At age 27, all John Polson wanted was a place to show his short film.
He couldn't afford a cinema, so asked Sydney's Tropicana Cafe if he could screen his film for 10 friends on a TV in the corner.
"When I got there on the night there were 200 people. The film was pretty crappy, but it didn't matter, we had a good time.
"I got up on a chair at the end of the night and challenged everyone to make a movie so we could do it again. Three months on, there were nine short films to show, and 1000 people came along to see them."
Tropfest was born.
Twenty years later the festival screens all over the world, and tomorrow, New Zealand's inaugural event will descend on the Bowl of Brooklands.
Polson arrived in the province yesterday and was excited to reach what he called Tropfest's "emotional home" in New Zealand. "I know the films are strong but there'll be nothing like seeing them in front of the locals.
"The great thing about coming to a town like this is that there's an excitement in the air."
The festival was open to any Kiwi with a decent idea, camera, and interest in making a seven-minute film that contained Tropfest's specified item - a gumboot.
Polson said the quality of New Zealand entries had stunned him.
"I was only expecting to choose eight finalists, but they were strong enough for us to pull 16.
"I've got to say I was surprised."
The New York-based Australian said it was the flurry of talent emerging from New Zealand, led by Peter Jackson, which encouraged Tropfest NZ.
"We've been watching New Zealand for a while but it wasn't really until Taft came to us and said they'd be interested that we said yeah, why not.
"I guess you'd usually think Auckland or Wellington - I didn't know New Plymouth - but the more we looked into it the more it seemed like a perfect fit."
As well as an interest in short film, Polson has directed feature films including Hide and Seek, starring Robert De Niro and Dakota Fanning, which opened at No 1 at the US box office.
He said he had no idea the free event would blossom into the largest short film festival in the world.
"It's amazing that it's taken on this life. I take a little credit for starting and sticking with it, but in a way it just took on a life of its own."
Polson said it didn't matter who you were, or how much money you had, it was about having a strong idea and executing it. "Tropfest is about celebrating this young New Zealand talent you may have never heard of - they're incredible storytellers."
The festival has many a success story, including Sam Worthington, who won best actor at Tropfest 2005 and went on to star in Avatar.
"Another great example is a film entered in 2002 that cost probably $500 called Wilfred. It won best comedy and was turned into a TV series in Australia and more recently a TV series in the US starring Elijah Wood."
As well as looking forward to seeing the illustrious Bowl in real life, Polson said he anticipated what was to come for New Zealand. "Mostly I'm excited about 2014 because I think if we can come this far in our first year, then the sky's the limit."
A winner will be announced at the conclusion of tomorrow's event, which begins at 6.30pm.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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