If you’ve never heard of Lloyd Kaufman, you’ve managed to avoid the work of one of the most prolific pioneers of independent film from the past four decades. Kaufman’s New York-based movie studio Troma Entertainment has produced and distributed more than 1,000 films, and in the process has helped launch the careers of some of Hollywood’s most successful talents.
New Yorkers unfamiliar with Troma have a chance to catch up on its sensibilities this weekend. On Friday and Saturday, Troma hosts the 17th annual Tromadance Film Festival in Brooklyn, a free festival showing feature films and shorts from filmmakers around the world. This is the story of how one wacky filmmaking factory found its groove.
Schlock With Purpose
Founded in 1974 by Kaufman and his business partner Michael Herz, Troma bills itself as the longest-running independent movie studio in North America. The company is known for its low-budget teenage sex comedies and arthouse horror films filled with schlocky, “splatstick” humor, but Troma movies are about much more than gore and gags. Each of the roughly 20 feature films Kaufman has directed serve as a social commentary inspired by current events, none moreso than the 1984 cult classic “The Toxic Avenger” — which generated three sequels, a musical production for the stage and a children’s TV cartoon.
Co-directed by Kaufman and Herz, the movie centers on a janitor who falls into a drum of toxic waste, transforming him into a creature with superhuman strength who uses his power to fight crime. Like many Troma titles, the story takes place in the fictional town of Tromaville, a tiny suburb that exists in the shadow of what Kaufman calls the “big, arrogant city.”
Kaufman came up with the idea for “Avenger” during a camping trip he took with his wife, who recently retired after serving for 20 years as New York State’s Film Commissioner. While hiking in some of the most remote areas of the wilderness they could find, the couple were struck by how much garbage they continued to find. “I thought that might be an interesting theme,” Kaufman said. “The environment.”
Many of the plots in Troma movies center on radiation, science gone terribly wrong, and a conspiracy of elites whose goal it is to drain the economic and spiritual capital from the citizens of Tromaville, according to Kaufman. Troma’s 1986 sci-fi comedy “Class of Nuke ‘Em High,” which also spawned three sequels, addresses the dangers of generating nuclear power in suburbia, while the 1988 action-adventure comedy “Troma’s War” deals with the AIDS epidemic.
One of Troma’s most popular titles from the ’90s is “Terror Firmer,” which focuses on a love triangle between members of a low-budget film crew being preyed upon by a serial killer. In 1993, Troma famously distributed “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s first feature “Cannibal! The Musical,” which was rejected by virtually every U.S. distributor. Parker and Stone are longtime Troma fans who threw Toxic Avenger parties in college, according to Kaufman.
Troma’s most famous former employee is “Guardians of the Galaxy” co-writer and director James Gunn, who worked as Kaufman’s assistant and as an in-house writer, director, editor and producer at the company.
“I got to learn every single step of making a movie from beginning to end while I was at Troma,” Gunn told IndieWire. “It was a very beneficial experience for me.” Gunn remains a close friend of Kaufman’s to this day, and even cast him to play bit parts in his feature debut “Slither” and “Guardians of the Galaxy.” “I love Lloyd,” Gunn said. “He’s like an uncle to me.”
In 1996, Gunn wrote the screenplay for “Tromeo and Juliet,” about a filmmaker who falls in love with the daughter of a former partner who tried to steal his business. Gunn’s fee for writing the script was $150. (Kaufman says he remembers paying Gunn $100). The New York Times‘ Stephen Holden wrote that “Tromeo and Juliet” had “poetry to match its sex and gore,” adding that the movie “is to Hollywood B-movies what Mad magazine is to comic books.”
Troma has also produced a number of feature-length behind-the-scenes documentaries about the making of its films, including “Farts of Darkness,” about the making of “Terror Firmer,” “Apocalypse Soon,” about the making of “Citizen Toxie,” and “When Reshoots Go Wrong,” about the making of “Tales From the Crapper.” The company frequently fields requests from theaters all over the world programming repertory screenings of its titles, and its extensive library has led to Troma retrospectives sponsored by the American Film Institute, American Cinematheque, Cinemathèque Français, and the British Film Institute.
Hard Times In Tromaville
Despite its global fanbase and status as one of the longest-standing independent film companies in the world, all is not well in Tromaville. Long gone are the days of financially successful films like “The First Turn-On,” “Squeeze Play,” and Waitress!,” not to mention the “Avenger” franchise. Though Troma has been able to license its brand and Toxic Avenger character to more more than 70 companies, Troma hasn’t made money for more than a decade, according to Kaufman, “We’re running on the memory of fumes,” he said, adding that the company only exists today because of he and Herz’s love for film, and the fact that everybody works for “very small salaries.”
Kaufman doesn’t attribute Troma’s misfortune to a decline in product quality, however. Instead, he blames media moguls Rupert Murdoch and Sumner Redstone’s consolidation of media and entertainment companies into conglomerates that control the movie theater chains and make it virtually impossible for independent film companies to get non-mainstream material on television.
“You’re not going to come across too many indie film companies that are writing, producing and distributing movies that have any kind of longevity, and it’s not because they’re making bad movies,” Kaufman said. “It’s because they cannot survive in a cartel world where 40 percent of the media is controlled by an 80-something year old, in my opinion, white, racist, sexist person, and the [other 60 percent] is controlled by a 93-year old, in my opinion, white, racist sexist.”
Even before Murdoch and Redstone became the magnates they are today, however, two pieces of U.S. legislation paved the way for media companies to create monopolies, according to Kaufman. First was former President Ronald Reagan’s abolishment of the Consent Decree of 1948, which allowed media conglomerates to own and control theater chains. The second was President Bill Clinton’s elimination of the Financial Interest and Syndication Rules that required TV networks to license at least 35 percent of their content from independent sources.
“The rules that used to be against a monopoly have been done away with thanks to the legalized bribery called lobbying,” Kaufman said. “We’re just astounded by the devolution of the American media into the ownership of a small number of people.”
In 2007, Kaufman was elected chairperson of the Independent Film & Television Alliance, a position he sought to fight against the consolidation of the media industry. He ran on the platform of using the organization’s treasury to lobby against Murdoch’s proposed takeover of Time Warner. “Instead of using the money for cocktail parties, I wanted to try and make a difference, and we did,” Kaufman said. “We fucked up the Comcast merger!”
The New Class
Today, Troma has a 10-person staff of film enthusiasts who work from the company’s headquarters in Long Island City, where they write, direct, and produce Troma movies. In-house producer John Brennan has been a fan of the company’s films ever since he first saw “Class of Nuke ‘Em High 2” on TV when he was nine years old. “It blew my mind,” Brennan said. “I was both repulsed and drawn in at the same time.”
Staff Editor Dylan Greenberg is also a lifelong Troma fan. A writer, director, producer and editor, he recently helped produce the short film “Dolphinman Battles the Sex Lobsters,” which Brennan wrote and directed. “I did the pyrotechnics on that, and my fingernails got singed off,” Greenberg said.
Another longtime Troma fan? Screenwriter Simon Barrett, who wrote the highly-anticipated upcoming sequel “Blair Witch.” Barrett was hugely influenced by “The Toxic Avenger” as a kid. In 2000, the first Tromadance Film Festival in Park City, Utah accepted Barrett’s senior year film school short. Barrett and a friend stayed up all night driving to the festival and were so tired when they met Kaufman that he gave them the key to his hotel room so they could take a nap before the screening.
Barrett said that Kaufman’s generosity and support for his first film were a vote of confidence that kept him going at the very beginning of his career. “I’ve never told anyone in the media that story, because no one has ever asked,” Barrett said. “Also, that film is terrible.”
A New Platform
Kaufman’s support for up-and-coming talent continues to this day. He recently wrote a personal check for $1,000 to help 17-year-old writer-director and longtime Troma fan Kansas Bowling edit her debut feature “B.C. Butcher,” a pre-historic slasher film. Troma later distributed the film, which stars Kato Kaelin and Kadeem Hardison (“White Men Can’t Jump”) and had its premiere at the Egyptian Theater in Los Angeles in March. “Lloyd has been the first person to really genuinely support me and believe in me,” said Bowling, who is now 19. “It’s just really cool to have that come from someone who I’ve idolized since I was 12.”
“B.C. Butcher” is available on Troma Now, the company’s recently created streaming platform where it releases all of its new films. The service is free for the first month, after which the price is $4.99 per month. On top of Troma Now, the company offers some 250 titles from its library free of charge on the TromaMovies YouTube Channel. “If they’re going to get bootlegged, we might as well put them out for free,” Brennan said.
Troma is also producing its first virtual reality short films with a VR camera that Kaufman purchased for the company. “We’ve embraced technology ahead of the [major studios] and we’ve done very well, but unfortunately now they own everything and they’ve tried to colonize the internet,” Kaufman said, referring to the ongoing battle over net neutrality. “Colonization doesn’t work. Just ask the French.”
While Kaufman insists that getting Troma back in the black is impossible without “consorting with the mainstream,” his passion for making films is as strong today as ever. He’s even optimistic about a potential remake of “The Toxic Avenger” that director Steve Pink (“Hot Tub Time Machine”) is attached to direct. “If it actually starts shooting, we’ll get a huge check,” Kaufman said. “That will help pay for a new Troma movie.”