Lloyd Kaufman wants you to watch Troma Entertainment's extensive film catalog for free. Yes, really. The independent film company he co-founded almost 40 years ago with Michael Herz has uploaded a number of its cult favorites, including all four Toxic Avenger movies and Sgt. Kabukiman NYPD, to YouTube. Troma movies also are available on-demand for free to Comcast subscribers.
Troma's decision to make its movies available without charge, even when some of them can be purchased, is in line with Kaufman's beliefs about piracy and “sharing art.” He has voiced those opinions in his sixth book, Sell Your Own Damn Movie. He also took the time to chat by phone about those views for this L.A. Weekly column.
“So many people are worried about piracy,” says Troma's president. While that may hurt sales for Hollywood blockbusters, he believes that file-sharing isn't the biggest issue for independent filmmakers. The problem in the underground, he says, is getting people to watch your movie.
“Money is not the most valuable thing a fan can give you,” Kaufman proclaims. “The most valuable thing that a fan can give you is time. If someone wants to spend an hour and a half watching Sgt. Kabukiman … I'm grateful for that. I'm happy because I know he'll like it and he'll tell his friends and someone will buy it.”
Troma has been kicking around the independent film world since 1974 and Kaufman calls it a “miracle” that the company exists at all. “We make movies about hideously deformed creatures of superhuman size and strength who run around with only a mop as a weapon,” he explains. Of course, he's speaking of Toxie, aka the Toxic Avenger, Troma's best known character.
Troma hasn't just survived, it has thrived in an environment that's increasingly hostile to independent films. Undoubtedly, the company's winning combination of comedy, gore and sex ensures that there will always be young people game to watch its films in the middle of the night.
Moreover, Kaufman and Herz have found a way around every hurdle thrown at them. Not only have they built an audience for their own work, Troma has brought the work of young filmmakers to their crowd as well.
Back in 1996, Troma released a film about the strange tale of Alfred Packer called Cannibal! The Musical, directed by an unknown named Trey Parker. During the course of promoting the film, Kaufman went to Sundance with Parker and Matt Stone, the duo that later became famous for South Park. “We were appalled by how unpleasant Sundance was to independent filmmakers,” Kaufman recalls.
Fueled by the lousy film festival experience, Kaufman founded TromaDance. For years, he put on TromaDance events in Park City, Utah, at the same time as Sundance. The difference was that filmmakers didn't have to pay to submit their work to Troma's festival. The audience didn't have to buy tickets and there was no VIP element. TromaDance still exists; it just moved to Asbury Park, N.J. Through the festival, Kaufman spotted the directors who might be the next superstars to sprout from the company.
Astron-6 is a five-person team that submitted some shorts to TromaDance. “I fell in love with them,” says Kaufman. Ultimately, Troma helped fund Astron-6's new movie, Father's Day, which has been screening across North America and Europe. The night before our interview, Kaufman, who is based in New York, was at the Philadelphia premiere.
Kaufman talks up Astron-6 in the interview. “They've got a feel for the mainstream, even though they are Troma fans,” he says. “I think they can take the Troma spirit and mainstream it.”
Like all Troma films, Father's Day's success will be despite the odds against it. Kaufman talks a lot about media consolidation and vertical integration, how massive, multinational corporations own everything from the studios that make movies to the TV channels that broadcast them much later. For independent companies, that means it's difficult to get your movies on television. Kaufman points out that Citizen Toxie, the fourth Toxic Avenger film — and, he says, the “best” one — has never appeared on television. “That's what's called economic blacklisting,” he says.
“The world of art has evolved so that it's under the thumb of a very small group of gatekeepers,” says Kaufman.
But Troma has a secret weapon — the fans. That's why Kaufman isn't upset about piracy, as long as it's for purposes of “sharing,” not “selling.” He acknowledges that, for a lot of people, Pirate Bay and similar sites are the only way they can access Troma films. He believes that file-sharing has helped create the kind of word-of-mouth marketing that studios spend oodles of money to do.
Troma also made inroads in the convention world way before events like San Diego Comic-Con were all the rage. In fact, it has had a presence at the massive fan convention for about 25 years. This year, Troma will be back and Kaufman says it plans to present a panel on personal branding and marketing.
“The studios don't get it,” he says. “They can brainwash people to come into the theaters for a couple of weeks, but they can't create word of mouth.”
And word of mouth is what's kept Troma in business for decades. You won't see its work on television networks and you may not catch a theater screening, but, somehow, you will stumble upon its films.