Recently, I was fortunate to be able to attend a film making masterclass by the famous 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 masterclass, I met many passionate local film makers and learnt 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 film making in a highly competitive film industry.
Brief Overview of the Film Industry
The history of films began in 1890s with films that was typically short (under a minute long), accompanied by live musicians and sound effects, and seen in temporary storefront spaces, travelling exhibitors, and vaudeville programs. During this silent film era, several innovations were introduced to improve film narratives and techniques, such as the first rotating camera by Robert W. Paul in 1897, double exposure of the film for trick cinematography by George Albert Smith in 1898, and the first use of animation in movies in 1899. The first feature length film, “The Story of the Kelly Gang”, was made by an Australian production company in 1906. The 1st World War disrupted the dominant European film production companies and aided the emergence of the American film industry. By 1920s, Hollywood was producing an average of 800 feature films annually with the market being dominated by major studios in the production and distribution of films.
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 and 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 US$7,221.5 million.
In the harsh environment of Hollywood, Lloyd Kaufman stands out as a successful maverick film maker that 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 for the upcoming 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 in the art of independent film making has been recognized in the mainstream. In 2003, Lloyd 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 being shown as part of the film series, “The Contenders 2013”. The film series is MoMA's “annual review of the best cinema around the world” which comprises of “influential, innovative films made in the past 12 months”. 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 to democratize the film industry by lowering entry barriers for the production and distribution of films, it is still difficult to gain a foothold in the market. Drawing from his years of experience, Llyod has written a book series and created a YouTube video series on making, directing, and producing movies based on his unique framework called the “Troma System”. I learnt the following lessons about the “Troma System” during the masterclass:
1. Planning 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 on investments. Crowd funding has been hailed by some film makers as a new source of funding with 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 will need to plan the project carefully and maximize the returns on their resources. Llyod 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”, Llyod gave away the rights for the musical for free. This unusual move attracted fans and professional groups who stage the musical in Oregon and Nebraska. It helped to generate publicity for the musical and the studio, and it successfully caught the attention of producers who actually paid Llyod to stage the musical in Houston, Texas and Oahu, Hawaii, and Broadway. Llyod 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 minimal funds to pay the crew, Llyod believed in working with passionate team members who believe in the project, and are willing to work long hours under difficult environments. In order to ensure that he picked 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, Llyod allowed unsuccessful applicants to stay on-set, and continue to practice and assist in the production. By doing so, Llyod had the flexibility of switching team members and creating new roles whenever necessary.
- Rehearsing extensively.
Before filming on-site, Llyod ensured that the crew rehearsed the entire movie once so that the crew was able to practice their scenes while Llyod identified potential issues and areas of improvement in the production. As such, he will be able to minimize potential production issues during actual filming, thus reducing the risk of production overruns.
- Filming the project sequentially.
By filming sequentially, Llyod had the flexibility of switching crew members in unusual situations, such as uncooperative actors that suddenly disappear from the production set. In some instances, a director had to film the ending of the movie first due to the availability of the location. However, by doing so, the director will not be able to switch the leads if they become too difficult to manage.
2. Managing the expectations of the project team.
Film production is an arduous process and Llyod managed the expectations of the project team as follows:
- Putting the crew through a long selection process in order to deter uncommitted individuals from joining the project.
- Managing the expectations of selected team members by ensuring that they watched the production videos from Llyod's previous project and knew 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 Move”) in the company and all production locations.
3. Acknowledging the efforts of the production team and fans.
Llyod has received a lot of support from his production teams, and fans who have helped to raise funds for production sets 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 the profits back into the industry.
With the profits gained from his films, Llyod re-invests back into the industry by purchasing films from independent producers and releasing them under the “Troma” brand name. These films are usually ignored by major studios and Llyod is giving these film makers a chance to see their films distributed. This type of maverick behavior has earned the respect of his peers where he serves on the board of the Independent Film & Television Alliance of which he is the former President.
Love or hate his films, Llyod Kaufman is an inspirational leader in the film industry. He showed us that passion and an uncompromising attitude to his craft will allow an individual to succeed even in the toughest environment.
I would like to express my gratitude to Philip Gruber, the organizer of the Singapore Independent Filmmakers Collective, for inviting me to the masterclass and Llyod Kaufman for taking time off from his busy schedule to share his experiences and passion for film making with Singaporeans.