Recently, I was fortunate to be able to attend a film-making masterclass by famed independent film maker and co-founder of Troma Entertainment Llyod Kaufman. The masterclass was jointly organized by the Singapore Independent Filmmakers Collective and LASALLE College of the Arts, Singapore. During the class, I met many passionate local film makers and learned about the “Troma System” for making movies in Hollywood. More importantly, Llyod shared his passion for the art of film making and how it was able to guide him in his 40 years of independent work in a highly competitive industry.
A Brief Overview of the Film Industry
The history of films began in the 1890s with shorts (typically under a minute long) accompanied by live musicians and sound effects. These were displayed in temporary storefront spaces, traveling exhibitions, and vaudeville programs.
Then, during this silent film era, several innovations improved film narratives and techniques. These included the first rotating camera (Robert W. Paul, 1897), double exposure of the film for trick cinematography (George Albert Smith, 1898), and the first use of animation in 1899. The first feature-length film, The Story of the Kelly Gang, was made by an Australian production company in 1906.
When World War I disrupted the dominant European film production companies, it provided an opportunity for the American film industry. By the 1920s, Hollywood was producing an average of 800 feature films annually, and major studios dominated the market in both production and distribution.
This dominance has been mostly unchallenged through the years and creates a highly competitive market that makes it difficult for independent film makers and production houses to survive, let alone thrive. One recent example is the bankruptcy of Rhythm & Hues, which received Oscars for their visual effects accomplishments in Babe, The Golden Compass, and Life of Pi. In 2013, the top five studios, Warner Brothers, Buena Vista, Universal, Sony/Columbia, and Lionsgate dominated 66.2% of the domestic market and grossed over $7,221.5 million USD.
In the harsh environment of Hollywood, Lloyd Kaufman stands out as a successful maverick film maker who has managed to stay independent for 40 years and resist the pressures of major entertainment conglomerates. He has made 100 low-budget movies, distributed over 1,000 independent films, and inspired thousands of film makers worldwide, including James Gunn (writer and director of the Marvel Studios adaptation of Guardians of the Galaxy), Eli Roth (writer, director, and producer for Hostel and Cabin Fever) and Trey Parker and Matt Stone (creators of the popular animated sitcom, South Park).
His relentless pursuit of independent film making has been recognized in the mainstream, as well. In 2003, Kaufman was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award at the prestigious Amsterdam Fantastic Film Festival. He was also honored by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) where his latest film, Return to Nuke ‘Em High: Volume 1, was shown as part of the Contenders 2013 film series. The series is MoMA’s “annual review of the best cinema around the world.” The list included films such as Gravity, 12 Years a Slave, Bling Ring, Blue Jasmine, Captain Phillips, and Inside Llewyn Davis.
Lessons from the Troma System
Although the internet and the introduction of digital technologies in film making have helped democratize the film industry by lowering entry barriers for production and distribution, it is still difficult to gain a foothold. Drawing from his years of experience, Kaufman has written books and created a YouTube video series on making, directing, and producing movies based on his unique framework called the “Troma System.” Here are a few lessons from his masterclass:
1. Plan your project
Without the support of major studios, it is challenging for independent film makers to raise funds from investors in an industry that has low returns. Crowd funding has been hailed by some, citing successful campaigns such as “The Veronica Mars Movie Project” and Zach Braff’s “Wish I Was Here.” However, the results for crowd funded campaigns are mixed, with the majority of projects either failing or attracting only limited funds unless the project is linked to an established brand or personality such as Spike Lee and Freddie Wong.
Faced with limited funds, independent film makers need to plan their projects carefully and maximize the returns on their resources. Kaufman addresses the lack of funds with careful planning as follows:
・ Sharing your art
In order to attract investors and production houses to stage musicals for Troma Entertainment’s film, The Toxic Avenger, Kaufman gave away the rights for the musical for free. This unusual move attracted fans and professional groups who still stage the musical in Oregon and Nebraska. It also helped generate publicity for the musical and the studio and successfully caught the attention of producers who actually paid Troma to stage the musical in Houston, Texas, and Oahu, as well as on Broadway. Kaufman also shares his films and production experiences in various YouTube channels, thus generating valuable goodwill for himself and his production company.
・ Picking the right crew for your project
As there are often minimal funds to pay a crew, Kafuman believes in working with passionate team members who believe in a project and are willing to work long hours under difficult conditions. In order to ensure that he picks the right crew, all project team members are subjected to a long selection process that includes interviews, screen tests, and group interactions. After picking the main crew, Kaufman allows unsuccessful applicants to stay on-set to assist in the production. This adds flexibility, giving Kaufman the option of switching team members and creating new roles whenever necessary.
・ Rehearsing extensively
Before filming on-site, Kaufman ensures that the crew rehearses the entire movie once so that they can practice their scenes while Kaufman identifies potential issues and areas of improvement in the production. This smooths things out during actual filming, thus reducing the risk of production overruns.
・ Filming the project sequentially
By filming sequentially, Kaufman has the flexibility of switching crew members in unforeseen situations, such as uncooperative actors who suddenly disappear from the production set.
2. Managing the expectations of the project team
Film production is an arduous process. Kaufman manages the expectations of the project team as follows:
・ Putting the crew through a long selection process in order to deter uncommitted individuals from joining.
・ Managing the expectations of team members by ensuring that they watch production footage from previous projects and know what to expect in the next few months.
・ Ensuring that team members understand the importance of safety by prominently displaying the “Troma’s Rules of Production” (“Safety to Humans,” “Safety to People’s Property,” and “Make a Good Movie”) in the company and all production locations.
3. Acknowledging the efforts of the production team and fans
Kaufman has received a lot of support from his production teams, as well as fans who have helped to raise funds and acted as extras in his films. To show his appreciation, he proudly displays the title, “A Troma Team Release” at the start of each film.
4. Re-investing profits back into the industry
Kaufman re-invests his film profits back into the industry by purchasing films from independent producers (often ignored by major studios) and releasing them under the Troma brand name. This type of maverick behavior has earned the respect of his peers.
Whether you love or hate his films, Llyod Kaufman is an inspirational leader in the film industry. He shows us that an uncompromising passion for the craft can allow an individual to succeed even in the toughest environment.