Tropfest organisers have insisted the short film festival will never become a paid ticket event as it signed an agreement with management consultancy EY to help form a strategy to safeguard its future.
The news comes a week after attempts to crowdfund $100,000 to help pay for consultants fell flat for organisers of the festival, which was cancelled at the end of last year due to a funding crisis. It was bailed out by sponsors CGU with the event eventually taking place on February 14 with around 90,000 attendees.
Tropfest founder and director, John Polson, and his long time business associate Michael Laverty, who ran Tropfest Festival Productions (TFP) and essentially organised the event, are now locked in a bitter dispute over the original cancellation amid allegations of financial mismanagement on the part of TFP.
Polson described the agreement with EY as the “beginning of an exciting new chapter for Tropfest and our future”.
The consultancy firm will help draw up a “long-term direction, purpose and vision” for the festival to ensure a “robust and sustainable future for the event and organisation”.
And that future will not include paid entry, Polson said, as he lamented the issues that have dogged the event and insisted that winning financial support for “a beloved and successful brand like Tropfest shouldn’t be that difficult”.
“I couldn’t be more delighted about working with EY,” Polson said in a statement. “With the challenging events of the past couple of months behind us, our organisation is now in need of an overhaul that brings with it transparency, security and governance befitting the brand we’ve become.
“With EY providing support and guidance, I’m fully confident we can work towards a robust and exciting future for this incredible, unique, Australian event.”
Polson said that since receiving the “lifeline sponsorship” from CGU which was inspired by an idea by Cummins & Partners, he and a “small Tropfest team” have been working tirelessly to get Tropfest back on its feet while exploring ways to “rebuild for the long term”.
“We have a lot of work to do, however we’ve overcome incredible odds and I know – with EY’s experience and wisdom – we can take Tropfest to the next level,” he said.
But Polson told Mumbrella before the EY deal had been struck that he would never resort to charging admission in a bid to bolster its financial position.
“Tropfest will never be a paid ticket event,” he said after being asked if it was time to start charging the public to attend. “That’s not how it started and it is not where it’s heading. This is a free community event that should be available to all to enjoy in the park for free.”
Polson: Tropfest will remain free
Polson said EY would help create a “healthy, transparent business model”, adding he could not have hoped to join forces with a better partner.
Questioned why a sustainable, long-term business plan had not been drawn up years ago using money from sponsors, Polson said: “Tropfest began as a screening for 200 people in a cafe. It’s grown organically from there. Of course we’ve had business plans over the years, but these events [the cancellation] have clearly shown it’s in need of an overhaul.
“It’s easy to say now what should’ve happened, but we are where we are, and now my only focus is on fixing it.”
In November, just days before Tropfest was due to be held, a “devastated” Polson announced he had no choice but to pull the plug owing to what he concluded had been a “terrible and irresponsible mismanagement of Tropfest funds”.
That is understood to have infuriated Michael Laverty who is reported to have threatened legal action against Polson.
Several attempts by Mumbrella to contact Laverty have been unsuccessful.
Polson, asked by Mumbrella why he did not have greater oversight of an event he created, said “every business relationship must have an element of trust”.
“And this relationship was no different,” he said. “I had no involvement in TFP apart from contracting that company to manage the business of Tropfest while I retained approval over elements of the festival such as format and timings.
“The model we were using worked successfully for many years, so hindsight is 20/20. It wasn’t until November of 2015 – and since – that I realised there were many, many things about the way Tropfest was being run that I had no idea about.
“But as I said, we’re systematically fixing those issues now and are optimistic for the future.”
He confirmed the license model “that worked successfully for Tropfest for many years failed us badly in 2015 and will not be a model we use moving forward”.
Attracting sponsorship has been difficult, Polson acknowledged, “as it has been since 1993 when Tropfest began”.
“But attracting sponsorship is especially difficult when you’re running things badly,” he added. “But again we’re working on fixing these issues. Getting financial support for a beloved and successful brand like Tropfest shouldn’t be that difficult.”
It is unclear where Polson and TFP are in relation to legal action but Polson revealed earlier this month he has “never been allowed access to Mr Laverty’s books so at this stage I don’t know all the facts”.
“I believe the truth will come out about what happened here and why Tropfest was allowed to be bought to its knees”.
Looking ahead, Polson said he “can’t wait for the next amazing selection of top filmmaking talent and films, and another rock star event for all to enjoy – for free”.
EY markets leader and Sydney office managing partner, Lynn Kraus, said EY was thrilled to be working with Tropfest to help develop its new long term strategy.
“EY has a proud history of supporting the arts in Australia because we understand the significant role it can play in our communities,” she said.
“We believe it’s important for business to give back and this is reflected in our commitment to supporting cultural events and arts programs around the country.
“Tropfest is a signature event on Australia’s arts calendar and we look forward to being part of it – helping to celebrate and recognize the passion, drive and creativity of up and coming filmmakers and ensuring they continue to have access to this important forum to showcase their talents.”
Simon Baker and Mel Gibson were among judges this year
It is unclear how much Tropfest is paying EY for its advice, or whether the consultancy is providing it for free in return for publicity.
Hollywood stars Mel Gibson and Simon Baker were amongst the celebrity judges for the festival on February 14 which was attended by 90,000 people.
Stop motion film ‘Shiny’, a commentary on consumerism and materialism and created by LA-based filmmakers Spencer Susser and Daniel ‘Cloud’ Campos, took out the top award.