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How One Indie Film Studio Has Survived Decades of Change
Plus: The best movie of the year (so far!) assigned.
This week as I prepared for my interview with Lloyd Kaufman—the director of The Toxic Avenger, Tromeo and Juliet, and so many more movies over the last 50 years or so and the creative mind behind one of the few truly independent indie film companies, Troma Entertainment—I re-read the book he coauthored with Troma alum James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy, Peacemaker).
All I Need to Know About Filmmaking I Learned from The Toxic Avenger is part memoir, part how-to, part comic novel—in short, a mélange of genres, as one might expect from the guy who pioneered sci-fi/action/horror/comedy classics like Class of Nuke ’Em High and Troma’s War. But it’s also a fascinating look at the business of Hollywood and the way said business shifted first to help studios like Troma and then kneecap them.
Troma’s early movies like Squeeze Play were hit and miss theatrically, doing modest business while touring the drive-in circuit but being made cheaply enough that they weren’t disastrous bombs. It wasn’t until the advent of home video that Troma really found its financial edge: video stores were desperate for material to rent and renters were desperate for material to rent and Troma was desperate to sell tapes at $100 a pop to stores to provide material to rent to renters. Everyone was happy.
But the big studios quickly realized there was a huge market here that didn’t cut into their theatrical bottom line too badly, so they started sending their flicks to rental outlets. Meanwhile, the stuff Troma makes is not exactly family friendly, making it anathema to respectable chains like Blockbuster that came to dominate the scene. And, finally, customers being customers, they wanted safe, mainstream, star-heavy stuff to rent, so stores shifted from buying, say, 10 copies each of The Toxic Avenger and Rocky III to buying 20 copies of Rocky IV and one of The Toxic Avenger Part III: The Last Temptation of Toxie a few years later.
The book was written in 1998, right at the dawn of the Internet, a time when Troma was selling tapes directly to customers. In a footnote, Kaufman and Gunn offered a warning: “Those who care about the continued purity of the Internet, take note of this historical catastrophe and don’t let it happen again.” While Kaufman and Troma remain committed to theatrical—their latest and his last film, #ShakespearesShitstorm has yet to hit VOD despite being released in 2020 because he is showing it at indie theaters and museums around the country—they’ve also adapted to the times, offering up decades of Tromatic entertainment for just $5 a month on their streaming service.
Troma has survived by serving up entertainment that appeals to a very specific niche of people, and the Internet is perfectly suited for niches (like, for example, an online magazine published by Never Trump conservatives) to not only survive but thrive. While it’s understandable to worry about consolidation in the face of giants like Amazon and Netflix looking to squelch competition, the beauty of the Internet is that it’s limitless. Here’s to 50 more years of Troma; long may the Toxic Avenger reign.
On this week’s bonus episode of Across the Movie Aisle, we discussed a film that may have been traumatic for Peter to watch but is about as far from a Troma flick as you can get: Morbius. If you haven’t signed up for Bulwark+, do so now so you can listen to us savage this disaster of a movie.
On the main episode of ATMA, we talked about the Richard Linklater movie that just showed up unexpectedly on Netflix, Apollo 10 ½. It’s fun!
Two new Chris Pine movies have hit streaming/VOD over the last two weeks. So I reviewed them both. All the Old Knives is streaming on Amazon’s Prime Video; it’s good! Meanwhile, The Contractor costs $20 to rent and is less good.
Make sure to check out Kelsa Pellettiere’s essay on Ken Burns’s new documentary about Ben Franklin.
Assigned Viewing: Everything Everywhere All at Once
I generally don’t assign theatrical films, but: Everything Everywhere All at Once is finally opening wide (ish) this weekend, hitting about 1,200 screens. If it’s playing near you, you have to go see it. And if it isn’t playing near you, get in an airplane and fly to someplace it is playing. It’s worth it, trust me. Here’s what I wrote last month when I reviewed it:
Everything Everywhere All at Once is almost aggressively silly, using the idea of the multiverse and the suggestion that literally anything can happen at any point, anywhere to do things like change blood into organic ketchup or blow minds like they’re confetti. (Literally.) At one point a character realizes that the unique memory he has to generate to hop from -verse to -verse involves the use of a trophy that looks more than a little like a buttplug, and, I mean, if you can’t imagine how that plays out or how it could be done in a way that generates genuine belly laughs, well, maybe this isn’t the movie for you.
But the silliness is deployed by Daniels as cover to keep cynics in the audience from being overwhelmed by the earnestness at the heart of Everything Everywhere All at Once. This is a deeply moving movie, an extended meditation on the meaning we derive from family and friendship. On the power of kindness. It’s a rousing rejection of the irony-soaked meme-mind that has so come to dominate the political and cultural discourse, the “lol nothing matters” state of mind that so many of us have adopted to protect our psyches from the realization that we have very little impact on macro trends. And it all works because Ke Huy Quan gives one of the best, most heartfelt performances I’ve ever seen on the big screen. Love—for his wife Evelyn, for their daughter Joy, even for the taxwoman Deirdre—pours out of him, overwhelms the bloody ugliness onscreen.