As an aspiring filmmaker in Sydney, Australia, more than two decades ago, a young Polson decided that the only way to get his short film shown was to screen it himself.
“I couldn’t afford a cinema so I screened it at the local café where I shot some of the film and all these people showed up,” he said. “Twenty-one years later [Tropfest] is pretty massive, especially in Australia. Hundreds of thousands of people come to the event on one night, plus there's a live television broadcast.”
Polson is describing the genesis of the world's largest short film festival, now legend in his native country and the world over. It was formerly known as the Tropicana Fest, named after the café where Polson showed his film so many years ago.
With Tropfests now taking place in China, India, New Zealand, South East Asia, Israel and France, the festival that features short films of up-and-coming artists has made New York one of its strongholds. It celebrates its second year in New York June 22.
While this city is already a hub for filmmaking, Polson’s festival gives locals looking to advance their careers in the industry an affordable means of promoting their own talent. Submissions to the festival must be no more than seven minutes long. Filmmakers don’t usually submit films that are the maximum length, Polson noted, and the short time frame can keep the budget reasonable.
“It’s a calling card. It’s better than a resume. It just really shows people, ‘Hey this is what I can do’ so when I present my longer format stuff, I have something to back it with,” said Michael Neithardt, 38, of the Financial District, whose film “I’m Happy” was a finalist in last year’s Tropfest.
By giving visibility to the festival with the participation of celebrities like this year’s host, Liev Schreiber, and judges Fisher Stevens, Leonard Lopate and Malcolm Gladwell, Tropfest gives an aspiring artist the publicity push they need.
Previous winners include the original film that inspired the FX series “Wilfred” as well as actors Sam Worthington (“Avatar”) and Joel Edgerton (“The Great Gatsby.”) The festival winner is also awarded $20,000.
Filmmaker Alexander Poe’s short film “The Break-Up Tour” came in second at last year’s Tropfest. His first full-length feature film “Ex-Girlfriends” came out at the end of 2012 and is available on Hulu, Amazon and iTunes. Poe said the festival has functioned as a support for his work.
“The kind of exposure Tropfest gave [“The Break-Up Tour”] was helpful to me as a filmmaker really,” Poe said. “They definitely helped getting it out via their social media network on Facebook and Twitter once we came out in theaters in New York and iTunes and Google and all that.”
Entries must be made specifically for Tropfest and the film must incorporate a “Tropfest Signature Item” which is unique to each festival in each location. New York’s 2012 Tropfest signature item was a bagel. This year, a bridge must be included in each film.
And speaking of bridges, the festival crosses one this year as it moves from Bryant Park to Prospect Park in Brooklyn. The festival starts at 3 p.m. at The Nethermead. While it’s free to attend, reservations on the fest’s website are recommended.
Polson considers Brooklyn the festival’s natural home.
“The festival really was destined to be in Brooklyn from day one, but last year was our first year,” he explained.
“Brooklyn is already our spiritual home if you like. I don’t say that because I live there. I say that because the majority of our audience, certainly the majority of our filmmakers, live here. It’s increasingly becoming known as a hub for creative energy.”
Polson anticipates a lively selection of entries in this year's festival, asserting that the short, low-budget film format can elicit work that is artistically pure.
"I think the mistake that a lot of young filmmakers can make is to have these favorite films, favorite directors and you tend to want to make films like them but really what audiences I think respond to is finding a new original voice that somehow relates to them," Polson said.
"I encourage filmmakers to have the guts to be brave, to tell their stories, to tell them the way they want to tell them."