Copyright champion: Actor-director John Polson crusades for artists' rights


Australian actor/director/producer John Polson is being honored with the Motion Picture Association’s Asia-Pacific Copyright Educator Award (A.C.E.) at CineAsia 2012 in Hong Kong. "It is a great honor for CineAsia to be able to single out the achievements of John Polson,” notes Robert H. Sunshine, executive director of the event. In addition to being an award-winning actor and director and founder of Tropfest, Polson has made great strides with the MPA in promoting copyright education.

Over the past 18 months, Polson has turned his attention toward the major issue facing filmmakers across the globe—the need to protect the work of the creative industry against illegal file sharing. He has done this in a number of forums including a Motion Picture Association film workshop in Beijing, a new partnership between Tropfest and the Motion Picture Association, and in launching new piracy research in Australia.

Commenting on the CineAsia Award, Polson states, "It's hard to imagine what could be more important than protecting the rights of filmmakers and storytellers. When someone has the talent and drive and persistence it takes to make a great film—long or short—I believe it's incredibly important to respect that hard work, and for that person to be rewarded fairly so that they can continue to make more films. Piracy disrupts that level playing field, and discourages—even disallows—that person to build a viable livelihood and career in their chosen profession. Needless to say, this is an issue that I'm incredibly passionate about—in my capacities as a film and TV director and producer and as the founder of Tropfest, of course."

The Intellectual Property Awareness Foundation (IPAF) in Australia recently presented new research data that revealed that 27% of Australians access illegal movies and television content on a regular basis, with 10% of those doing so at least once a week or more. Polson was very surprised about the level of access. "Yes, more than a quarter of the population, which is an incredibly scary thing to consider. And about a third of these people are persistent downloaders—so this isn't just about people stumbling across a site and somehow downloading something 'without realizing it's illegal.’ This is a chronic problem online. The good news is these numbers are slowly starting to drop, so I think this important message is getting out there, but more work needs to be done to ensure that filmmakers' work is respected."

Due to different television ratings periods in Australia, many American TV programs had been shown there several months after their U.S. airings. This increased the amount of illegal downloads. To counteract that problem, more U.S. TV shows and movies are now screened in Australia simultaneously. Asked about the importance of delayed screenings, Polson responds, "Interestingly, having to wait weeks or months doesn't seem to be a big factor. Shows that are delayed by a couple of hours are often pirated. I think a big part of this issue is simply education about how to watch something legitimately. People may not know the correct and legal way to watch a TV show or film; if they did, I believe most people would happily download and watch legitimately, as inherently I believe people have a decent sense of fairness. So part of the issue here is the film and telecommunications' industries commitment to educating the online audience, to make sure they know how to access content via the right channels when they go online. Which is why I feel it is important to be involved."

Polson originally had his eyes on being a top saxophone player, a skill he still excels at. But at 17 he took up acting, appearing in a number of theatrical productions. By the time he was 21, he was also appearing in films and on TV in various series and productions. He built up a strong portfolio of appearances and played with many major Australian and international stars including Bryan Brown in Blood Oath, Russell Crowe and Jack Thompson in The Sum of Us, and David Wenham and Toni Collette in The Boys. He received many accolades for his performances, but is currently concentrating on producing and directing. "I love acting, and would never say never, but I also love the work I'm doing now and have been too busy to do much acting. But yes, I'd like to think I will keep on acting—at least from time to time—throughout my career."

In the midst of his acting career Polson founded Tropfest, a short film festival that has grown to become the world's largest showcase for shorts and the only truly global one. It started with 200 friends in a café in Sydney in 2003 and now regularly attracts crowds of 100,000 in the Sydney Domain every February. Growing far beyond that one night in Sydney, it now occurs at different times of the year in cities as diverse as Abu Dhabi, London, Bangkok, Berlin, Toronto and New York. The first New Zealand Tropfest will be staged in 2013. Filmmakers are limited to seven minutes and their short must contain the year's signature item. (In New York’s 2012 event, it was a bagel.) All films must be world premieres.

"We currently have Tropfest events in something like 14 cities around the world. Some of those are linked simultaneously, as in Australia where we have multiple cities connected during the one event," Polson notes. "But filmmakers from just about any country in the world can submit films to at least one of those events. The five-year vision is to have Tropfests in most major territories, and to continue to bring the short film format into the mainstream, as well as continue to build the most powerful launch pad in the world for a young filmmaker’s career. Hard to believe this all grew from one screening in a café in front of 200 people." In fact, the café was the setting for a short film Polson made. He asked the owner if he could screen the film there for some friends. Two-hundred people turned up that night in 1993 and the festival was born.

Two years after starting Tropfest, Polson made his first film as writer-director. The ten-minute short What's Going On, Frank? starred Polson alongside Hugo Weaving (The Matrix), one of many of his Australian co-workers who have gone on to international fame. The next step was feature film directing with his 1999 debut Siam Sunset, an Australian comedy-romance with British star Linus Roache. Several international features followed including Tenderness, which reunited Polson with his Sum of Us co-star Russell Crowe, but this time they were on different sides of the camera. Polson has also directed a large number of U.S. TV series episodes. Australian Simon Baker says that he was a bit unnerved when Polson directed episodes of his hit TV show “The Mentalist.” “John has a strong Australian accent, and I had to struggle to keep my American accent on the show.”

Polson is currently producing (and directing one segment of) Sydney Unplugged, a compilation feature with 12 directors each filming a separate story in Sydney. Attached to direct are Alex Proyas (Dark City), David Michôd (Animal Kingdom), Ivan Sen (Toomelah), John Curran (The Painted Veil), Kieran Darcy-Smith (Wish You Were Here), Liev Schreiber (Everything Is Illuminated), Rachel Ward (Beautiful Kate), Ray Lawrence (Lantana) and Russell Crowe (Texas). Two Australian actors will be making their directorial debuts—Anthony LaPaglia and Toni Collette. "It's a very complicated and challenging project," Polson says, "with so many different directors and other players involved, so it's taking longer than we had hoped! Hopefully, we will get it on the road in 2013."