Have we seen the last of Tropfest?

A look back at the Big Day Out of film festivals.

Art by Sam Randle.

Adam Spencer could barely hear what Tropfest founder John Polson was saying, even as he sat merely a metre away. They were both cooped up in a dressing room in the lead up to the annual short film festival and the rain outside would not relent. Like many years previous, Spencer was due to host the world’s largest short film festival in Sydney’s Domain. Each year, thousands of sub-seven-minute films would be submitted in the hopes of becoming one of the 16 finalists shown on the night to a crowd of fans and a panel of celebrity judges. Enthusiasm aside, Spencer couldn’t help but wonder: “Who would turn up to watch films in the rain?”

As three o’clock turned to four o’clock, the crowds began to drizzle in. A break in the weather saw an eventual turnout of close to 50,000 people, all huddled beneath umbrellas on their picnic blankets and waiting for the action. At the time, Tropfest had grown rapidly from a small event in Darlinghurst’s Tropicano cafe to what seemed like an unstoppable cultural force; each year attracting the likes of Baz Luhrmann, Susan Sarandon, George Miller, Salma Hayek, Nicole Kidman, and more — a feat that Spencer says must be attributed to Polson. But just over a decade later, the Academy Awards for backyard filmmaking are AWOL. The festival hasn’t taken place since its abrupt end in February 2019; and no future date has been carved out in Sydney’s post-COVID calendar.

Filmmakers were first initially concerned when, at the last event, there was not an announcement of a Tropfest Signature Item (TSI) for the following year. Introduced in the festival’s second year with ‘muffin’, the TSI was required to be incorporated into each film — a way of showcasing that they had been tailored and made for Tropfest. In the months that followed, filmmakers waited for a new TSI to be announced, or a sign that the festival would return. Then quietly in December 2019, the Festival confirmed that Tropfest would not return in February 2020. The festival was seemingly dead for the second time in just five years.

“One of the things that made Tropfest stand out from other festivals was that John Polson seemed to understand instinctively that it had to be more than just another film festival,” says Rake actor Matt Day, whose film The Mother Situation won the festival in 2017. “It had to be a calendar event, which of course is what it very quickly became. The film industry — and the Sydney film industry in particular — is very cliquey and everyone is looking for the right place to be, it helped that the films were truly short and more often than not entertaining, which drew in the huge crowds.”
Like many other Tropfests, the 2012 festival was a rainy affair. Winner Alethea Jones could barely hear Geoffrey Rush announce she had won, before hurrying out on stage and being warned by Cate Blanchett that the weather had bisected her trophy. Her film Lemonade Stand was written by a friend, Tim Potter, and made hurriedly in six weeks. It featured a hybrid of 2D animation and live-action footage. While stylistically impactful, it was a creative choice spawned out of the impracticalities of filming a child running around with a knife on such a tight budget. Like many other winners, Jones’ prize was an all-expenses paid trip to the United States. Jones had not initially planned to use the trip straight away until she received a call out of the blue from Polson. “He kind of kicked me out of the nest,” Jones said. “He told me ‘You’re going to America, we have a bunch of events in America, you have to use your prize.’”

Polson had called following several previous winners not taking up the opportunity. “I’m really glad he did that because I get the vibe that women, especially young women, sometimes wait till they’re perfect,” Jones mused. “Whereas I have noticed that men just threw themselves into these huge situations in a fearless way. And I was waiting to be ready. I didn’t feel ready.”

Jones acquired an agent shortly after her arrival in America. “I don’t think the Australian [film] industry knew what to do with me at the time. I felt from my perspective, the young filmmakers that were rising in the industry were making these really powerful dramas and I was making these goofy, bright comedies. And when I got to America, people knew exactly what to do with me. I got my first job on the back of Lemonade Stand.”

While largely a family event, full of picnic blankets and food trucks, it also provided many young Australians their first brush with the entertainment industry. Years before comedian Dan Ilic was a finalist in 2011 with his film Y2Gay, he was an 18-year-old attendee at Tropfest 2000 and managed to collect a VIP lanyard from a leaving celebrity. “I can tell you being inside a VIP area legitimately is a whole lot less fun than being inside a VIP area illegitimately,” Ilic said. “You really feel like once you’ve crashed a VIP area that you’ve won something. You’ve won the prize of being amongst people who are richer and better looking than you. It’s a great prize for a kid from the suburbs who never thought he’d ever work in show business legitimately.”
After Rob Carlton’s mockumentary Carmichael and Shane, starring his infant sons, won Tropfest 2006, Carlton and his wife were invited abroad to the Tropfest showcase at the Tribeca Film Festival. This trip would be their first time away from their young children. “By the time we got to the festival, I was missing them terribly,” recalls Carlton. “No words can describe just how magical it was to see their faces again, except this time on a 60ft screen in Battery Park, with the Statue of Liberty in the background.”

But Tropfest has not been without its flaws. In 2012, the Arts Law Centre of Australia criticised the festival for making finalists sign over the exclusive licence and rights in perpetuity to their films (a decision that Tropfest reversed in 2016). Three winners between 2008 and 2013 were accused of plagiarism, and in 2013 the winning film, Bamboozled, was accused of being transphobic and homophobic. The film depicted a man reconnecting and hooking up with his recently transitioned ex, only to find out it is a prank set up by a TV show. Speaking to the Guardian in 2016, Polson said, “We’re not perfect. I know [with] that film if we had our time again it might have gone down very differently. But you’ve got to take those on the chin and say, ‘OK, let’s try and do better next time.’”

Throughout its run, the festival also struggled to escape critiques that it rewarded filmmakers who were firmly in the industry or Tropfest alumni, rather than more emerging or diverse voices. When the festival was cancelled due to financial mismanagement in 2015, filmmaker Michael Taylor rejoiced, writing in Mumbrella that Tropfest “required filmmakers to submit unoriginal stories with cheesy dialogue, heavily-inspired low-brow humour and the inclusion of a B or C grade celebrity to be considered for selection.”

From 2001-2010 a rival anti-corporate event called ‘Squatfest’ was run in abandoned and improvised venues around the city. Showing their own program of films, the artists rejected the rising budgets and corporatisation of Tropfest Finalists.
When asked if, in his perspective, the festival favoured big names, Matt Day said: “Maybe, sometimes. Was that always a bad thing? I don’t think so. The massive crowds and the attention the festival drew speak[s] for itself. It had a hugely positive impact on the industry, and we can only hope for something this ambitious and wildly successful. Our industry sure could use it.”

The 2015 cancellation sent greater shockwaves than the one that came in late 2019. At that point, Tropfest had grown to be an international affair, with subsidiaries running to different grades of success in New Zealand, South East Asia, the US, and Arabia. One month out from the festival, Polson released a statement saying that the festival had been cancelled due to “terrible and irresponsible mismanagement.” Legal action was launched against the company licensed with the running of the festival and the bill to revive the event was picked up by sponsor CGU Insurance. Fans rallied to the revived festival on Valentine’s Day, with 100,000 people attending the rescheduled event in Centennial Park. Twelve months later, the location was shifted to Parramatta Park, now under the administration of a not-for-profit. Crowds began to dwindle to the 40,000 mark (which in fairness, is still as big as the SCG) and weather conditions ranging from extreme heat to wild storms would put a damper on the following years.

It’s hard to blame Tropfest’s decline on one specific factor. Streaming services and YouTube have provided newer ways to consume content, but it doesn’t replace the in-person elements that attracted crowds and celebrities alike. Relocating to Parramatta moved the festival away from the traditional crowds of the Inner West and Eastern Suburbs as well, and the change to a Saturday night instead of Sunday introduced more events for the festival to compete with.

In a recent email, the City of Sydney said that they were not involved with any upcoming Tropfest events and had not been associated with the event for many years. The City of Parramatta also confirmed that they were not working with the festival at this point in time.

When asked for comment, Polson said, “After laying low during the COVID-19 pandemic, we are now finally entertaining opportunities for relaunching Tropfest, hopefully for our 30th anniversary in 2023. While conversations are still very early, we are hopeful that we will be able to announce plans about our next steps in the very near future.”

While any renewed push for Tropfest would have to find a place in Sydney’s calendar between the Sydney Film Festival and the upcoming SXSW, hopefully, we will soon see the return of a grassroots platform for filmmakers.