Tuning into Tropfest

As the inaugural Tropfest NZ short film festival launches in New Plymouth, we hear from the founder and director John Polson.


After starting in Australia twenty years ago and then spanning the globe, short film festival Tropfest has finally come to our shores. As the NZ leg launches in New Plymouth this weekend, we hear from founder and director John Polson.

“As a relatively small country, it’s incredible how much real film talent New Zealand produces. We want to tap into that talent and provide a launch pad for it.”

Sixteen short films by NZ filmmakers premiere at Tropfest NZ on  Sunday 27 January, with the winning film announced on the night.

The weekend starts on Saturday with Roughcut NZ, an industry day of lectures, conversations and workshops. Guest speakers include South Pacific Pictures’ CEO John Barnett, film makers Katie Wolfe and Michael Bennett.

Tell us a bit about your background.

I started as a high school drop out, then worked my way up through petrol pump attendant to actor (when I was 17). I’m now a producer and director of film and TV and the founder of Tropfest, the world’s largest short film festival.

How did Tropfest start? How has it grown since then?

I started it by accident as a screening at a cafe in Sydney of a short film I made. I was expecting just a dozen or so people but 200 showed up. So I put the word out that we were going to hold a festival  - 9 people made films and 1,000 showed up that first year. Since then we’ve grown exponentially and, most recently, around the world as well.

How does it differ from other short film festivals?

It’s free, it’s outdoors, and it’s only one night.

How did NZ join the festival circuit? Why has it taken so long?!

I’ve had my eye on NZ for years – like much of the rest of the international film community. I just needed to make sure it was the right time and place and with the right partner. As a relatively small country, it’s incredible how much real film talent New Zealand produces. We want to tap into that talent and provide a launch pad for it.

What opportunities does it create for filmmakers – within NZ and internationally?

It’s a great opportunity to turn a lot of hard work into some actual headway. Too often, shorts films are sweated over and then uploaded to the internet or whatever but not a lot happens after that. Tropfest brings a lot of people – many of them industry decision makers – to see what the latest young filmmakers have to say, and maybe offer opportunities for getting to that next level.

Tell us your favourite Tropfest success story.

One of the best would have to be Wilfred. It started as a $500 short film that was entered into Tropfest Australia 2002. It won best comedy, went on to become a successful TV series in Australia (on SBS) and then last year became a hugely successful TV series in the US (on FX) starring Elijah Wood. We couldn’t have dreamed up a better trajectory, but there are many other examples of films – and people involved – that have had a similar run.

How involved are you, especially as it grows, and what keeps you involved?

I speak to the various teams around the world most days or at least a couple of times a week to discuss strategy or whatever else is going on. I’m mostly involved in the direction of the whole Tropfest idea, the bigger vision for where we are going. I stay involved because I love it, and I wish I had something like it when I was starting out as a filmmaker.

What are your plans for the future of Tropfest in NZ?

I’d love to see it get really big here. Maybe one day soon we could have live, simultaneous venues in New Plymouth and Auckland and Wellington and elsewhere. I can imagine a time in the not too distant future when much of New Zealand tunes in for one night per year to see what’s on the minds of the country’s most creative and fresh film minds.

Is it all for the love of film and filmmakers? What’s your business model for the festival?

Yes, it’s all for the love of film and filmmakers. Our business model is to sustain ourselves and grow, strengthening the platform for anyone with talent and an idea.

What’s your big idea for 2013?

To continue to bring people together from all over the world to tell their stories, in different languages, and from different cultures.

About Tropfest NZ

Tropfest NZ will present its first stand-alone short film festival on Sunday 27th January 2013, at the TSB Bowl of Brooklands in New Plymouth. Open to the public and free to attend, this event has been designed to encourage Kiwi filmmakers from the grassroots level up.

Tropfest NZ ambassadors include actors Sam Neill, Martin Henderson and Robyn Malcolm, Taika Waititi, director/producer/actor Katie Wolfe and director/screenwriter Vincent Ward.
The winner will receive return economy tickets to Los Angeles, 5 days accommodation and $500 cash courtesy of the Motion Picture Association (MPA) and The New Zealand Federation Against Copyright Theft (NZFACT).

Tropfest recently launched in Arabia and in the USA with Tropfest Las Vegas and Tropfest New York.

Written by

The Big Idea Editor

24 Jan 2013

The Big Idea Editor Cathy Aronson is a journalist, photo journalist and digital editor.

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