Ten years ago two young filmmakers were hungry to learn their craft but frustrated by the clique that wrapped itself around the so-called film culture. They came up with a concept that aimed to demystify movie making for professionals and fans alike. Gary Doust and Matt Wheeldon called the idea Popcorn Taxi. The basic plan was simple; every couple of weeks they would program a film and invite the filmmaker to participate in a conversation with the audience. There would be a couple of steadfast principles that would set Popcorn Taxi apart from other film events in the market; one, it would be a not for profit, not for competition gig and two, the interviewer would always play second fiddle to the audience, who were permitted, indeed encouraged, to guide the conversation (with, admittedly, occasionally bizarre consequences).
Doust remembers that the idea met with equal measures of scepticism and encouragement. Neither of Popcorn Taxi's creators had experience in event management, exhibition or distribution, but the event would live or die on their ability to source “the product” (ie the films) from distributors who, understandably, like to keep a tight grip on the marketing and talent (both in front of and behind the screen). Popcorn Taxi set up shop at the (now defunct) Valhalla cinema in Glebe, in inner city Sydney, in late 1999 and success came quickly. In its first year of operation, Popcorn Taxi hosted programs with the makers of The Blair Witch Project, filmmaking legend Wim Wenders, oscar-winning cinematographers John Seale and Dion Beebe, as well as a live commentary with the fx team behind The Matrix. By the end of 2000 the Australian Film Institute had recognised Popcorn Taxi with a Byron Kennedy Award.
Since then Popcorn Taxi has attracted an impressive roll-call of film creators: Guillermo Del Toro, Ang Lee, Richard Kelly, Gillian Armstrong, Danny Boyle, Errol Morris, Phillip Noyce, Roger Corman, Richard Linklater, and Philip Glass, and has regularly staged meet the filmmaker events across Australia (its base of operations remains in Sydney). With the Valhalla sadly long gone, Popcorn Taxi's major screening venue is now GU at Bondi Junction.
Now on the eve of Popcorn Taxi's tenth anniversary, Doust looks back and struggles to find a short list of highlights because there are simply “too many”; he is particularly proud of the night indie fave Kevin Smith performed what amounted to a three-hour stand-up routine before a gob-smacked sell out audience at the State Theatre. But it was another indie legend, Quentin Tarantino, who brought home the perils inherent in promoting live events. In 2004, the director had agreed to an evening with Popcorn Taxi and Doust had booked the concert hall at the Opera House. “It sold out and then three days before the show Tarantino cancelled (for health reasons).” Tarantino, says Doust was mortified and pledged to make it up to his fans; he finally appeared at Popcorn Taxi in August this year.
Two years ago Doust took a big “step back” from operational responsibilities at Popcorn Taxi to concentrate on a burgeoning career as a documentary filmmaker and handed the reins over to Chris Murray and Peter Taylor of Neon Pictures, a small but vigorous media company with interests in everything from feature films to TV, web-based media and graphic design. (Wheeldon left the company eight years ago to pursue screenwriting).
Murray gives the immediate impression of a man who thinks fast on his feet. A seasoned media operator, he takes the title of creative director at Popcorn Taxi. Journalist, broadcaster and now event manager, Murray was the start-up editor for the Australian edition of Empire, and he's applied a charge of pure fan-boy/girl adrenaline reminiscent of his former masthead to the energy of the event which differs from the staring-at-shoes ambience which is more typical of “film culture events”.
Murray laughs and agrees: “To be honest the reason I'm still doing it is that I can't do it unless I like it,” he says, “and I love it if it's the guest I want and the film I want and I'm in the mood that says: 'this is going to be unreal'. It's like having a massive party; Tarantino was like that.” The last two years for the event has seen a rise in profile and success (over 90% of all programs sell out). “There's two ways to approach Popcorn Taxi, says Murray explaining his strategy, “you could do it the corporate way, which is 'let's just find the biggest cinema, sell the most tickets and let's do it for this market'.” Murray prefers a more hands-on one to one relationship with talent and media. “You have to (go out and sell) what the brand offers you without compromising its guts.” Each show, he says is individual, special and unique. “Every show is the Be all and End all. Everyone who goes must walk away after it and say, 'f**k that was awesome!'”
For Murray the credibility of Popcorn Taxi resides in its growing host of imitators (“there's more to this than plugging in a mic and dragging in talent who don't want to be there,” he says) and its ability to attract high calibre guests; last September Murray hosted an on-stage chat with Hollywood legend Jerry Lewis. Even the interview talent is screened to fit into the “lounge room comfort level” Murray aims to hit: “Our interviewers are spokespeople for the audience.” Still, he says it would be wrong to suggest that the organisation is an easy “fit” into the business end of the film business, which is why these days Murray spends a lot of time dealing directly with the talent.
Right now Murray and Taylor are full of plans; Neon recently took over an AV and event management company, Blacksheep and he says that Popcorn Taxi will in all likelihood be presenting shows in LA and London. “We've only reached about 40% of the potential of the brand,” he says.
Meanwhile Doust says he feels a sense a terrific sense of accomplishment about Popcorn Taxi's history and is optimistic about its future: “We always wanted it to live beyond us,” he says.
Popcorn Taxi celebrates its tenth anniversary with a screening of a new Australian documentary You Only Live Twice, from filmmaker Brendan Young on Monday 9th November at GU Bondi Junction.
Editor's Note: Peter Galvin was Program Director for Popcorn Taxi, Sydney, in 2004 - 2006.