This is cinema?
Troma Studios trotting to different beat
Web posted on: Monday, October 05, 1998 3:55:42 PM
A NewsStand: CNN & Entertainment Weekly Report
NEW YORK (CNN) -- This summer at the movies proved that despite all those ads, size doesn't matter to film fans. "Godzilla," the $100-million monster movie with the equally expensive ad campaign, flopped.
The producers of that monster movie might be able to learn something from a small production company in New York that's successfully made monster movies for years on shoestring budgets, developing a legion of fans in the process.
Troma Studios is, in short, the king of the "B" movies -- the "B" in this case meaning blood, breasts and beasts. Some Troma classics include "Nymphoid Barbarian in Dinosaur Hell," "Teenage Cat Girls in Heat" and "Toxic Avenger."
"'Toxic Avenger' is the only movie in the history of cinema which contains a full head-crushing scene, female masturbation, dismemberment, a dog being blown away with a shotgun," says Troma's co-founder Lloyd Kaufman, who is a Yale honors graduate. "It's the only film of that kind that was made into a children's cartoon show."
Indeed, since it came out in 1981, it has made millions, inspired two sequels, sold more than 200,000 videos, and spawned enough merchandise to shame "Godzilla."
Troma has also paid tribute to none other than Shakespeare, with the recent "Tromio and Juliet," which includes all the romance and tragedy of the original.
"Not to mention the car crashes, dismemberment and kinky sex that Shakespeare always wanted but never had," says Kaufman.
But make no mistake: Kaufman takes Troma seriously.
"You have to look at us as artists, even though the movies we make incorrectly may not be taken as art," he says. "If art comes from the heart and the soul, there is no question that the body of work that Troma has created is from our hearts and souls. And that may be just the reason why Troma has staggered along -- I mean, has been so successful all these years."
So, who in the world actually watches this stuff?
At a recent sci-fi and horror fan convention in Secaucus, New Jersey, the hard-core Tromanites came out of the woodwork -- freaks, geeks, slackers, bikers, biters, the funky, the chunky, the hairy and the scary.
"They're not for everybody," says one fan. "Like, my mom definitely wouldn't watch these types of films. But me and my brothers go nuts. We sit there, we watch them, we laugh, we cry, we rejoice."
Kaufman also attended the convention, a cheap way to promote the product. At Troma, the formula for success is maximum impact from minimum budget.
Peter George, who directed "Surf Nazis Must Die," recalls the production challenges he faced.
"There's only one gun in the movie that's actually used," says George. "Instead of having a lot of fancy-looking high tech weaponry, we have a bunch of people running around with kitchen knives."
Along with cheap special effects, there are unknown actors -- some that have gone on to make it big in Hollywood.
Oscar winners such as director Oliver Stone, actress Marisa Tomei, and actors Robert DeNiro and Kevin Costner starred in Troma films.
"Obviously, (Costner) loved 'Sizzle Beach' and the water because what did he do a few years later for $200 million? 'Waterworld,'" says Kaufman.
Kaufman has also launched the careers of dozens of "Tromettes," those women who bare all in each film, and he has even cast his own young kids in the battlefield epic "Troma's War."
"I was kidnapped from my fake acting mother," says Elizabeth Kaufman, Lloyd's daughter. "And big men with like machine guns came in and they kidnapped me. And my mom was like, she was sort of worried because I was like crying and stuff, and I was only 18 months old."
"I think I was blown up into a tree and kidnapped, and I was blind," says Lloyd's other daughter, Charlotte Kaufman.
With such low-cost talent and effects, the average Troma film costs about $350,000 to shoot.
"It's obscene to be spending $50 million or $200 million, or whatever it takes these days to make a Hollywood movie, on something as frivolous as a movie," says Lloyd Kaufman. "We think that movies should be made on modest budgets and that schoolteachers ought to be getting the money."
"He truly, truly walks to the beat of a different drummer, kind of a jazz drummer, but a different drummer," says Kaufman's wife, Pat, who, as the New York State film commissioner, deals with all those big-budget filmmakers her husband hates.
"Let's just remember that New York is the capital of the independent film world," she says. "And I don't think there's any studio that's longer-lasting and made more of an imprint in the independent world than Troma."
'Part of their appeal'
Indeed, trashy, tasteless Troma has earned awards and retrospectives from the British Film Institute and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, among other noble institutions.
Troma films even have a fan in Janet Maslin, the highly respected film critic of the New York Times.
"I think they're silly in a way that's absolutely undemanding," says Maslin. "And they're kind of harmless too. And I think that's part of their appeal. They're not mean and violent.
"There are so many sorts of things now that are foolish and destructive. And (the Troma films) really have a weird sort of sweetness, I think."
Troma even pays an annual visit to the Cannes Film Festival. To buyers from overseas, Troma is a dependable, profitable brand name. And with its growing film library, video business, and merchandising, as well as plans for a global TV channel, Kaufman boasts it's as potent a brand as Disney.
'That crazy "B" movie energy'
It's also worth noting that even if movies like "Chopper Chicks in Zombie Town" and "Bloodsucking Freaks" aren't exactly Oscar bait, Troma does play an important role in the film industry, as one of the last of the independents.
"The giant international conglomerates have taken over everything," says Kaufman. "The word independent has been totally corrupted. There are only a small number of independents. And our ranks are dwindling. Either they join major studios, as New Line, Miramax have done, or in some cases they go out of business."
So how has Troma survived? Its cheaply made, well-promoted junk movies compete in an arena the big boys usually ignore. But it's more than that.
"We take our movies very seriously. We do not take ourselves seriously," says Kaufman.
Maslin says their success comes from something else.
"That crazy 'B' movie energy," she says. "And these guys still have it. Clearly, they love movies. They have a sense of humor which will not die. And I'm glad that they're out there keeping the fringe vital and alive."
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