Volume 78 / Number 17 - September 24 - 30, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower
East Side, Since 1933

Seven-minute stories on the silver screen
Tropfest NY returns this week

Friday, Sept. 26
Entertainment from 5 p.m.;
screening from 8 p.m.
The World Financial Center Plaza
Battery Park City, Vesey St. entrance
Free; tropfest.com/ny

By David Callicott

“It’s like the Olympics of short films,” says John Polson, the founder and director of Australia’s Tropfest. “It’s the biggest audience that any short film can get anywhere in the world—50,000 people on a single night.” And he’s not exaggerating. The celebration of shorts that Polson, now 43, started 15 years ago in Sydney is the largest of its kind.

But it’s likely we won’t see crowds quite that large when the American offshoot, Tropfest NY, screens in Battery Park City next Friday night. Still, the turnout will probably be huge. The festival has grown exponentially since Polson, who now lives in Brooklyn, brought it to New York in 2006. “The first year we had 4000 people,” Polson says. “Then last year about 8000 showed up. “

Although Tropfest is its own cultural phenomenon in his homeland, when Polson decided to bring it stateside, he chose to do so under the umbrella of Tribeca Film Festival. “I was directing a film called “Hide and Seek” with Robert DeNiro,” says Polson, “We got to talking about film festivals, and I pitched to him the idea of one night of Tribeca being Tropfest.” DeNiro liked the idea and in April 2006 Tropfest made its Gotham debut. “It was a little chilly outside, so the next year I suggested doing it in September, but still keeping it part of the Tribeca family. But when our two-year deal was up and Tropfest had its own momentum, we amicably parted company. This year it’ll be its own stand-alone event.”

In New York, where summer movie nights on rooftops and in city parks are wildly popular, the Tropfest venue is ideal. Set along the Hudson River at the World Financial Center Plaza, the open-air cinema offers plenty of space for the masses to kick back under the stars and in front of the silver screen. Polson and company provide thousands of chairs, but there’s also lawn space for those who’d rather spread out on blankets.

The free party kicks off at 5 p.m., with local DJs and the Aussie band Tamarama entertaining early comers. At 8 p.m., the flicks start rolling. Polson will first screen a selection of his favorites from past Tropfests. These eight shorts include a few comedies; an animated film called “An Imaginary Life;” “Lucky,” a four-minute action sequence without a word of dialogue; “Uncle Johnny,” a poetic story told through the eyes of an 8-year-old boy; a popular mockumentary about a single father raising two twin boys named “Carmichael & Shane;” and, perhaps Polson’s favorite, a “very, very funny film called ‘The Switch.’ ”

After an intermission, the audience will be treated to eight premieres that Polson culled from more than 120 submissions. To be considered for this year’s festival, a film had to abide by the following guidelines: It had to be less than seven minutes long, could not have previously been screened publicly, and had to have been created specifically for Tropfest. To ensure that this final rule was adhered to, Polson created something called the TSI, or Tropfest Signature Item—a randomly selected object that must appear somewhere in the film.

“I realized early on that people were sending us their old films from school, and that was never meant to be the purpose of [Tropfest]. It was meant to be an inspiration for people to get out and make new films. So that’s how the TSI came about. The first one was “pickle” back in ’94.” Since then, Polson has used “hook,” “manhole cover,” and “coffee bean” as but a few of his TSIs. This year, the signature item is “sunflower.”

“It’s not meant to be restrictive for filmmakers,” says Polson. “It’s supposed to provide some sort of inspiration for ideas if they don’t already have one. If someone just wants to put it in the background, that’s fine. But some people this year have made their whole film about a sunflower.”

At the end of the second segment, the audience will vote on a People’s Choice winner, while the judges—who this year include actor Billy Crudup and author Malcolm Gladwell—select their favorite. The winner is announced within ten minutes of the end of the last film. First place receives $20,000 and a chance to meet with producers.

“We want to give filmmakers a springboard to move on to bigger and better things,” says Polson. “This is a way to get your film in front of a huge crowd, and the right crowd. Some of our sponsors and some of our VIPs tend to be people who are in decision-making positions in the film business. We put these young filmmakers and these incredible shorts in front of people like Chistine Vacchon [the indie producer who is also one of the 2008 judges] who might be able to take a meeting with someone and set him up maybe with his first feature film. Anything’s possible, it’s happened before.”

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