By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
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Three years ago, when people thought you could make money from the Internet, Troma acquired the Roan Group film library, home to some 450 classic and less-than films, for several million dollars. Kaufman and Herz initially wanted the collection solely for online distribution--"So how stupid were we?" Kaufman says. Troma wound up making its acquisition available on DVD at remarkably low prices: Most titles, among them John Wayne's Angel and the Badman and the Bela Lugosi horror classic White Zombie, sell for $6.
As part of its Roan collection, Troma is also releasing in coming days the 1930 film Check and Double Check, a little-seen Amos and Andy feature starring two white men in black face, as well as Duke Ellington and Bing Crosby. Kaufman says he was inspired to release the film after seeing Spike Lee's Bamboozled, in which Damon Wayans' cynical television exec makes a hit out of a network minstrel show. "I thought people should be able to see the real thing," Kaufman says. Still, you sense he's not entirely sure audiences will understand his intentions. On March 14, he posted to the Troma Web site a letter explaining his reasons for making available Check and Double Check, chief among them its status as a "socially significant" reflection of "shocking racial stereotypes."
"It would be a surprise to know the gang that brought you Blood-Sucking Freaks is bringing you John Wayne and Roy Rogers and Lassie," Kaufman says. "Yet The New York Times DVD column would rather talk about the latest Star Wars, like someone doesn't know it's out on DVD. No one will touch us. I know we are economically blacklisted; you just can't prove it. I am convinced of it."
As they say, you are not paranoid when they're truly out to get you, and Kaufman has a point. There was once a time when Troma's films ran on a loop on HBO, where they accrued the cult. Now, the network runs product from parent company AOL Time Warner; better to pay yourself than others. This very week, Kaufman attended Blockbuster's annual gathering of franchise owners outside of Dallas, where the company headquarters, to convince the small guys to stock product the parent company shuns. He will do what he must to get Troma product on shelves and into the hands of the unconverted.
To that end, wherever he goes, Kaufman carries with him bags full of double-disc DVDs, which he doles out like candy on Halloween. Kaufman passed at least one, often more, to every kid working the Angelika Film Center in Dallas, where Kaufman attended the USA Film Festival last weekend. He's asked why, if Troma is in such financial dire straits, he gives away product that sells for upward of $20 a title at the Virgin Megastore just across the parking lot.
"It's good for Troma," Kaufman says. "They'll watch 'em, show 'em to their friends, maybe buy some others. And some might even realize they can make their own movies after watching ours."
After 30 years in the business, that might wind up as Kaufman's greatest legacy: convincing a generation of would-be filmmakers they need not attend film school or move to Hollywood. His new book is titled Make Your Own Damn Movie!, and while it's full of the producer-writer-director's tales of woe, it also overflows, like a backed-up commode, with copious tips on how to film without financing. His DVDs, with their brilliant making-ofs and other effluvia, act as cheapo film-school education, and Troma has gotten into the nonfiction business: In coming days you can get All the Love You Cannes! and see Kaufman, with his entourage of traveling Tromettes and Toxies, assault the prestigious French fest. It's a masterful lesson in marketing, a how-to for anarchists and masochists.
In various cities across the country, Kaufman has his acolytes working on their own features. In Dallas, for instance, there's Barak Epstein, who is finishing his girls-and-mutants-behind-bars pic Prison-A-Go-Go!. There's another filmmaker in Kansas, and more scattered throughout the country--"Troma sleeper cells," Kaufman says.
"Ultimately there's a lot of hope, because new technology will be the subversive force that will carry a golden age of what these guys and others have to say, even those who never saw a Troma movie," he says, the showman as proselytizer. "And hopefully I try to be a cheerleader. I make my films that three people will show up to. But these guys don't have to. And maybe one day we'll have the Internet feeding movies to everyone, and we won't have the oppression, the kind of brainwashing where everyone has to go see What a Girl Wants. I do think I try to get people to be subversive. But Shakespeare was a shit-disturber. My total existence has been dominated by a theme of the good people of Tromaville being under the thumb and taken advantage of by the conspiracy of the labor elite, the corporate elite and the bureaucratic elite."
So, then, you're a liberator of the oppressed?
"Well, I don't know it's quite that," Kaufman says, turning suddenly modest. "But the good people of Tromaville can run our own lives."