Truly independent cinema, an endangered species

Written by Muleskinner Staff

Lloyd Kaufman (far right) poses with (far left) the Toxic Avenger, dan Paul Joyner and one of his company's "tromettes" Courtney Meeker, a UCM alum, before a showing of his films at the Alamo Drafthouse in Kansas City. Kaufman and his films take a satirical stab at society with over-the-top gore, grit and full frontal nudity. (Photo submitted)
Lloyd Kaufman (far right) poses with (far left) the Toxic Avenger, dan Paul Joyner and one of his company’s “tromettes” Courtney Meeker, a UCM alum, before a showing of his films at the Alamo Drafthouse in Kansas City. Kaufman and his films take a satirical stab at society with over-the-top gore, grit and full frontal nudity. (Photo submitted)

Story by Paul Joyner, for The Muleskinner—
Founded in 1974, Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz’s independent film production and distribution company, Troma, creates, produces, and distributes campy B-movies containing overt sexuality and nudity, as well as gory and blatant graphic violence, and their unique brand of satire.
More than just cheap films for cheap thrills, Troma has turned being die-hard, low-budget, independent filmmakers into their most revered artistic expression, complete with their rallying cry, “Never give up the fight for truly independent cinema!”
The most popular of the films, and the mascot for the company itself, is “The Toxic Avenger,” a 98lb weakling turned hideously deformed creature of superhuman size and strength after falling into a vat of toxic waste.
This is the movie I decided to take a near stranger to in order to break the proverbial ice. The Alamo Drafthouse on Main Street in Kansas City was not only hosting a Troma double-feature, but Kaufman was going to be there himself.
I made sure to get to the theater early. I heard Kaufman would be lounging around the bar before the showing. I even went as far as skipping a trip to the mall to replace a pair of torn trousers.
After circling around the block a few times in search of a decent parking spot – downtown Kansas City isn’t exactly known for hospitable parking (or people) – I found an empty spot.
Luckily my date was enraptured with the excitement that was in the air, or whatever that smell was, her eyes gleaming from the lights of the marquee, and a beguiling Spotify playlist I threw together swarming around her ears.
Upon entering the foyer I was bewildered to see that it was empty. Kaufman, president of the longest running independent film studio in the world and a man who has been making masterpieces for the cultist masses since the late seventies, was going to be preaching to an empty room.
Sure, the double-feature had been postponed eight days due to inclement weather, but how was it that less than a dozen people wanted to show up to awe and amazement of the reigning king of gore?
A man who redefined genres, making us laugh at buckets of blood and dismemberment and gasp in horror at corporate America, questionable religious values, and the clean-cut, preppy honor societies that wreak havoc in our high schools… but I digress.
Meeting the director
Sitting in the bar with my date, we had a couple of pints while waiting for the show to start. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a crowd growing.
The people next to me mention that Lloyd is on the other side of the wall signing autographs.
Not wanting to miss my opportunity, I left the bar before my friend returned, though I felt obligated to keep her purse on my person. Then, I turn the corner, and there he was, all 4½ feet of him (height based on writers own ignorance).
How is this sweet man, who is wearing his characteristically nerdy suit and bow tie, who took at least 10 minutes to talk to me, take a picture, and sign a few DVDs, and who happily shook every hand of the few people that actually showed up, how is this adorable man a purveyor of such sublime repugnance?
Problems with marketing
After “The Toxic Avenger” was a surprise hit in 1985, it was followed up by another equally successful and lowbrow film which also had a central theme regarding the dangers of nuclear power and waste, “Class of Nuke ‘Em High.”
The success of these two films were unfortunately followed by lows with a series of box office bombs that consisted of botched sequels and failed epics – dumping $17 million into a movie that grossed, well, nothing. The 90s saw Kaufman produce some of his most creative and critically acclaimed works, such as “Terror Firmer,” “Citizen Toxie,” and his take on the Shakespeare classic play “Romeo and Juliet”, replacing Romeo with Tromeo and emblazoned it with the tagline “Body Piercing. Kinky Sex. Dismemberment. The Things That Made Shakespeare Great!”
Despite the company was finding it harder and harder to market their films.
Very few theaters wanted to pick up the films, and so called independent film festivals that were there to cater to the underground were becoming more and more mainstream and catering to the Hollywood elite and the all mighty dollar (or euro if you find yourself at Cannes).
But what’s a guy to do, start his own film festival in protest?
Well, yeah. That’s exactly what he did. Enter TromaDance, “the first and only film festival of the people, for the people, and by the people,” dedicated to “bringing independent art back to the people.”
Since 1999, the festival originally operated in the same time and space with the Sundance Film Festival in Utah in order to offer a truly independent alternative and a metaphorical middle finger to the mainstream. Though due to costs the festival was moved to more local venues in New Jersey.
TromaDance is created
Kaufman actually got the idea from “South Park” creator Trey Parker, whose first film “Cannibal! The Musical” was distributed by Troma.
Parker was tired of film festivals becoming more Hollywood-esque by charging high entry fees for viewings of multi-million-dollar “independent” films and embracing an elitist ideology. He urged Kauffman to create a festival opposing what these festivals had become.
The result was a festival that focused on independently-produced films. The festival gives first-time filmmakers a chance at getting their work seen, does not charge filmmakers to submit their films, and entrance to all screenings is free and open to the public. As Lloyd says, “Art, in all its forms, is for the people!”
Troma still attends other film festivals though. Kaufman is a tenacious self-promoter. He even documented his company’s 2001 trek to the Cannes Film Festival in a film entitled “All the Love You Cannes!”
The film showed, in detail, the absurd expenses involved with entering the festival, getting around the city, and lodging. The filmmakers were even harassed by security, the police, and even some of the major corporations that were in attendance.
Never one to shy away, this May at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival Lloyd and crew will be filming another documentary titled “Occupy Cannes,” which will chronicle their journey premiering their new film “Return to Nuke ‘Em High” and their fight to survive in a world dominated by media conglomerates.
Funding newest documentary
To fund the documentary, Troma, who for the last nearly 40 years has produced their films out of pocket and from private investors, has turned to the crowdfunding site, Indiegogo. As opposed to the millions of dollars that most Hollywood studios set as the bare minimum to produce a film, Troma was seeking only to garner $50,000, and despite only being able to procure $30,683 ($150 of which came from yours truly), which is still considered a very tiny number for making a film, “Return to Nuke ‘Em High” cost the studio $800,000, most of which was brought in by private investors.
In return for donations, Troma has set up a variety of perks including autographed memorabilia, DVDs of the finished product, a thank you in the on-screen credits, a limited edition “Return to Nuke ‘Em High” art book, props from the movie, a speaking role in the “Occupy Cannes” film, and if you reach WAY down into your pockets, you’ll been flown to Cannes with the Troma team and have an on screen producers credit and a private lunch with Kaufman himself (no kissing on the mouth).
Kaufman loves independent cinema so much that he has made cameo appearances in over 200 films to date, usually for free.
As soon as my companion and I entered the theater to watch “The Toxic Avenger,” we were stopped by a man pandering his film to us that he was shooting at Kansas City haunted houses titled “House of Forbidden Secrets.”
He didn’t keep us long, as he too wanted to catch the hot action that was about to be laid out on the silver screen. But Lloyd, like he has with many other films, appeared in the man’s film free of charge.
Supporting independence is his sole reward. A man who actually encourages people to make the copyright-infringing products that other companies frown upon.
Why? Because artistic freedom and interpretation are the most honest forms of expression.
Kaufman promises to reveal the struggle that occurs when the Cannes Film Festival is presented with a truly independent film, a “modern day David versus Goliath” as he puts it, and will not only be an important document for students and lovers of cinema all over the world, but also an “irreverent, rebellious and entertaining motion picture,” and as always it will be another device used for his quest of truly independent cinema.