"$ell Your Own Damn Movie" Book Review
Written by ZigZag
Published by Focal Press
Written by Lloyd Kaufman
2011, 245 pages, Film Production
Released on June 8th, 2011
Lloyd Kaufman has spent the last four decades making films without the support of a major studio backing him in either the production or marketing of these titles. While Lloyd started out working within the studio system on films like Rocky, My Dinner with Andre, and The Final Countdown, he turned his attention to screwball comedies and low brow material that eventually led him to create his icon of the horror genre, The Toxic Avenger. Troma Entertainment is a company founded by Kaufman and his business partner Michael Herz in 1974.
While Herz remains secreted away in the shadows of sanity and responsibility, Kaufman is the public face of the company, a P.T. Barnum of showmanship with his grand persona working to snag your attention long enough to interest you in his products. For all of the goofy shenanigans the Troma team pulls, there is a serious message lurking within the company of defending the rights for independent filmmakers to have the same opportunities provided to those who work within the Hollywood studio system.
Lloyd takes the opportunity with his new book $ell Your Own Damn Movie, to share the wisdom needed to navigate the ever-changing minefield of film distribution using stories of his own misadventures and by asking his fellow filmmakers what advice they can share from their experiences of overcoming the odds and getting an independent film released.
Starting with a questionable history of celluloid (i.e. the Chinese invented the first 35mm movie camera in 476 B.C.), the reader is quickly introduced to the system of “how things work and always have” that the newcomer must face in order to stand out in the field of cinema. Kaufman is quick to point out how difficult it is to get noticed even with decades of experience, and admits to only a limited amount of success in recent years. It is this honesty that allows the author to deliver some discouraging news while keeping the information upbeat that makes this book so helpful.
Advances in technology have made it easier for anyone to make a movie, but it is now harder than ever to make a living as an indie filmmaker due in part to the glut of material being produced. Lloyd discusses the thrills of having a project play in theatres, but balances this with the knowledge that it is increasingly difficult to find a theatre willing to play a small movie on a screen that could be showing a summer blockbuster instead.
In what is perhaps his most passionate argument, Lloyd takes the position that piracy is actually beneficial, admitting that a lot of audiences know his work through illegal downloads because Troma lacks legitimate distribution in many foreign countries. It is also somewhat surprising that many of the successful films in Troma’s catalogue have never played on television in the United States, including Cannibal! The Musical (written and directed by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone).
There is a substantial amount of material covering the importance of presentation. While the filmmaker should go to great lengths to make his movie look and sound as professional as possible, Kaufman stresses that finishing the film is only the beginning. Success begins with how audiences are introduced to the product and Lloyd encourages the use of a strong internet presentation as well as designing a memorable ad campaign with a creative poster and an engaging trailer. Word of mouth can make the difference between a film that is coming soon and a film that is eagerly anticipated.
The focus of the book shifts to the world of film festivals and how to gain interest in your product from companies both foreign and domestic. It is here that the real gold of this tome is to be mined as the festival circuit is a tricky field where the artist has the greatest chance of having his product seen by the people that are in a position to buy and release independent films. There is a risk of being swallowed in the ever-growing sea of fests that range from prestigious (Cannes, Sundance, Tribeca) to countless local upstarts that offer little more than an award certificate for your press kit. Kaufman is informative with his advice on how much emphasis to place behind pinning all hopes on a successful festival run.
The remainder of the book is filled with fantastic sidebar interviews and essays from veterans of the industry like directors James Gunn (Slither) and Oren Peli (Paranormal Activity) and actress Karen Black (Trilogy of Terror). There are nice pieces with director David Cronenberg (Dead Ringers) and Brad Kembel , an executive at Summit Films (aka the house that Twilight built). There is also a foreword to the book by the legendary Stan Lee. The chapter I found most insightful, written by Jonathan Wolf (Executive Vice President of the Independent Film and Television Alliance (IFTA) and Managing Director of the American Film Market), breaks down the elements of how to successfully market your film to an international gathering of distribution companies.
While Kaufman fills his book with wacky anecdotes and reprints of goofy emails with his editor, there are occasional glimpses at the man behind the personality. Lloyd is a highly educated and very shrewd man who has spent the majority of his life fighting for the “little guy”. As the chair for IFTA, he battles for net neutrality and equality to artists regardless of privilege. For as many small production companies that burst onto the scene only to disappear seemingly overnight, Troma has maintained a strong presence for almost forty years and shows little sign of disappearing any time soon.