Though not exactly a household name in America, actor/director John Polson (Swimfan, Hide and Seek, the upcoming Tenderness with Russell Crowe and Laura Dern) is a cultural hero in his native Australia. The creator of Sony TropFest, the world's largest short film festival, Polson came up with the idea for his short film celebration in the early 1990s when he was looking for a place to debut his own short, Surrey Hills: 902 Spring Roll. The fest has since grown into the premiere creative platform for aspiring filmmakers in Australia, with live screenings in Sydney and simulcasts via satellite to outdoor settings in Melbourne, Brisbane, Canberra, Perth, and Hobart, and in 2006, made its U.S. debut at the Tribeca Film Festival. Polson took time from prepping his first stand-alone festival in Manhattan to talk Trop.
How did you bring up the idea of starting a U.S.-based TropFest to your Hide and Seek star -- and Tribeca Film Festival creator -- Robert DeNiro?
We were shooting the film in January and February of 2004, which is when I usually travel back to Australia for TropFest. As a result, Bob kindly agreed to do a video message for us to play back in Australia. During production, we naturally talked about our festivals and eventually came up with the idea of TropFest@Tribeca, which we did last year. It was a great night -- we had all these films about manhole covers. It was so crowed though, we decided to move it outside of the regular calendar. It had enough momentum on its own.
How many of the entries do you actually watch?
We had 161 films entered this year and I saw them all. But I didn't do it by myself; we had a panel of two or three people to help narrow it down to 35 entries or something like that, and then we brought in another panel with some documentary directors to narrow it down to the final bunch. We only have three rules for the filmmakers: their submissions have to be premieres, they have to be less than 7 minutes, and they have to have the chosen item.
By chosen item, you're referring to the TSI, the TropFest signature item, which you insist all entries reference in their plots. This year's TSI was "slice": Were you surprised by the interpretations?
In the films, we have pizza slices, lemon slices, and in one, the screen is sliced down the middle. It's really interesting to see, but will be even more interesting to see with an audience. Oftentimes the films you think will go over well do poorly and vice versa. In the 15 years or so I've been doing this, I've never been able to pick the winners.
Does having the judges see the films with the audience make a difference in their decisions?
What matters is the live audience response. The judges' opinions, even if they're not aware of it, are affected by crowd reaction. In some ways, this is the complete opposite of this trend of sitting at home and watching movies on computers and online. This festival is a celebration of community events; it's about getting out and watching fun films with friends.
Given that you're also a film and television director, how much of your time is spent working on the festival?
It's always going on in the background. Every day I respond to emails, I talk to someone on the phone. It's kind of a hobby for me; really, it's my passion. It's also something of a happy accident - it's a much bigger event in Australia, where people now turn to it to look for the next big things in film. If I were starting out, it would be a great place to have your work seen by a lot of respected people. I'm 42 now, I only wish there had been a TropFest when I was 25.
Any last minutes plans?
At this point, we've still got to lock in our last couple of judges [actress Rose Byrne, director Griffin Dunne, and director Bennett Miller are already confirmed], who we haven't announced yet. So basically going down, looking over the floor plans, making sure our sponsors are happy. [Primary sponsor] Target has been incredible - they came on board in a pretty significant way even though the fest is not a known entity in the States, which helped give us legitimacy to other advertisers. Overall, this a people's festival, this is not highbrow. The films are high quality, but they're also accessible and don't take themselves too seriously. We don't care about your budget, we don't care how much access you had to great equipment, just as long as the film is good and the performances are good. You can shoot on a mobile phone for all we care, as long as it's quality.
The first annual TropFest will take place at the World Financial Center Plaza in Manhattan on Sunday, September 21, 2007 at 5 p.m.