direct but his first effort, the 1999 black comedy Siam Sunset, flopped.

Still, he went to Los Angeles with the film as his calling card and along the way was offered a modest genre film, a teen nod to Fatal Attraction, which he initially rejected and then reconsidered. After all, one of the producers was the actor Michael Douglas.

The little script about a disturbed girl obsessed with a teen swimming star turned into the No. 1 box office opener, Swimfan, and Polson, with his comedy bent, suddenly found himself with a career as a thriller director. He followed Swimfan with 2005’s Hide And Seek starring Robert De Niro.

Despite these successes, Polson has not abandoned his short film festival, although this, too, has had its slumps. For example, there was the Tropfest Feature Program, designed to help festival finalists launch their careers. In 2006 the program chose to develop September, a script by Tropfest finalist and lawyer Peter Carstairs, about two teenage boys, one Aboriginal, one white, living in the West Australian wheat belt.

“September did badly in Australia,” Polson says. “Honestly, it tanked. I didn’t expect it to totally tank. It was selected for Berlin [the international film festival] and for Toronto, it got amazing reviews, so I’m incredibly proud of the film, but commercially it was just devastating, to be honest. And I don’t know why, I just don’t know why. There are a million reasons you can come up with. People don’t want to watch Aboriginal issues, it’s rural, it’s period.”

The failure of September makes Polson wonder about the Australian film industry, which faces peculiar struggles. Combine geographic isolation, a small market, a glut of talented writers, directors and actors and an audience raised on Hollywood, and Polson wonders to what lengths an Australian filmmaker has to go.

The easiest way for a local filmmaker to carve a career, he says, is to head overseas. Now his eyes flicker and the edgy, impatient Polson who doesn’t suffer fools gladly suddenly appears.

“If you want to make a living – and I hate to say it but it’s true, anyone who says ‘that’s not patriotic’, it’s just bullshit – if you want to make a living you need to be here,” Polson says. “It’s kind of a vicious circle. You could argue that if people didn’t leave Australia then maybe it would all be different and there’s an element of truth to that, but then you look at a film like September – not to be bitter and twisted about it – but OK, we raised the money, three million bucks, it had a beautiful script, great reviews and it made five cents. What else do you have to do?”

His career is one of the reasons he lives in the US, at least for now. It’s the only way he can make a decent living. “C’mon, I’m not Baz Luhrmann or Peter Jackson, I’m not George Miller,” he says. “I’m not in that tier. Peter Jackson or George have the perfect gigs. They say, ‘You want to make a film with me? Cool. I’ll see you over here.’ And they all come to Australia or New Zealand with the money.”

Polson married an American casting director and yoga instructor Amanda Harding, in 2004, so living in the US is a good compromise. However – and this is a big however – he is still unabashedly Australian and says the couple “romanticise” about moving to Australia one day.

“I certainly don’t feel American at all,” Polson says. “I’ve been here seven years and I don’t feel any less Australian than the day I left. My wife doesn’t understand half of what I say, including when I proposed.”

Polson’s latest work is a film called Tenderness, from the Robert Cormier novel of the same name about a murderous teenager and the 16-year-old runaway girl who becomes obsessed with him. Tenderness started as an indie film until Russell Crowe joined the cast, followed by Laura Dern. With big stars attached, Lionsgate Films, bought the movie and Polson expects it to open in the US later this year.

Next he hopes to work on The Up And Comer, a script he co-wrote in 2002 but never managed to get produced. Five years on, the project has been revived by an interested financier.

And he has one final project on the boil, which he says he’s not supposed to talk about. All he’ll say is that it’s a big-budget film set in Australia.

“Not that big as Baz’s film, obviously, but big for Australia,” Polson says. “We’ll shoot in Australia and edit here in the States, as I’ve got to think of my wife, who’s really close to her family over here.”

It will be a busy year but Polson reckons he can cram in one more thing: Brooklyn should expect to see small, mouthy, determined pyromaniacs running around the borough in due course.

“I’m raring to go when it comes to kids,” he says. “It’s a bit like Tropfest. I was always the guy who was too young to have kids and I blinked and now all my friends have kids and I’m thinking, Jesus.”

As the interview ends, I wonder whether I’ve captured Polson, his essence, so I ask him if there is anything else he wants to say. Australia’s favourite provocateur replies with a smirk.

“Eh, I don’t care what you write,” he says. “Make it up.”

What, even if I made up something outrageously tabloid, such as he and Tom Cruise were lovers?

“It wouldn’t be the first time someone said it,” Polson shrugs and, with an easy bounce, swings out of the cafe.

Melb Age – Feb 2006

John Polson founded Tropfest when he screened Surry Hills: 902 Spring Roll, at Tropicana Caffe in 1993. “I never expected that showing one of my short films for friends and family 14 years ago would lead to the creation of a short film festival that attracts over 150,000 people on a single night in Australia,” says the 40-year-old director. But it’s been Polson’s commitment to the cause since then that’s really propelled Tropfest’s success.

“He’s been very good at pushing Tropfest into the big league,” says Greg Williams, 39, a Balaclava filmmaker who’s reached the finals of Tropfest for the past three years. He’s back again this year with terror-on-a-tram treatment, Last Stop.

“You really have to dip your lid to him for that. So much of it has been to do with his drive in that direction. He’s always been clear that he didn’t want Tropfest to be like any other film festival and he’s stuck with a formula that can cross into the mainstream.”

Polson has traded on his international profile as a director to help the development of Tropfest. Already an established actor – he won the AFI best supporting actor award for his role in The Boys – his first feature film, Siam Sunset, scooped the audience award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1999. Three years later, Swimfan, Polson’s high school take on Fatal Attraction, opened at No.1 at the US box office and went on to notch up $A49 million in America alone

Tropfest has directly benefited from Polson’s Hollywood clout and celebrity pulling power. His relationship with De Niro, whom he directed in Hide and Seek, helped open the doors to a coveted sceening slot at the Tribeca Film Festival. Despite his movie commitments in America, Polson still rings every Tropfest finalist in person to inform them they’ve made it through to the last 16.

“John’s a very charismatic guy,” says 31-year-old Luke Eve, who won last year’s Tropfest with his film Australian Summer. “He’s ambitious and passionate and it’s difficult being around him and not being affected by that. His passion towards Tropfest is really contagious.”


While many film festivals screen forgotten Iranian classics and obscure European experimedia, Tropfest has benefited from pursuing a more populist and playful agenda. “It’s a festival for punters,” admits Eve.

“At a lot of other short film festivals, you turn up and there are just 15 other filmmakers there with 20 of their mates. That’s nice, but ultimately we make films for audiences and the general public to see. The beauty of Tropfest is that there’s 150,000 people scattered around the country watching short films who wouldn’t otherwise watch them. It’s a huge forum for getting your work out there.”

By fostering a happy-go-lucky image – the organisers call Tropfest a “thongs on the red carpet event” – the festival is also careful not to deter inexperienced directors from entering films made on a handicam for under $250.

“It’s not a festival that requires trained filmmakers to participate,” says Serena Paull, Tropfest’s 30-year-old project director.

“It’s very much about encouraging people to have a go, and really the emphasis is on story and the strength of the idea rather than the production values. That’s not to say that Tropfest doesn’t attract higher end filmmakers, because more and more it does. But in the 16 finalists you’ll see a mix of amateurs right through to semi-professionals. John wanted to give people an incentive to actually get off their arses and shoot a film, rather than just sitting about in cafes in Darlinghurst talking about it.”


Paul Harris, director of the St Kilda Film Festival, refers to Tropfest as “the Big Day Out for movie buffs”. Instead of sprawling over days or even weeks like other film festivals, Tropfest is limited to an annual one-off extravaganza.

“In a way, it’s not a festival, it’s an event,” Harris says. “It takes place over one day and many of the films tend to be purpose-built specifically for the festival. Tropfest is very high profile and sexy – it attracts sponsors like a moth to a flame.”

Instead of restricting its appeal to earnest cineastes, Tropfest has broadened into a social occasion, particularly in Sydney, where the screenings regularly attract a 100,000-strong crowd who bring their beers and blankets down to the Domain.

“Come end of February, everyone knows it’s Tropfest weekend and that’s not just filmmakers, that’s the general public,” Eve says.

“It’s about sitting on the grass and having a bottle of wine and making a day of it. People get down there early and watch the bands. It’s definitely part of the Sydney calendar and now it’s becoming like that around the rest of the country.”


At last year’s Tropfest, Ian Thorpe sparked paparazzi hysteria following his momentous decision to dye his hair.

“I don’t do things to meet other people’s expectations about me,” he mused, shaking his raven-coloured locks. “I decided I wanted black hair at the moment.”

It might not deliver revelations of such startling magnitude every year, but Tropfest is always a busy night for gossip columnists.

Swarms of celebrities strut along the red carpet while the announcement of the judging panel generates further excitement. The judges’ identities are kept under wraps until the actual event, but big names are guaranteed.

Salma Hayek, Russell Crowe, Ewan McGregor, Samuel L. Jackson, Keanu Reeves and Nicole Kidman have all cast their votes in the past.

“It is important and a big contributing factor to the growth of the festival,” Paull admits.

“Filmmakers wonder: ‘Who is my film going to be seen by this year?’ It could be Baz Luhrmann, it could be (Superman Returns director) Bryan Singer. There’s this wide array of directors, producers and it really does expose them to the cream of the industry.”

Sometimes even the organisers don’t know who the mystery celebs will be, admits Paull.

“It’s always a concern right up to the last minute because with celebrities of that level, their schedules are so crazy that often you don’t know until the actual day. The year that Will Smith came to the festival, we only got a call from his people at 10.30am that day asking whether he could attend because his wife was in town shooting The Matrix.”

Luckily for Smith, Tropfest took pity on the gatecrashing celebrity and discovered that they could, in fact, squeeze him in.


Arts awards generally stir up anger, resentment and ugly feuds. Yet within the filmmaking community, Tropfest gets respect for its commitment to supporting young Australian talent.

Every year the festival is overwhelmed with entries. “It captures people’s imaginations,” says Eve.

“During November and December, you can’t swing a cat in the film industry without hitting someone who is making a Tropfest film or wants to make one. Some people do it for fun, others do it hoping to win.”

Tropfest is also recognised as a handy way to gain recognition in a notoriously tough industry.

“I used Tropfest as a deadline to make a short film,” says Victorian finalist Greg Williams.

“I got a lot out of it and it helped my profile when I was looking for hard cash from the AFC.”

On the back of his Tropfest nominations, Williams subsequently secured the funding to make a 50-minute drama, The Glenmoore Job, which will screen on SBS in March.


Four years ago, the world’s biggest short film festival was in grave danger of going bust.

Its failure to attract a major sponsor left it staring at a $250,000 shortfall and it was only rescued by last-minute intervention from cable channel Showtime and handouts from festival fans Nicole Kidman, Tom Cruise, Lachlan Murdoch and Russell Crowe.

Then, three years ago, Sony stepped into the breach to give Tropfest the financial muscle it needed.

“The cost of the event just keeps on growing as it gets bigger, and the event is free, so sponsorship is vital to the sustainability,” says Paull.

As well as funding the festival, Sony’s various subdivisions handle some of the details in exchange for brand synergy bonus points.

Sony Ericsson, for example, takes care of the People’s Choice SMS Award, while the electronics giant also hosts Roughcut, an educational event where members of the public can receive free filmmaking tips from expert speakers.


When Luke Eve won Tropfest last year, he received $7000 cash, an $8000 movie camera and a trip to Los Angeles to help him set up meetings with studio executives.

“I won a car for a year, too,” he says. “It was a Ford Fiesta, a plain blue car that didn’t, in fact, have Tropfest written all over it. I’ll be sorry to see it go.”

Now the festival is upping the ante with the Tropfest Feature Program. Funded by Foxtel’s Movie Network channel, this new initiative will pay for the production of one feature film each year with a budget of up to $1 million.

Any Tropfest finalists, past or present, can submit scripts and make the leap from a seven-minute short to a full-length movie.

But not everyone who’s eligible will require the program’s help to develop their own feature film. It’s certainly shaping up to be an eventful year for Eve, who’s busy developing “two TV series, three feature films and a doco”.

“Winning Tropfest opened doors and raised my profile as a filmmaker,” says Eve. “I always joke that, after that, people started to return my calls.”

The Age  – October  2002

John Polson would like to make one thing clear. He is not the world’s hottest director, as one Sydney newspaper tagged him after his new film, Swimfan, topped the United States box office on its opening weekend recently.”

Can you imagine my face when I saw that?” he says with an incredulous laugh. “It turns out only a few people thought I looked like the total wanker I thought I looked like,” he adds, with the odd emphatic expletive.

Like his larrikin accent and knockabout confidence, the Australian paranoia about being thought too full of yourself has stayed with the 37-year-old while he works in New York and Los Angeles. Nevertheless, Polson struggles to hide his excitement about his latest achievement.”

Honestly, I don’t want to overstate it, but it’s changed my life,” he says.

Actor, director and founder of the Tropfest short-film festival, Polson returned for the film’s Australian premiere last week. A teen thriller described as Fatal Attraction in high school, the film cost $US5.5 million ($10.2 million) to make and has taken $US27 million so far.

He has three more films in development: The Up and Comer, a black comedy set in the New York legal scene; Fear Itself, a loose remake of Straw Dogs ; and an untitled crime thriller.

After a rocky start – his first Australian feature, the black comedy Siam Sunset , was selected for Critics’ Week at the Cannes Film Festival but flopped badly on its local cinema release – Polson has become the latest Australian success story in Hollywood.

As the concerns about his image suggest, he has been a target of vitriol since his star has risen. “People don’t necessarily think John is talented – they think he’s just a networker,” says a long-time friend.

His friendships with the powerful – Tom Cruise, Lachlan Murdoch, Sarah O’Hare and Nicole Kidman – also draw enemy fire, to the extent that when Cruise and Kidman’s marriage ended, one paper wondered who would get custody of Polson.

One experience from the actor-director’s past illustrates just how far he has come. At 15, he was expelled from high school for a second time – for setting a few things on fire, some pranks and leaving a provocative nude photo on a teacher’s desk. The teenager knew he needed a plan before his jazz musician father, Ron, returned from overseas.

The plan didn’t extend beyond playing the saxophone and maybe working as a mechanic, but the “just do it” attitude that serves Polson so well today was already working for him.

His long-time agent, Robyn Gardiner, describes him as charismatic, driven and hard working. She recalls “discovering” him as a 12-year-old whose parents had separated: “He was being a pain-in-the-arse show-off at his father’s house. He insisted on doing an impersonation of Billy Joel singing My Life. He was hilarious.”

When Gardiner needed an actor to play a street kid in a soap opera, she asked whether he was interested. He didn’t get that role, but he was soon cast in the soap Kings, then a play with Sydney’s Sidetrack Theatre.

Gardiner says: “He took it very seriously and he really cared about it, and he was very, very talented.” She believes Polson’s combination of talent, charisma, drive and discipline is unique. “He’s got a bit of the salesman in him.”

Polson turned down an offer to study saxophone at Sydney Conservatorium, preferring acting instead.

He went on to play a draft dodger opposite Kidman in the mini-series Vietnam, a drug trafficker in the mini-series Barlow and Chambers: A Long Way From Home, a soldier in the film Blood Oath, Russell Crowe’s lover in The Sum of Us, one of three tough brothers in The Boys (for which he won an AFI award) and an ocker helicopter pilot alongside Cruise in Mission: Impossible 2 (M:I2) .

Along the way his photogenic relationship with director Samantha Lang, with whom he split in 1999, also kept his face in the papers.

In his spare time, Polson built Tropfest – born in a Darlinghurst cafe in 1993 to showcase his own film – into important Sydney and Melbourne events. More than 600 shorts were entered this year.

Gardiner may have discovered him as a child, but it was Cruise who helped him make the leap to Hollywood. While making M:I2 at Fox Studios, Cruise held regular screenings in a theatrette on George Street. One night he previewed Siam Sunset.

“Tom absolutely loved it,” says Polson. “He rang me the next night and, I kid you not, he could recite every line.”

Cruise offered to champion the film when he returned to Los Angeles to promote Eyes Wide Shut .

But not even the biggest star in Hollywood could convince the studios to risk a US release for a film without any stars. Cruise made Polson another offer, suggesting he direct a film being written by Cruise’s cousin, William Mapother.

The film didn’t happen but other opportunities opened up when the drawn-out shoot for M:I2 shifted to Los Angeles. Polson found himself based at the exclusive Raffles L’Ermitage hotel in Beverly Hills, heading to work maybe once a week. “I was taken out of my little apartment in Bondi, where I was paying, like, $200 a week and literally living in a five-star hotel – Julia Roberts in the lobby, Kevin Spacey in the sauna.”

With M:I2 as an acting credit, he approached an American agent who shared Cruise’s enthusiasm for Siam Sunset . The agent organised another screening for Hollywood execs who might want an emerging director. “By the next day, they had two, three, four offers coming in, people wanting to take meetings,” Polson says.

He met executives of Michael Douglas’ production company about directing Swimfan. “Finally, I’m told I’m meeting with Michael Douglas. I come in one day and meet with Michael for probably two hours. I describe every shot in the film. He gets up at the end, shakes my hand and says, `Good luck with the movie’. In other words, I got the job.”

In the film, Jesse Bradford plays a champion swimmer who sleeps with the new girl in town, Erika Christensen, and lives to regret it. Twentieth Century Fox bought the film for release in more than 2500 cinemas. “They knew what we had,” says Polson. “That it wasn’t Citizen Kane. It was a good, strong commercial movie that was going to strike a chord with the right audience.”

Swimfan took $US12.4 million on its opening weekend, suggesting that next time Polson will be working with a bigger budget and an A-list cast.

Cruise? Brad Pitt? “That’s a possibility,” he says. “Put it this way. The picture is going to cost $US25 million or $US30 million. You can’t spend that money on a movie without having people of that calibre.”

Director George Miller, who has known him since Vietnam, believes Polson has learnt the secret of success. “That is: follow your own path and also be a multiple-threat player . . . he’s got this wonderful optimism.”

Miller describes Polson as the Pied Piper “leading everyone along with his tune of let’s get up and have a go”.

Polson concedes he might deserve some flak for getting ahead of himself at times but knows he is not the first Australian to be on the receiving end of such criticism. “Australians love to pump you up when you’re nobody. Then, when you start to put your head above water and say, `Well, actually, I am a bit different, I am an individual and I do have a particular talent’, or whatever, they want to go after you. But the good news is that once you reach a certain level, I think they start to leave you alone.”

And what about the networking skills? “I don’t think of it as networking. I like people. That’s me. I like people on the street and I also happen to like other people who have power. But I’ll go to a party and realise I haven’t spoken to anybody who can do anything for me. The other night I went out to dinner with all these big-time film-makers. I ended up speaking to the driver of one of the actors.”

Polson’s next major project

John Polson about his latest project, ‘Sydney, I Love You’ – a feature comprising a dozen shorts compiled by some of our best talent.

“I want to say this: this is not an Opera House and Harbour Bridge movie,” John Polson tells us over the phone from his New York home. “If those two icons appear very little or at all, that wouldn’t bother me in the slightest. This is about the real Sydney.”

Taking its inspiration from the similarly themed New York I Love You and Paris Je T’aime – cinematic love letters to their respective cities – this will see some of Australia’s biggest and brightest names direct and star in twelve shorts with each one to be set in Sydney during a different month of the year.

While Polson largely divides his time between New York and Australia (he’s been back recently as he’s currently working on the screen adaptation of Peter Temple’s novel Truth, which is set to shoot in Melbourne), he was born and bred in Sydney and cites the city as being very close to his heart.

“For a long time, we’ve had incredible talent, whether it be directors, writers, actors or producers, making it big either at home or overseas. This feels like a great opportunity to pull some of that talent together for one project and showcase one of the world’s most beautiful cities.”

Another motivation between Polson and Hamilton’s idea was that it would provide an easier path for those looking to work on home turf again. “You hear a lot of people lamenting the fact that they haven’t made a film in Australia since they hit it big overseas,” Polson explains. “It’s hard to find the time and the schedule once you’re in that world, but this can be the chance to do it where it’s not a massive commitment for any one person.”

While Polson remains tight-lipped about any talent involved as of yet, he told us that the initial response to the project has been a warm one and he anticipates that all the directing talent will be home grown – a difference to New York I Love You (which among its New York directors also featured the likes of Fatih Atkin, Wen Jiang and others) and Paris Je T’aime (which among its French directorial talent also recruited the Coen Brothers, Gus Van Sant and others).

“Well, I think with the directors, there’s so much talent out of Australia already that it would be crazy to look elsewhere,” Polson explains. “That said, there are no rules about it. If we find someone who’s obsessed and has a great idea, we’ll consider it, but at this point, I don’t think we’ll be looking outside Australians. I really hope this is going to be a showcase of Australia’s best directors.”

A successful film director in his own right (with Swimfan, Hide And Seek and Tenderness to his credit), Polson hasn’t ruled out the possibility of directing one of the shorts himself, but insists his main role will be that of producer – ensuring the right people are selected for the job. “I like to find the best people and then give them freedom to tell the stories they want to tell and in that sense, it’s a trust game,” he explains. “Obviously you want to be there as a creative sounding board but I’m very much about the director’s vision.”

While the style and genre of the shorts will be left entirely in the hands of the directors, Polson admits he already has “hundreds of ideas” about how the shorts will come together to ensure that the film plays as a whole. “It’s not an easy thing to do, but I feel like I’ve got a couple of tricks up my sleeve. The composer and the DOP are going to be the same throughout.

“I also think that’s a cool idea to have characters reappear if it’s done in an organic way,” Polson continues. “The other connection is the months of the year and it will be interesting to see which directors want to jump on which month. I think a geographical throughline might be very interesting as well – if each film starts where the last film left off. But I’m aware that the biggest creative force in this film is going to come from the directors and I want to make sure we’re not making any rules just because it’s cool and gimmicky.”

While the story is obviously at the forefront, Polson is not shying away from the fact that he hopes this film “on a secondary level” will serve as an opportunity to showcase our talent, locations and resources. “If this film works the way I hope, then I think people around the world, including people in the film industry, will see Sydney in a different way to how they see it now,” Polson says. “Everyone knows Sydney as being beautiful, having beaches and friendly people, but they don’t necessarily know it’s a bit of a hub for film productions.”

In the end, Polson really just wants to show off the city he calls home. “I can tell you living in America for eleven years, nothing breaks my heart more than hearing people just talk about the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge,” he sighs. “There’s so much more going on in the city and I like to think that these twelve stories will dig deeper as to what’s really beautiful about Sydney.”

Production is set to commence on Sydney, I Love You in 2012.

SquatFest = aternative Anti-Tropfest

What began in 2001 at the infamous Broadway Squats in Sydney as a singular act of defiance against the scale and commercialism of Tropfest, SquatFest – the “Anti-Tropfest Fest” – has continued to run every year since, always on the same night as TropFest. Using a different empty building in Sydney each year, SquatFest reached its 10th anniversary in 2010.

The organisers of SquatFest are particularly critical of the way that Tropfest lost touch with its origins as local community event held in the close confines of the Tropicanna Cafe, in Darlinghurst. Unlike the massive Tropfest event, there is no selection process of films shown at SquatFest, film-makers simply bring their film along on the night.

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