Dialogue: Troma chief Kaufman

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Lloyd Kaufman, the perpetually bow-tied president and co-founder of Troma Studios, will play a new role at this year's American Film Market. In September, the indie stalwart was elected to a two-year term as chairman of the Independent Film & Television Alliance, AFM's parent organization. And while he still finds time to promote current Troma titles like "Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead," Kaufman is dead serious about promoting the interests of his fellow independents, championing their causes against the threat he sees in media consolidation and promoting net neutrality and new technologies. Kaufman recently spoke with The Hollywood Reporter film editor Gregg Kilday.

The Hollywood Reporter: What's the most important issue that the independents face as we head into AFM?
Kaufman: The most important issue is revenue enhancement for our members. And that's an international issue. We are making movies that are better than ever, but we are having greater and greater difficulty penetrating the mainstream market. It's very important that we work on bringing more buyers from the companies that already do attend the AFM to the market and also to identify new emerging territories that are providing film buyers. At the market, I'm going to be spending most of my time meeting with members -- there are a lot of members I've never met that will be coming in from Asia and Europe. And there are others whom I already know who I want to spend time with. My most important function to listen to the members as much as I can and get a sense of their concerns.

THR: You've already identified media consolidation as one of your primary concerns.
Kaufman: We are in critical era, and we face enormous challenges from the large international media conglomerates and the giant telephone companies. With many of the regulations like the Fin-Syn rules being done away with, the television markets in the U.S. have become impenetrable for the independent producers, and so I will endeavor to continue to focus on industry consolidation. Before the Fin-Syn rules were done away with (in 1994), 40-50% of network shows used to be independently produced. Now it's something like 4%. Vertically integrated entertainment companies are now run by a small number of conglomerates. Take, HBO, for example. They may take some independent movies, but they are independent movies coming through the smaller companies owned by the major studios. HBO doesn't seem to be buying many independently-made, independently-produced movies.


THR:
You've always been active in taking your case to Washington, and you made another trip there since being elected chairman. How were you received?
Kaufman: Right after (I was) elected, (IFTA president) Jean Prewitt and I and a small group met with Kevin Martin, chairman of the FCC, and the Republican members of the FCC. The chairman gave us much more time than we knew we were going to get, so I think he's listening. This is a work in progress, and it's not going to happen overnight. I don't think we'll succeed in getting Fin-Syn brought back, but maybe through various efforts, we can propel hearings, create public service announcements. We can get young people involved -- Troma has a big following among activist youth -- and if we can get a movement going, maybe we can get a kind of Fin-Syn light, as Jean Prewitt calls it. We need to get the attention of people at the major networks, and we need to raise consciousness. It's very idealistic, and some people might say we're tilting at windmills, but we have to try to change the world for the better. Part of my agenda when I ran for chairman was also to try to pre-empt Big Internet. We want to maintain net neutrality, because the Internet is the last remaining medium where the best mousetrap also wins. I'm concerned that the big telephone companies and big conglomerates are already starting to colonize the Internet for own offerings, and we're very concerned that there is a movement in Washington to upset net neutrality.

THR: Speaking of Washington, you also posted a video of your own on YouTube, using a commentary on Hillary Clinton's parody of the final scene of "The Sopranos" to warn that Clinton could join forces with the studios and the phone companies "to get rid of net neutrality." Now that you represent IFTA, are you going to be able to continue to be as outspoken as you've been as the head of Troma?
Kaufman: No question, when I put on my IFTA chairman's hat, I'll have to remove the Troma Toxic Avenger mask. IFTA is a big tent -- it's the United Nations of movie companies, and the international companies are also very important. But when I made that PSA, I wasn't speaking for the association. That was my personal opinion. There's another one that I did where the Toxic Avenger is fighting for net neutrality. The sad thing is that the limousine liberal political establishment has received such a tremendous amount of money from the media conglomerates that they certainly haven't been discussing the issue much.

THR: You were involved in the creation of IFTA's New Technologies Opportunities Committee, so you clearly have been watching the new technologies closely for some time.
Kaufman: We as a trade organization can inform our members of the new sources of revenue, but we must also use the power of the trade association to educate the giant aggregators of content, who are not steeped in the traditions of the entertainment business, that they need to pay our members minimum guarantees, pay them advances in order to guarantee a reliable flow of entertainment content. These aggregators need to take on some of the risk that we independent producers have in bringing our movies and entertainment to fruition in the same ways that the international distributors who prebuy films and put up minimum guarantees take on risk. At Troma, interestingly enough, we've used the new technology to enhance our own technology. We've picked up theatrical playdates because of fans, who go to our various Web sites and MySpace pages, and then go to their local movie theaters and then literally ask them to book 35mm prints. It still results in a limited theatrical release, but it would be even less if it were not for the fans going to the chat rooms and Web sites that we control.
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