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Monday, January 11, 2016

A brief history of Troma Entertainment

One of the longest-running and most beloved independent film companies in recent memory is Troma Entertainment, the NYC-based outfit established and owned by Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz.  Ever since Troma was formed back in 1974, it has given the world memorable characters such as the Toxic Avenger and Sgt. Kabukiman NYPD, and worked with present and future stars including Stan Lee, Kevin Eastman, James Gunn, and Trey Parker and Matt Stone.

Back in the 1960s, Kaufman and Herz attended Yale University, and both shared a love for filmmaking.  During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Kaufman and Herz produced several different film projects, sometimes working with a pre-fame Oliver Stone.  Even though the two formed Troma in 1974, it would be a few more years before they would officially produce a film under the studio's name.

"Squeeze Play" was a sex comedy (one of the first), echoing the Woman's Rights Movement by pitting a team of women against their husbands and boyfriends in a game of softball.  At first, no theater was interested in showing the movie, but when one theater took a chance on it, it became a surprising success.

"Squeeze Play" was followed by three more "sexy comedies", "Waitress!", "Stuck on You", and "The First Turn-On".  Eventually, Kaufman and Herz decided to move away from this genre, as the major studios were copying the formula in films like the "Porky's" series.  Around this time, Troma also produced two films directed by Kaufman's brother Charles, the slasher movie "Mother's Day", and the "Kentucky Fried Movie"-esque comedy anthology "When Nature Calls".

During the 1970s, Kaufman also worked on films like "Rocky", "Saturday Night Fever", and "My Dinner with Andre", scouting locations and sometimes playing bit roles.  But he had to be part of the Directors Guild in order to do so.  So many of the Troma-produced films were attributed to the pseudonymous "Samuel Weil", to prevent Kaufman from violating the Guild's strict rules.

It was during the production of "Rocky" that Kaufman hit upon the idea for making a film set in a health club.   Some years later, Kaufman and Herz read an article declaring that horror films were dead.  Thus, Troma began development on a project tentatively called "Health Club Horror".

But Kaufman was struggling to make the concept work.  The film, as written at the time, would have featured a villainous monster killing equally villainous people.  It was only when Kaufman thought up the conceit of making the film a comedy with a heroic monster that things started to click.  "Health Club Horror" was eventually retitled "The Toxic Avenger".

The first major screening of "The Toxic Avenger" was a disaster, as even the Troma fans in attendance were turned off by the film's abundance of sex and outlandish blood and gore.  It wasn't until the Bleecker Street Cinemas in New York started showing the film in 1986 that "Toxie" became an icon to horror fans over the globe.

Troma followed up "The Toxic Avenger" with a similar film called "Class of Nuke 'Em High".  "Nuke 'Em High" was also a violent comedy satirizing the nuclear industry and the Power Elite (or as they're better known today, the 1%).  It was also successful, but Troma's next project wound being surprisingly controversial.

"Troma's War", the most expensive film in the company's history, was meant to be a commentary on the Reagan era's jingoistic films such as "Rambo".  But trouble started early when the Directors Guild found out Kaufman was the real Samuel Weil, and forced him to leave their union.  Likewise the MPAA made Troma trim out some of the best scenes in order to achieve an "R" rating.  This especially infuriated Kaufman and Herz, as their director's cut of the film was calculated to be no more extreme than the mainstream action films of the day.

With "Troma's War" bombing at the box office, Troma went back to the well with a Toxic Avenger sequel.  With backing from the Japanese firm Gaga Communications, Toxie, and the Troma Team, were given the chance to go to Tokyo.  But when the first cut of the film was around four hours long, Kaufman panicked.  He then decided to split the film in two.  Thus, "The Toxic Avenger Part II" and "The Toxic Avenger Part III: The Last Temptation of Toxie" were released.  But the more cartoonish violence and toned-down nature of these sequels left fans very disappointed.

But the Toxie sequels helped open doors for Troma in the mainstream entertainment world.  Fred Wolf Films, the producer of the 1980s and 1990s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon expressed interest in adapting Toxie to animation.  And Gaga Communications, along with Pac-Man producer Namco wanted to make a film with Troma for the Japanese market.

Troma, along with Gaga and Namco, produced the film "Sgt. Kabukiman NYPD", a superhero comedy.  Kaufman wanted to make a more extreme film, but almost everyone else, including the Japanese studios, Herz, and then-Troma bigshot Jeff Sass, were dead set on creating a more family-friendly movie.  In the end, the PG-13 and unrated (equivalent to a soft "R") cuts of "Kabukiman" pleased neither parties.  DiC Entertainment head Andy Heyward, however, developed a pitch for a Kabukiman cartoon with Troma, since his kids liked the film.  But due to Anti-Japanese sentiment in the States (this was when Sony bought Columbia Pictures, for example), the Kabukiman cartoon was never made, and the "Kabukiman" film wouldn't be released in America for about half-a-decade.

Fred Wolf and Troma had considerably more success with the "Toxic Crusaders" cartoon.  That show spawned a line of action figures (from TMNT toy makers Playmates), several video games and comics, and assorted merchandise.  In 1991, Troma made a deal with New Line (a then-independent studio that had distributed the Ninja Turtles movies) to produce a live-action Toxic Crusaders movie.  It looked like every was set in place.  Kaufman even assigned directing duties on the second and third Nuke 'Em High films to another filmmaker, since the contract allowed him the chance to direct New Line's picture.  But New Line's mid-1993 deadline came and went, and the film wasn't produced.

The mid-1990s could be seen as a dark point in Lloyd Kaufman's life.  Not only did Troma sue New Line, and win an untold amount in damages, but Lloyd's father Stanley passed away, and his wife Pat suffered a near-fatal case of breast cancer.  Around this time, Kaufman was planning a Tromatic take on Shakespeare's classic, "Romeo & Juliet".

It wasn't until he teamed up with a younger writer named James Gunn that "Tromeo & Juliet" began to really take shape.  More extreme than the Troma films before, "Tromeo" was a major critical success.  Kaufman and Gunn collaborated on the best-selling book "All I Need to Know about Filmmaking I Learned from the Toxic Avenger", which would lead to more books from him (including a novelization of the first Toxie movie).

Troma's further projects have included "Terror Firmer" (a satire of Kaufman's career and filmmaking style), a fourth Toxie film, "Tales from the Crapper" (salvaging footage from an aborted webseries), "Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead" (a vicious takedown of the fast food industry), and "Return to Nuke 'Em High" (a two-part film ala "Kill Bill").

Troma has also distributed films from up and coming filmmakers.  Before Trey Parker and Matt Stone hit it big with "South Park", their first feature "Cannibal! The Musical" was released by Troma.  Parker and Stone have made cameos in later Troma productions, alongside comic book icons Stan Lee and Kevin Eastman, notorious porn actor Ron Jeremy, and the late Lemmy Kilmister from Motorhead.

Toxie continues to be a cultural icon, even starring in a popular stage musical.  Both a big-budget remake film and fifth entry in the original series have been mulled for years, with Arnold Schwarzenegger attached to the former.

But one thing's for sure.  Troma's endurance in a constantly changing industry is due to its irreverent sense of humor and the personality that Kaufman brings to the company as its public face.  And the Troma brand has a created a loyal fanbase that will keep the spirit of Troma alive for many years to come.