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Stars & Streakers Steal the Stage at Sydney’s Tropfest

As festival judge Geoffrey Rush announced the winners in front of a 130,000 strong national audience, bursting at the seams to fit into Sydney’s Domain for Sydney’s Tropfest, he proudly declared; “When I look out here at the enormous crowd, and at all the talent up on stage, I see the Australian film industry is not in the doldrums!”

It was a night full of surprises;

Firstly, because it didn’t rain. (Gloomy weather had threatened to rain on Sydney’s red carpet parade, but just as every film featured an umbrella as the signature item, audiences came umbrella laden too).

Secondly, because the two “Nic”s rumoured to attend (Nicole Kidman and Nicolas Cage) didn’t show. But local hero Geoffrey Rush did – together with luminaries and Tropfest founder John Polson’s “good friends” including Heath Ledger, Zoe Carides, Superman director Brian Singer, Somersault star Abbie Cornish, comedienne Magda Szubanski and the always entertaining Adam Spencer as compere.

And thirdly celebrities and film directors weren’t the only people competing for the microphone;

As the launch began, an amorous and intoxicated audience member jumped the stage to steal the mike from John Polson and steal an opportunity with 130,000 people watching to proclaim his love and propose marriage to his girlfriend. He declared his love to her, and she declared to him “I’ve had a few vinos”. But the answer was yes, to the great relief of thousands of Australians, and a fair few security guards. It was a moment made in movie-making heaven. But the impromptu action for the night wasn’t over yet.

At the end of the screening as the night was wrapping, amid the celebrity studded award ceremony, another imposter found a burning desire to have his 15 minutes of fame. His eyes wild and his voice wilder, he burst onto stage, threatening to again steal the mike from John Polson, to proclaim a forceful statement about “our prime minister...” Security didn’t let him finish his sentence. Films weren’t the only voices being censored tonight. At first the audience and John Polson were baffled. The finalist film A Family Legacy by writer/director Rory Williamson, son of David Williamson, that had won our hearts and was still fresh in our minds, was a comedy about a cricket streaker finding an apt moment to make his mark, albeit in the nude. Now we watched, and many laughed, as a veritable streaker with clothes was briskly led away. The security guards and police didn’t seem to appreciate the irony, and John Polson seemed very relieved. It was on with the show and on with the prizes for the winning finalists;

If there’s one film genre that Sydney’s short film-makers have become well practiced in over the years, its comedy, thanks to the legendary Tropfest. And true to tradition, this year’s Tropfest and its jury favoured comedies over drama. When you watch the films with over 100,000 other people, you soon realise why- films with a larger than life plot and larger than life humour translated far better to a rather distracted audience, enjoying supper picnics with a short and often alcohol induced attention span. Add to that a comparatively small screen when seen from the back of a stadium sized park (somewhat reminiscent of watching a cinema epic on the back of an airline seat), simultaneously telecast to outdoor events in several major Australian cities, - and dramas or any films with detail were struggling to compete.

At its worst, over the years this has meant a disarming array of crass comedies and one-dimensional joke films on display to the growing Tropfest audience. At its best, it’s produced comedy brilliance that has been talked about for years after and launched several young Australian director’s international careers. While the Tropfest audience has grown, unfortunately the dearth of genuine Australian drama has often left the festivals’ focus and judging up for debate. A few wines under the summer stars, with the Sydney star spotting as good as it gets, and that soon seems irrelevant though. Tropfest has become something more about enjoying the event than perhaps the films themselves. This was a night for having fun and celebrating a film community that knows how to have fun with its film-making. And that is something festival director John Polson and Tropfest pulled off exceptionally well.

Popular with the judges and popular with the crowds was Garbage Man by director Henry Naylor. Winner of Best Original Score, it was all wonderfully absurd with its left of field novelty and macabre political cheekiness; a woman is stalked by a malevolent and malleable cardboard cut-out of George W.Bush, which she ends up hacking into little pieces and drowning in her bathtub, only to find - Drumroll.... well, you’ll have to see the film.

Other standout comedies of the night were Bomb (Best Comedy winner, People’s Choice winner and Best Screenplay co-winner) by Writer/Director Alister Grierson and This Film is Yet to Be Classified (Tropicana Award winner) by Jayce White. Bomb opened Tropfest with a bang, showing the plight of a man mistaken for a terrorist (again enough to spark political debate, a good laugh and a unsavoury sense that something is wrong with the world). The South Park styled This Film is Yet To Be Classified made pointed remarks with its animated attitude, deliciously satirizing film-making as a whole, and Sydney’s film criticism personalities and film censorship institutions in particular. Poking fun where its needed went a long way with an obviously indie film-maker friendly crowd.

Winning for Best Cinematography and the Young Talent Awards was the ‘Waterworld’-like The Razor’s Edge; listed in the program as “a lumberyard action flick about a vagrant and a baby trying for some quality time despite the interference of a large number of really unhelpful dudes”. The film may be deserving of the jury’s recognition of Marc Windon’s action cinematography and the potential of its 21 year old director Gabriel Dowrick (who gave an Oscar like acceptance speech). But it left other viewers underwhelmed and unsure what all the fuss and fighting was about. Good cinematography can only go so far without a good story to drive it. The judges no doubt viewed the film from the best reserved seating. But sadly for a short film of epic proportions the narrative and cinematic subtleties were lost on the somewhat smaller screen when viewed behind 100,000 other people.

On the other hand, left out of the awards was the beautifully simple Too Sunny Too Cold by Tania Yuki. In one of the few Tropfest films without casualties, this romantic comedy delicately unfolds with a quiet confidence; an elderly European man and elderly Japanese woman pass the time as she sits at a park bench under her parasol. With its understated characters the film was sure to miss out on the popular awards categories, though it was an unassuming highlight of an otherwise emotionally unengaging evening.

Stunt man and accomplished director Nash Edgerton proved yet again he’s far from a one hit wonder, with a 2nd time Tropfest win. Fresh from the Sundance screening of his short film Fuel he showed where-ever there’s a car involved and a director needed, he’s the man to put behind the wheel! This year it was his short comedy Lucky winning 2nd Prize that cranked his career up another gear.

True to tradition, the Tropfest first prize winner was of course also a comedy. This years ‘big gong’ –boasting a super prize pack of undreamed of riches for Aussie indie film-makers – together with Nicole Kidman’s $3000 award for Best Actor went deservedly to director/producer Luke Eve and jointly to actors Bruce Spence and Arky Michael for Australian Summer. A clever script with crafty portrayals, this was pure cinema of the characters’ own visualisation. The actors superbly portrayed two ‘derros’ (Aussie slang for derelicts) stuck to their couch, imagining a surfie holiday they will surely never have. It was a fitting ending to the program, giving recognition at last to strong character based comedy.

So... another Tropfest over; another 130,000 people returned home a little more drunk, happy and definitley more cultured, and as part of their prize the Tropfest 2005 winner Luke Eve of Australian Summer will head soon to LA to pitch for ‘bigger and brighter things’. Then talk will soon turn to next year’s Tropfest. What will be the signature item, to include in entries for next year’s Tropfest? Oh... and will Nicole Kidman will be coming!?

Wendy Dent,
Sydney Australia

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