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When Australian director Tony Rogers made the short film “Wilfred” in 2001, he didn’t expect much to come from it, save for a good laugh. After all, he’d only been directing for a year or two when his friends, writer and actor Adam Zwar and actor Jason Gann, approached him with their idea: a comedy about the relationship between the eponymous dog Wilfred and his owner’s hapless boyfriend Adam, who sees Wilfred as a man in a dog suit.
The idea was unusual, if not a tough pitch, but when the trio learned about Tropfest, a popular Sydney, Australia-based short film festival, they were inspired to give it a shot. Filmed in one week on a shoestring budget, the 7-minute “Wilfred” was screened before an audience of 100,000 at the outdoor festival and took home awards for Best Comedy and Best Actor.
The night jump-started the trio’s careers: Today, “Wilfred” is a popular sitcom in Australia that Rogers directs, in addition to a slate of other films and TV projects; an American version of “Wilfred” (starring Gann and Elijah Wood) is in its second season on FX, and a Russian version is in development.
“Tropfest was an enormous boost to my confidence,” Rogers says. “Getting a film with a concept like ‘Wilfred’ into a festival is unusual to begin with, let alone having it screened before such a massive audience. It teaches you about what you’re capable of.”
Rogers explains that Tropfest — which celebrates its 20th anniversary at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas today through Sunday — emphasizes being a content-generating platform for young talent rather than simply a competition. It’s a factor that sets it apart from other internationally renowned festivals like Cannes, whose feature-length formats and A-list expectations make it all but impossible for budding filmmakers to stand a chance. “It gave us exposure and credibility we couldn’t get anywhere else with a film like that. The momentum has been unstoppable. It’s really crazy, it’s still motoring along.”
The same could be said about Tropfest. What started as a small, casual screening at Sydney’s Tropicana Cafe, a popular gathering spot for local filmmakers, is today the world’s largest short film festival, with events held in cities including Abu Dabi, London, Berlin, Bangkok, New York and now Las Vegas. The festival is supported by some of the industry’s biggest names, including Nicole Kidman, Baz Luhrmann and Russell Crowe; alumni include actor Sam Worthington and director Nash Edgerton.
This weekend’s celebration will feature film-themed events and music performances, culminating in an “all-star” competition culled from two decades of winners (“Wilfred” will be among them); the event also will showcase six new short film submissions based on the theme “The Road to Vegas.” The competition is hosted by actor/comedian Rob Corddry and features a star-studded judging panel with Toni Collette, Rebel Wilson, Anthony LaPaglia, Griffin Dunne, Charles Randolph and Trevor Groth.
“If you had said to me that night at the first Tropfest that it would still be around now and as large as it is, I would’ve laughed at you,” says LaPaglia (star of CBS’ “Without a Trace”), who served as a judge at the first Tropfest. “It was small, it felt like a party. The first prize was a trophy made from a glass coffee cup glued to a saucer, bedazzled with fake pearls and rhinestones.”
Today, the prizes are a bit more substantial. Finalists for the festival’s main event in Sydney compete for more than $100,000 in prizes, but its youthful spirit and mission remains the same.
“To me, festivals like Cannes have lost some of their prestige because they’re so geared toward the commercial film market,” LaPaglia says. “But Tropfest has that innovative, independent spirit that used to exist in those festivals. You don’t need stars or money to make a film that can win it. Just a great idea. And even if doesn’t win, it can still expose your potential as a filmmaker.”
All of this weekend’s events are free and open to the public, and Sunday’s competition will uphold Tropfest’s traditional outdoor setup with a screening of the films at the Cosmopolitan’s Boulevard Pool.
“I think it’s important that the films are always screened outside in a somewhat natural environment. Nature gives the night context,” says Collette, who will serve as president of the jury for Sunday’s competition. The “United States of Tara” star attended the first Tropfest by chance when she was 18, after a friend “dragged” her along after a day at the beach, still in her swimsuit (“Such was the casual nature of the event”).
“It was a gorgeous night of filmmaking and freedom. It’s a real event now, but it still hasn’t lost that initial feeling of fun.”
Las Vegas might seem like an unlikely destination for an international independent film festival, but Collette says the city’s fun, spontaneous spirit couldn’t be better suited for Tropfest.
“The desert, the stars, the drained pool filled with cushions, the cocktails. Are you kidding? It’s going to be awesome!”