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.