Outdoor movie screenings are nothing out of the ordinary in New York; Bryant Park and Central Park offer a few well-attended film series every summer, while Brooklyn's Rooftop Films is another beloved seasonal standby. But nobody does open-air cinema quite like Australia's Tropfest, the short-film festival that has emerged as something of a cultural touchstone every February in Sydney.
The event's shared senses of community and cinephilia evidently represented a solid match for the organizers of the Tribeca Film Festival, which hosts its own waterfront "drive-in" venue at the World Financial Center. Hence Friday evening's Tropfest@Tribeca, a 16-film program pairing newly commissioned work with a few of the classic entries from the homeland. The free films drew a crowd of roughly 5,000 viewers to Tribeca, with native Australians Naomi Watts, Anthony LaPaglia and filmmaker/Tropfest founder John Polson joining VIP New Yorkers Liev Schreiber, Famke Janssen and Matt Dillon among others. Director Matthew Bonifacio's The Watering Hole claimed the night's top prize of $2,500 and Final Cut Pro software.
I caught up with Polson last night at a reception at the Tribeca Grand Hotel, where he and his pals celebrated the inaugural event. He said he started Tropfest almost by accident in 1993, when a standing-room-only crowd showed up at Sydney's tiny Tropicana Café to view his new short film. "It was set at the Tropicana, and I had nowhere to screen it," he told me. "And it seemed like the best place. So I approached the owner of the café, and I said, 'Do you mind if I just have a cast and crew screening? Like 20 people?' And he said, 'Fine.' And I showed up on that night, and there were like 200 people there. People told their friends, and Australia is a very celebratory culture; people are, like, 'Hey, someone's screening a film--let's go watch it.' At the end of the night, I said, 'OK, we're going to have a festival.' "
The festival has since grown into something like the Super Bowl of short film, typically welcoming more than 100,000 people and paring down a program from 800 entries. The Tropfest catch is that each short must be under seven minutes and must contain a "signature item" announced with the call for entries (Tropfest@Tribeca required filmmakers to incorporate a manhole cover into their stories).
Polson eventually went on to direct American features including Swimfan and Hide and Seek, the latter of which starred Robert De Niro. "I obviously knew about his festival, but he didn't know about mine," Polson said. "But I told him about it, and I just thought maybe it would be great for us to do something together. It's really taken that long between Bob and Jane Rosenthal and trying to figure out where it would be, and how we would do it. And here we are."
Watts told me that Tropfest@Tribeca was her first time attending the series. "Well, because I left Australia 10, 12 years ago," she said. "And I've never been there at the right time. So it's great to be able to see it. ... It's just a great forum to encourage young filmmakers. How can you not support that?"
LaPaglia also praised Tropfest as an avenue for up-and-comers to exhibit their work on a large scale. "The great thing in Australia because the film industry is so small, it gave them an opportunity to break into the business," he said. "To make a five-minute film that got a chance to be seen and get notoriety. And a number of people have come out of there and gone on to direct full-length features. And what it does--the thing I like about it the most--it really encourages something that is kind of gone, especially in American filmmaking, which is grass roots. Young kids bring in ideas and they're not squashed by the whole corporatization of film and television. If it's done right, it starts a whole kind of underground--until they get co-opted by Universal or whatever. But at least people have the chance to get started and experience making a film and expressing themselves if they have an idea. Something like Tropfest can be an outlet. You don't have to have Bruce Willis in your film to have it seen."
For more Tropfest@Tribeca coverage, check out my NYC film blog The Reeler April 30.