Lessons learned from a veteran horror film entrepreneur

troma

Lloyd Kaufman, co-founder of cult-movie studio Troma Entertainment, pictured with its perennial hero, the Toxic Avenger. PHOTO: TROMA ENTERTAINMENT

You may well have seen Toxic Avenger, but how many of the 400 other movies from  Troma Entertainment have you seen? They’ve been around since 1974, with only 10 employees you could can them a boutique or lifestyle business, making movies for less than $1 million a picture. Flicks like Surf Nazis Must Die and Return to Nuke “Em High have turned the founder, Lloyd Kaufman 72, into a celebrity, with fans stopping him for selfies and autographs at horror movie conventions.

Here are some lessons learned from five decades in the movie business from Kaufman’s interview in The Wall Street Journal by Erich Schwartzel. The article is entitled Cult Movie Studio Troma Thrives on Gore and Guffaws and subtitled Co-founder Lloyd Kaufman talks about the lessons his indie company’s success holds for entrepreneurs.

  • Entrepreneurs are like artists. You create something, and you need to believe in it and follow through and attract like-minded people …
  • Unlike major studios, by staying independent, Kaufman decides what movies to make, his movies aren’t made by committee.
  • If you’re going to be an entrepreneur and you love what you’re doing, you can’t show off. Every dollar has to show up on screen.
  • Fan loyalty is intense: hundreds of people have Toxic Avengers tattoos! Most of Troma’s theatrical posters have been painted by fans.They go to the theaters to promote us, they buy stuff from the website. We have people who represent us at these conventions who are fans. 
  • We usually beat the fat cats to new technologies, and our fans know that, and they’ll come and work on our movie. They’re willing to take a much smaller salary. We do not shoot union.
  • Kaufman hires movie fans who are  young and idealistic and very interested in the art of cinema. They’re movie nuts, and they love movies, and that has to be the foundation.
  • One secret to is to have very long pre-production periods: months of auditioning and rehearsals. All special effects are testing in advance. That saves lots of money when the film goes in to production.
  • Kaufman stays inspired for one simple reason: he himself is a total move fan.
  • He puts at least one commercial element into every movie.
  • His list of about a dozen evergreen films that continue to attract new fans and generate revenue.

This list of lessons learned won’t turn you into a horror movie director, but it shows how a shrewd entrepreneur, who loves what he does and has a lean product development process, can not just survive, but thrive in a movie world dominated by blockbusters and their hundred million dollar marketing budgets from the giant movie studios. Not every startup has to be a high growth, VC-driven, get big or go home venture. If you’re a diehard fan of what you do, like Lloyd Kaufman, you can build and maintain a very nice slow-growth business. But you probably won’t have hundreds of fans with tattoos of your leading product!

 

Author: Mentorphile

Mentor, coach, and advisor to entrepreneurs, small businesses, and non-profit organizations. General manager with significant experience in both for-profit and non-profit organizations. Focus on media and information. On founding team of four venture-backed companies. Currently Chairman of Popsleuth, Inc., maker of the Endorfyn app for keeping fans updated on new stuff from their favorite artists.

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