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.

For one thing, they wouldn’t ask their fans to pay for a full-fledged Troma movie, which can run to about a half a million dollars (Return to Nuke ‘Em High, which will be released in two volumes, cost about $800,000, still teensy-tiny by Hollywood standards). A documentary shot on digital is relatively cheap, and Occupy Cannes exists to prove a point, not to make money, the latter of which is what Troma—or any studio—needs in the long run. While Kaufman says he might return to crowdfunding for campaigns like the Kickstarter duck, to pay for individual movie elements that strain budgets, the fans can’t be called on to pay in advance for feature film budgets. (One thing Troma can get out of crowdsourcing is free market research, says Kaufman: how many people contribute is, like whether or not people make the copyright-infringing products that other companies frown upon but Troma encourages, a good gauge of whether an idea is working. Troma’s publicity director Justin Martell says, if the company wanted to use traditional investments for Occupy Cannes—which they don’t, in order to maintain artistic freedom—the more than 250 people who have already contributed would be a big selling point for investors.)

Another problem is that the strategy can’t be replicated across the industry. Even if Troma can call its legions of fans to arms, not everyone has 40 years of history behind them. “The digital revolution has democratized the making of movies. That’s wonderful. The problem is, how do you live off your art?” says Kaufman. “The line between home movies and movies is becoming very blurred. How do you get yourself noticed with all the billions and billions of videos?” Troma has an advantage in people like Josu Mata, people who would pay $10,000 to hang out with Lloyd Kaufman and make art that is perverted only in a non-business sense.

Kaufman does see potential in a future—mutant, if you will—vision of crowdfunding. It allows creativity without compromise. Fans just want to see a movie, but investors want to make profits, which requires toning things down. “They want you to make baby food, if that’s what it takes to make money,” he says. If companies could offer their fans profits rather than souvenirs, it would be the ideal combination of incentive and creative freedom—but even that’s problematic. Last April, the Jumpstart Our Business Startups (JOBS) Act was passed, part of which would allow just that: businesses could offer contributors financial securities as rewards, though the SEC has yet to iron out how that will work. This will allow companies to “unlock” their fans for more than the return on ticket price, Indiegogo founder Danae Ringelmann tells TIME.

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Which would be great for innovation, Kaufman agrees, “not just for movies, but for better mousetraps.” Still, if studios are honest with fans, they will admit that there’s little financial incentive to invest in a movie.  “This business is so bad. So many people think they’re going to get profit and they don’t,” he says, noting that the same is true for big studio pictures. “For the most part, if you want to make money, don’t invest in a movie.”

A prop head from 'Return to Nuke 'Em High' in the DVD inventory room in the basement of The Troma Building

Andrew Hinderaker for TIME

A prop head from Return to Nuke ‘Em High in the DVD inventory room in the basement of The Troma Building

And thirdly, there’s no guarantee of success. They have about $25,000 left to raise and mere days left to do it. When there were about ten days left, Kaufman was optimistic. He had heard that these things tend to accelerate toward the end, and as long as they have enough money to actually get to France everything will be fine. “We can put the rest on my credit card and hope my wife doesn’t notice,” Kaufman jokes.

So Occupy Cannes will get made. The young stars of Return to Nuke ‘Em High, Asta Paredes and Catherine Corcoran—who have devoted themselves to promoting the movie and the campaign, Paredes going so far as to create a tumblr “by” her character—say they will be there even if they have to pay their own way. And part of the reason Troma picked Indiegogo rather than Kickstarter is that they will be able to keep whatever money is raised, even if it’s short of the goal. Martell, the publicity director, confirms that Troma will be there in some capacity no matter what.

(MOREThe Kickstarter Economy)

Aside from to Cannes, Troma’s not going anywhere. The company is currently producing a movie directed by a Return to Nuke ‘Em High special-effects guy, and the script for The Toxic Twins—the fifth Toxic Avenger installment, in which Toxie’s teenage twins go through puberty—is in the works. It’s taking a while because you really have to like a script before you make a movie without expecting to make money from it. For those films, Troma will mostly return to its old funding model.

And Kaufman sees the difficulties his own company faces as a good sign for young filmmakers. He and Herz couldn’t have started Troma if they had finished college today rather than in the early ‘70s, but they could have started something else. Maybe something better.

Once upon a time, when sex and slime sold, the only other option was to start in a Hollywood mailroom and work your way up. You don’t have to do that anymore, says Kaufman, who has spent his life since college making movies and selling them. “You can be a schoolteacher in Kansas and make movies. You can make a film once a year for 5,000 bucks and it can be damn good. You can be a nurse, rather than be one of 200 suits in California,” he says. “You can do something useful with your life.”

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