The Toxic Investor: A Legendary Indie-Film Company Turns to Crowdfunding

Troma, the studio that gave us 'The Toxic Avenger,' has entered the world of crowdfunding. Is this the birth of a new species of production company?

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Andrew Hinderaker for TIME

Lloyd Kaufman, President of Troma Entertainment at his desk in The Troma Building, in Long Island City, N.Y., on Feb. 15, 2013.

Some of the changes have been legal, Kaufman explains in his 2011 book Sell Your Own Damn Movie. Mid-century laws and regulations had opened the American media landscape to independent studios; the 1948 Supreme Court antitrust case U.S. v. Paramount Pictures, Inc., for example, barred the major Hollywood studios from owning their own movie theaters. The 1970 Financial Interest and Syndication Rules required similar decentralization on television, ensuring that there was room for independent production on network TV.

But deregulation has made vertical integration the rule once again. The FCC let the “fin-syn” rules expire in the early ‘90s, but Gus Hurwitz, a fellow at the Center for Technology, Innovation and Competition at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, guesses that the rise of reality television means it wouldn’t matter if the regulations were still around. Even if the networks had to buy independent programs, they would probably just buy low-cost reality content. And while Paramount stands, the type of vertical integration it addressed is now recognized by antitrust law as an efficient way to do business rather than a threat to competition. “Today, it almost certainly would not have been a successful case,” says Hurwitz, who notes that the Paramount agreement led at least temporarily to higher movie ticket prices and lower quality, which did make space for independents but didn’t necessarily benefit mainstream moviegoers. “Antitrust law is meant to protect consumers, not competitors. So even if Paramount made it easier for independent producers to get into that market, that doesn’t necessarily mean it was a good thing.”

Unless those moviegoers are Troma fans. The return to integration has meant that Troma movies are effectively gone from theaters and TV; Kaufman describes the current Troma status as “economically blacklisted” and refers to the media companies that dominate today’s movie-making environment as “cartels.” In all its years, Blockbuster never carried a Troma movie.  At Cannes, Kaufman says, even though many of the movies that show there are very good, there’s no longer a way for an independent film to get noticed unless the filmmaker is a “vassal of the major media conglomerates” or a “puppy-dog favorite” of the elites.

“We could have Gone With the Wind and we wouldn’t be able to get anywhere,” he says.

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To take an example: the 1981 Troma picture Waitress! played on 92 New York City screens; 2007’s Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead played on one, despite positive press in outlets like the New York Times (“it is just about as perfect as a film predicated on the joys of projectile vomiting and explosive diarrhea can be”) and tens of thousands of dollars spent on advertising. When Poultrygeist opened on May 9, 2008, it made over $10,000 in its one theater, clocking in at No. 2 in the country by that metric, according to Box Office Mojo. (Iron Man made an average of $12,452 in each of its 4,111 theaters.) On May 23, however, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull came out and opened on what Kaufman remembers as every single screen in the theater, forcing Poultrygeist out of its single toehold, something that Kaufman thinks would not have happened if the relationships between distributors and studios and theaters were not so cozy. “In years past, however, the theater would have kept playing the film for a few weeks based on such a great opening, and we would have had plenty of opportunity to make that money back, as well as make some profit,” Kaufman writes in Sell Your Own Damn Movie.

Actors from Return to Nuke 'Em High and the upcoming documentary 'Occupy Cannes', are seen watching a scene from their film.

Andrew Hinderaker for TIME

Actors from Return to Nuke ‘Em High and the upcoming documentary Occupy Cannes, are seen watching a scene from their film.

“It made back not one cent. Lost every dime. And my wife and I had to put up the money,” Kaufman says of the film. (His wife is the long-time executive director of the New York State office of Motion Picture and Television Development.) “It’s my wife’s retirement fund. I told her she was investing in Transformers Part 6, so don’t breathe a word!”

Hence, crowdfunding.

In many ways, crowdfunding is an extension of what Troma has been doing for nearly 40 years. They’ve been ahead of the game on technology—early to have a website, and so early to convert to DVD from VHS that Kaufman says the lack of actual people with DVD players almost caused a financial crisis for the company—and have long used social media to foster a close relationship with fans. “The artists can’t exist without the fans, especially in a company like this,” says Aaron Hamel, Troma’s director of international distribution. “The only way we can keep them supporting us is to keep interacting with them, especially in a world like this. Crowdfunding seemed like a natural extension of what we do.”

Plus, the company’s only other experience with the fundraising concept—an Aug. 2012 Kickstarter campaign to raise money to have a live, professionally trained duck in Return to Nuke ‘Em High—raised $10,192, much more than the $4,000 they asked for. And the $50,000 for Occupy Cannes may seem like a lot, and is meant to cover a lot of ground, but it’s a moderate amount of money for an Indiegogo filmmaking campaign: some film projects need only a few thousand dollars but others have made north of $300,000, says John Trigonis, the Indiegogo rep working on Troma’s campaign.

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Troma is doing everything right to succeed in the campaign: there has been a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” forum and a Google+ Hangout; there have been regular updates on the campaign site, capitalizing on Indiegogo’s statistic that campaigns that do an update every one to five days raise twice as much money; Trigonis says that they’re going the extra mile, that the fan interaction is half the battle and that Troma is doing it perfectly. (And, Kaufman quips, they don’t just contact their fans—they contact their air conditioners!)

They’ve also got donors like Josu Mata, a 30-year-old Spanish filmmaker. “It’s about independent filmmaking and how hard it is for independent filmmakers to get out there and have some kind of way to get noticed,” he says. Mata has worked on movies and television but isn’t right now—the Spanish economy has taken its toll on him. Nonetheless, he’s contributed $10,000 to Occupy Cannes, the prize for which is a trip to Cannes with the Troma team. Mata says he hopes to be part of something about which he can feel passionate.

But, for an established studio like Troma, crowdfunding is not the future.

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