Thoughts on Tropfest & the Australian Film Industry

Tropfest, Australia’s largest short film festival, screened tonight to almost 100,000 people at the Domain in Sydney, as well as at satellite events around the country and, for the first time, live on free-to-air TV on SBS.

While I’ve sometimes been disappointed with the selection of films at Tropfest in the past, this year’s offering was actually pretty great – a range of audience-pleasing comedies, a gorgeous (& beautifully scored) animation, a wonderful documentary portrait, and some great thought-provoking drama.

I do have a problem with Tropfest though. It’s probably the biggest publicly-accessible celebration of Australian film in the country, and yet it’s failing to do the right thing by our industry as a whole, by insisting on promoting the wrong message about filmmaking to a public who knows no better.

The first thing Tropfest founder John Polson said tonight when opening the festival – in reference to the 16 finalists; and I’m sorry I don’t have the exact quote – was “These guys come out here and make a film for $50, $100, and look at the opportunities they get.”

Watching the broadcast at home from the perspective of a filmmaker, it was incredibly obvious that none of these finalist films was made for $50 or $100, possibly excluding “Better than Sinatra” (the doco) or “Punctured” (the animation) – but only if you discount the costs of equipment and time that went into making them. Judging by my Twitter stream, it seems like most of the filmmaking community thought the same way:

“Nothing says “struggling filmmaker in need of exposure” like an underwater car-crash. #Tropfest” – @andcutfilm

“The last #tropfest film look like it cost about $100k. Good to know the festival is so keen to keep supporting low budget filmmakers.” – @lukebuckmaster

I have no issue with people spending a lot of money making a Tropfest film. If they’re planning to make a short film anyway, there’s no reason not to include that year’s signature item and enter it into a festival that’s going to get their work seen by tens of thousands of people. That’s what we all want for our work, and Tropfest is a fantastic vehicle for the many talented people working on film in this country to show what they’re made of.

What I have a problem with is Tropfest itself devaluing the Australian film industry – the very industry it’s apparently trying to boost – by playing down these fantastic short films as the work of emerging filmmakers trying to get a break, or – worse – your average Joe at home on his couch with a handycam.

Sure, it makes the organisers sound good to be ‘giving people a shot,’ and to some extent, that is what they’re doing, but why not tell right story? The story of actors, directors, cinematographers and VFX artists who have studied or worked in the industry for several years to get where they are. The story that film does cost money, and that for a film like “Time,” the budget was probably closer to $100k than $100. The story that this industry employs a lot of people in Australia, and that every one of the 20 or 30 crew members on most of these films deserves to be paid for his/her work.

There are festivals out there for people starting out, but in 2013, Tropfest isn’t one of them. It’s a festival for people in the mid-stages of their careers, and there’s nothing wrong with that if it’s promoted as such.

At a time when Australian features are looked down upon at the box office as ‘cheap’ compared to Hollywood offerings, or ‘not worth the price of admission,’ surely the best place to start is with the truth. If we build up our film culture as being valuable, right from the very bottom, maybe we’ll start getting better results at the top.

*EDIT* – I previously had the audience numbers at the Domain as 10,000. Thanks to @comedyfish for the correction.

16 thoughts on “Thoughts on Tropfest & the Australian Film Industry”

  1. Well said, Kirsty. Every time someone applauds a project being made for x (tiny) amount, a filmmakers bank account somewhere whimpers. The huge amounts of time, effort, passion, skill and favours deserve some recognition. Downplaying it breeds misconceptions and that don’t just begin or stop at Tropfest, but seem to affect the widening gap between real and perceived costs for filmmakers. That said, exposure for the finalists and winners is fantastic. Perhaps the filmmakers can use that to she’d some light on the process.

    1. Thanks Smac! I have no problem with the fact that Tropfest is a commercial venture and chooses what they see as being the best films of the year, whether made by professionals or not. What I dislike is that they downplay the time/study/energy that goes into getting to that level. It’s partly a media thing – they know an ‘overnight success’ story will sell & so they play up to that. But it creates an industry where the expectation is that quality can be made for cheap, rather than putting a true value on things – and that carries through a lot further, into commercials/advertising/features/etc. Definitely agree that the exposure is great – which is probably why so many professionals *are* willing to work for free or cheap on Tropfest films.

  2. I couldn’t agree more with what you have to say about Tropfest. As a film maker starting at the bottom (quiet literally) I was in awe of the vast crew list in the titles at the end, the “name” actors and some of the stunt work, such as crashing a car into a pond….
    What makes it harder then is the fact that when I do make something with the limited funds I have, the average joe sneers upon it because it doesn’t have the same production values as other “beginner” films like those shown in Tropfest.

    1. Thanks Glen. Tropfest is definitely a showcase for some of the best films in the country, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, although I would like to see it marketed that way. While the budgets and skill levels of beginners may not necessarily match up to the mid-level or professional films being entered, the great thing is that it *is* open to everyone. Good luck with your film – hopefully you’ll have some success with it in other festivals.

  3. If we don’t respect our hard work within the industry, how can we expect the viewing public to follow suit?

    It’s very sad when a festival like Tropfest loses sight of what it was originally created for. Although I wonder with the filmmakers making short films with 100K budgets. They might as well be doing a feature in the horror genre. At least then they would have a sale-able item, they could then market.

    1. Hi Hamish,

      Tropfest has grown and evolved over time, as it should as a commercial venture. My issue is that it’s holding onto its roots in the way it presents itself to the media and general public.

      The attraction for filmmakers is the huge amount of promotion they get by showing their films in front of such a large audience, that includes many of the influencers in the Australian industry. If their aim is to make mid-range or high budget features in future, it’s hard to blame them for putting their efforts into getting a short film with high production values seen. A low-budget horror is unlikely to attract the same kind of industry audience who can help them get films made down the track, and it’s also a lot easier to get equipment / locations / professional cast & crew for a few days for free, rather than for a longer feature shoot.

      Thanks for your comment.

  4. Nick Stathopoulos

    Kirsty, a thought provoking article. I think what we saw last night at Tropfest speaks volumes for the desperation felt by professional film makers here. Lets face it. We have no real film industry. Some of those films had huge budgets and crews, and the exposure is clearly what the professional level film-makers – and anyone who submitted a short – were after. And I was one of them.

    But I spent around 6 hundred dollars and had a crew of four. That’s a radically different prospect compared to the resources that some of the films had at their disposal. Perhaps there needs to be a category for films made under $1000. Generally, all finalists demonstrated a high degree of technical skill, the level of which would have been unheard of a decade ago.

    All of that notwithstanding…I found most of the films rather boring. Perhaps it was just Tropfest fatigue. (The first half-hour of the SBS broadcast was torture.) The last film presented was clearly superior on all levels to the rest of the finalists, which had me speculating whether the winner was chosen in advance. The zombie film was brilliant too. Totally sucked me in. Full of admiration for those two entries.

    1. Thanks Nick. You’re right, exposure is what all filmmakers are after, and it does say something about the Australian industry that they’re entering a short film festival to get it.

      Maybe a category for cheaper films is the answer, but I have a feeling that people would get around that by borrowing equipment and getting professional friends to work for free. Maybe cheaper films belong at a different festival. Maybe something radical has to change in the industry so that “professionals” don’t feel the need to enter short film festivals to get a break.

      I don’t have a solution, but I love that this post has generated so much discussion. It might help us take that next step forward as an industry.

  5. Kirsty,
    Thanks for that. My perception of Tropfest this year was (apart from the documentary and animation) one of slick, professional, and well-funded films. Even if the budget on paper was small, the resources (I cite the ‘Cash Cow’) available to some raised the production value through the roof, beyond what most people could hope to have access to.

    This seems more and more, as you rightly point out, to be a (to borrow a boxing/wrestling expression) a mid-card-level Festival, now, and not an entry level Festival. Perhaps a budget limit should be imposed? Perhaps stopping name stars funding them? I don’t know if either thoughts are relevant IF the Festival promotes itself as what it now is.

    Tropfest started as a means for young Filmmakers to have their work shown to an audience, and perhaps get recognition/accolade for their work. Tropfest has, at 21, come of age. It has it’s audience, and it’s obvious that the production values/budgets are a lot higher than they could have been 21 years ago.

    Now, Sydney may need a new Tropfest, one which does what the original was started for. A Festival for those Filmmakers, starting out, to showcase their wares and skills at a competitive level and with a playing field which (for them) is level.

    1. Thanks Craig,

      Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t think the animation or the doco seemed “low budget” – to me, they were both slick and professional films. I was more referring to the fact that docos *can* be made with one or two people and a camera, or an animation by one person in front of a computer. That may not have been the case here.

      I don’t think budget limits are the answer here. Some films need more money to be told in the way that they should, and if the money is there to do it, that’s fantastic for our industry. I also believe that “cheaper” films can get through to the final 16 – just that people who have been in the industry for longer, have more connections and more access to equipment and resources, are more likely to be able to fit together all of the pieces of the puzzle that are required for a film to work at the level required.

      I think you’re right – Tropfest has grown up, but it’s still trying to pretend it’s a teenager. There are plenty of other festivals out there, and maybe the problem is that new filmmakers have heard so many overnight success stories, both here and overseas, that they expect to be able to compete with those who have been around for a while, and win the prestigious trip to LA with their first project. By no means do I want to stop them from entering, but some clarity around what Tropfest is could really help.

  6. Michael Richards

    Sorry but I disagree. I find this article and the people who commented on it a bit frustrating. If John Polson changed 1 word in his sentence all these criticizers would have no argument. If he said “some” of these films are made on $50 – $100 it would have been an accurate enough comment and the rest of this article would not be justified. Its over exaggerating/embellishing a comment and deriving motivations and directing blame where its uncalled for. John Polson deserves more respect. Its definitely not fair to criticize Tropfest for the issues with the Aus film industry as they are clearly helping rather than hindering. Who cares what films cost or who gets paid at the end of the day anyway, besides the people working on them. That’s up to them to sort out. Not Tropfest. Everyone else just cares about the films screen values like how entertaining it was. I say take your money woes and industry frustration out on someone else like where the funding is coming from. Yes films are expensive to make, but lets not insinuate that filmmakers are going to be paid less in the future if this is not recognized by Tropfest. It would sound silly for John Polson to get up and tell everyone how wealthy the production was and how much everyone got paid. It works to sell an underdog. His comments are a harmless generalization. I wonder if the producer of “Time” or “We’ve all been there” take offense? I think probably not as it wasn’t directed specifically at them. And as if John hasn’t provided them door opening opportunities. If they are not annoyed or offended then who are we defending? Anyone that wants to look this hard for conflict has too much time on their hands. And I bet the only people who support this type of post are film industry types who naturally have a slight bitter edge based on personal experience as we have a crappy industry here in Australia. Everyone like a good debate, but in my opinion this article should not have been out-wayed by finding negative points about the night and if we all support this type of post we are being deconstructive to Tropfest hence deconstructive to the australian film industry. I like constructiveness and Tropfest is just that. I think the standard of film was a phenominal step up, I think the SBS pickup is going to be great for Tropfest/The Industry, the total crowd elevated to 92,000, the prizes are getting better, international expansion will lead to good things, the dec 8 change is good as Ive been to some cold and rained out Tropfest’s. This is all positive and good on these guys for being apart of the tiny minority that actually gets out there and does something good for Australian cinema. I am proud of them.

    1. Hey Michael,

      Thanks for the feedback – I appreciate it. Thanks also for pointing out that the entire article related back to the one quote – that’s something I hadn’t intended. At other times throughout the screening, and on the red carpet, the message of the festival seemed to be all about “emerging filmmakers” or “giving people a leg up.” I’m not trying to blame John Polson at all here, or even the festival itself. It was more an observation of what seems to be happening in the industry as a whole, and how I felt that Tropfest perpetuates that.

      I’m a new producer, having come from a cinematography background, but over the time I’ve worked in the industry, it seems that budgets are getting smaller, and people want films (and I’ve seen this in both drama and commercial filmmaking) cheaper, faster and with less experienced people, but still expect the same quality. I don’t blame Tropfest for this, of course, but I do think they could help to dispel the myths a little. Not by telling everyone the budgets of the films, but by avoiding playing up the ‘overnight success’ and ‘first time filmmaker’ stories to the press, and therefore, the public.

      Just to be clear, I don’t agree that Tropfest should be all about emerging filmmakers, or that there should be budget restrictions on entry. Different films cost different amounts of money, and people should be able to spend as much as they can, and attract the best talent they can to make the best film possible. In many ways, Tropfest does celebrate Australian film talent and promotes the industry in a huge way. It’s definitely a fantastic thing for Australian film, and is one of the only ways that Australian film *is* getting out to the public at the moment, which is, and can only be a great thing.

      I only started blogging in January, and wasn’t expecting many people to read this, but what I’ve written seems to have resonated with a lot of people. I’ve had over 700 page views today, compared to the usual 15 or so for my previous posts. Surely that says something about the industry’s perception of Tropfest.

      I love the Australian industry, and I think we have a huge amount of potential here. One of the things I want to do as a Producer is push boundaries, whether in small or big ways, to ensure that opportunities for filmmakers continue to grow, and from that, the projects that we create here get bigger, better, and are well-received by a wider audience. In my view, there’s an opportunity here for Tropfest, an already positive influence, to go a step further and help to create better opportunities for everyone involved in film, above and beyond the 16 finalists. No, it’s not their role to do that, and maybe it’s not something we should expect expect, but I think it would make a difference to filmmaking in Australia.

      Sorry to go on, but it was refreshing to hear the opposite point of view from you, and hopefully this more clearly outlines the intention behind my original post. I’d love to know whether you still disagree.

      Thanks for opening up the conversation and giving another point of view.

      1. Michael Richards

        Hey Kirsty,
        Yeah I can see you do appreciate Tropfest for what it’s worth and I can do see your intentions differently. I suppose when they started out it would have been all about emerging filmmakers and giving the leg up.

        I Imagine that perhaps the fresh new Tropfest’s in other countries like Tropfest Iraq for example, this might be a bit more accurate statement or view for the time being. But Tropfest in Australia has now outgrown this as the films are bigger and better and more than half of the finalists these days are contributions from established filmmakers with budgets that are hefty. So now this view is not 100 percent accurate, but I think people watching can see this for themselves anyway. For example the range of high profile actors that appear in the films are no small feat.

        Would you say that any of the 16 filmmakers that went home without a prize were portrayed as your “Average Joe” who is going to go back to sitting on the couch? I would say that is not the case and everybody can see this obviously. Even though that recurring “Leg Up” view is there. I think it does work to make somebody out of nobody just like Australian Idol does and if that’s the attitude it takes to get bums on seats (which is what Tropfest does best) then by all means play that card.

        I think as Tropfest has created something that works, they have earned the right to play by the rules they choose. Tropfest has ticked the right boxes over the years to take their event to the same level as the biggest rock concerts and Sporting Events like Wembley Stadium or AFL Grandfinal. If one of those boxes is making “somebody’s” out of “Average Joes” then that’s the way it is and we should give John Polson more credit in this decision making. I’m sure it’s much easier said than done.

        If the filmmakers are offended by this maybe they should chose not to enter. I actually was a finalist in Tropfest in 2010, I didn’t feel anything but profile building positives afterwards. And I felt no regret in my choice to be apart of the image John Polson has created and how I was Portrayed. I would not have felt any need to defended afterwards.

        Sorry If I was a bit harsh. I’m glad you still appreciated my response.

        I wish I had something constructive to say that would help the Australian Film Industry but I have no idea how to fix that leaky boat.

        Tis a Bugger πŸ™‚

  7. I looked up some stats on Film production in Australia according to ABS a little while ago and what the stats tell me is that the TV industry is big whilst the film industry in Australia was worth around $183.8m in 2007.
    That might seem like a lot to some people, but in Hollywood that’s a single blockbuster film such as The Avengers. Our entire industry is worth less than a single Hollywood film!

    On top of that I was often told that the way Hollywood invests in films is that out of 10 they’ll expect that about 5 will flop and not even break even, 2 might break even, 2 will probably make a bit of profit and 1 will make such an amazing profit that it’ll more than make up for all the losses.

    Stats for Film and post production
    At the end of June 2007 there were 2,492 film and video production and post-production
    services businesses operating in Australia. Collectively, these businesses employed
    13,844 people.
    During 2006–07, film and video production and post-production services businesses
    generated $2,028.1m in income and incurred $1,857.4m in expenses.
    The operating profit before tax of these businesses was $173.9m and their operating
    profit margin was 8.8%. Total industry value added was $886m.

    During 2006–07, 652 film and video production and post-production services businesses
    created 14,269 productions other than for television and incurred $273.2m in production costs.
    Feature films comprised 67.3% ($183.8m) of total production costs, while corporate,
    marketing and training media accounted for 26.2% ($71.7m)

    Production costs of commercials, station promotions and program promotions increased
    by an average 5.6% per year from $195.6m in 2002–03 to $243.1m in 2006–07.

    Stats for TV
    There were 10,032 employees working for commercial free-to-air and subscription
    television broadcasters at the end of June 2007.
    These businesses generated $6,812.6m in income and incurred $6,153.1m in expenses
    during 2006–07.
    The operating profit before tax of these businesses was $671.3m and their operating
    profit margin was 10.4%.
    Industry value added by commercial free-to-air and subscription television broadcasters
    was $2,150.8m.

    There were 55,546 commercial broadcast hours for first release productions made
    primarily for television during 2006–07.

    Sport accounted for the highest number of broadcast hours (22,181 hours or 39.9%), followed by news
    and current affairs (20,556 hours or 37%). Television broadcasters produced the majority of first release commercial broadcast hours (29,064 hours or 52.3%).

    Drama productions incurred the highest average cost per hour ($341,500),
    followed by children’s drama ($229,200 per hour) and documentaries ($140,900 per
    hour). Although news and current affairs and sport incurred the highest overall
    production costs, they had the lowest average cost per hour ($20,000 and $12,100

    Sourced from “TELEVISION, FILM AND VIDEO PRODUCTION AND POST-PRODUCTION SERVICES (2006 to 2007)”$File/86790_2006-07.pdf

    Hollywood Box office costs based on

  8. I think that we make a huge amount of top notch short films. We seem to do them extremely well. I think spending on shorts is really up to the person spending. It doesn’t guarantee a winner or yielding a superior product in accordance with more money spent. I made a short in 2011 and one in 2012 and I won the same award for each year. One was shot on 35 and cost me about 35 and the other I made for 9k. Its always subjective and I think tropfest is what it is. There will always be room for good or stand-out work at the top of any festival. I can’t see Polson coming out and announcing that the comp is full of professionals from ad land with access to talent and gear. He is well aware of the field of competitors. Last year I met a girl who had made a film a submitted it in Tropfest NY, she placed in the finals with her film that she made for literally the cost of a cheap sound mix at around 200 dollars. It was shot on a 60D with no lighting . It was the first time she had ever picked up a camera and directed anything. It was a clear concept and strong idea. The production was as you would expect but it was sighted for its clarity of idea. I would think it a big gamble to spend so much on and yet have none of the rights for a few years. I think its surprising that if one had 100k to spend, why not gap finance an offset feature and try for a return? 100k is a draw card to get some interest at least. I will say that in a country like ours where the standard of living is generally very high, choosing a career in the arts is choosing to have no one owe you a living. Without state finance, most countries round the world, outside Hollywood, screen industries’ are not really more than a cottage one.

  9. I think Trofest should be taken for what it is. Just a night to show off a couple of films. Give the film makers to bask in a little glory before they get back to the hard work of trying to get their next film off the ground.

    I do think it does taint peoples minds about production value. One would be “paranormal activity”. People said it was made for 10 grand and was this massive international hit. What some people did not realise is that the studio asked some of it to be re-shot (including the ending) and a shit load of money was spent on sound design and marketing. So a 10k film really became more $250,000 plus. I know its slightly off topic but it does grind my teeth when people say.. “did you see that film? They only made it for $2.00. How come your short that cots 10k doesn’t look or sound like that?”

    Anyway, happy for all the Tropfest people. You got tit shown in front of a bunch of people. Hopefully it opens a few doors for you.


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