Chapter 3: Meet the Moguls

Greetings from Tromaville! Here is Chapter 3 from my book, Everything I Know about Business and Marketing, I Learned from THE TOXIC AVENGER. If you haven’t done so already, you can read the Foreword by Troma co-founder, Lloyd Kaufman, and the Introduction to the book as well as Chapter 1 and 2. You can also see me read this chapter live, along with Lloyd and Toxie, at Florida Supercon. Stay tuned for additional chapters to be published here. If you like what you read and can’t wait for more, please don’t be shy. You can buy the book now on Amazon (and also please don’t be shy about sharing, and reviewing the book when you do read it.) Both Toxie and I greatly appreciate your support! – Jeff Sass

 

Chapter 3: Meet the Moguls

There were three stories above the street-level storefront and countless stories within those three stories. On the first floor (actually the second floor of the building, but the first floor of the Troma offices), after climbing the narrow stairs, one entered the main office landing. To use the word “reception” area would be disingenuous, as visitors were not received as much as they were ignored, and once noticed, most likely put to work.

Two uncomfortable and mismatched office chairs were against the wall to your left. Before you was a beat-up desk, most likely occupied by a heavily tattooed and pierced young person of indiscriminate gender who had been “working” for Troma anywhere from two hours to two days. If they had survived for longer than two days, they would no longer be assigned to the front desk but would probably have been reassigned to head up theatrical sales, or edit trailers on one of the flatbeds on the fourth floor, or given some other critically important task they were grossly ill prepared and underqualified for.

Eventually, some screaming and yelling would emanate from behind the smoke-glass walls of the office diagonally opposite the “reception” desk. The yelling was often followed by the slamming of phone receivers (the old, heavy plastic kind, with cords and such) and perhaps the sound of books, magazines, and film cans being tossed across the room and into the walls. If you were lucky, the screaming and yelling would get the attention of the heavily tattooed and pierced young person of indiscriminate gender who would finally notice your presence. “Oh,” he/she/ it would say. “May I help you?”

“I am here to see Lloyd and Michael.”

And before he/she/it could respond further, Lloyd himself would come bursting out of the office, screaming like a banshee, “What is it? Asshole time?” Blasting past you as if you were the invisible man himself, Lloyd would light into the reception person as a lion attacks its prey, tearing them apart, psychological limb by psychological limb, until they either quit, broke down in tears, or simply accepted their fate and moved on to the next outrageous task Lloyd would assign to them.

And then his attention would drift to his unannounced guest, and zap! Kaufman transforms into the charming, almost delightful, intelligent, and affable Yale graduate (albeit a slightly scruffy one) you may have imagined.

“Come in, come in.”

Their office was a cluttered and messy room, large enough for two desks facing each other, with a sizable chasm between, Michael to the left and Lloyd to the right. Set up for an intentional daily literal face-off, staring at each other with no privacy. By design, they could overhear each other’s every phone call, and chime in from across the room. By design, they could argue over the smallest minutiae and yell and scream at each other with freedom and abandon whenever their muse manifest itself. It was manufactured mayhem. And, for them, it worked.

I sat in the aisle between them, shifting back and forth to face the speaker of the moment. It was funny. It was fun. We sort of all got along. I explained about Satori and asked about their video and TV syndication plans. They ignored me and asked if I’d like the tour of the Troma Building. Of course, I would. And up the stairs we went, starting at the top—the editing rooms.

The fourth floor of the Troma Building was arguably where the magic happened.

•••

That’s Chapter 3 – Another short and sweet one. Stay tuned for “Chapter 4: Trailer Trash” and the story of how I came up with the now classic tag-line, “The First Superhero from New Jersey.”

The book in previous posts:

Foreword, by Lloyd Kaufman
Introduction: Lights, Camera, Action!
Chapter 1: Welcome to Tromaville!
Chapter 2: The Troma Building

 


Chapter 2: The Troma Building

Greetings from Tromaville! Here is Chapter 2 from my book, Everything I Know about Business and Marketing, I Learned from THE TOXIC AVENGER. If you haven’t done so already, you can read the Foreword by Troma co-founder, Lloyd Kaufman, and the Introduction to the book as well as Chapter 1. Stay tuned for additional chapters to be published here. If you like what you read and can’t wait for more, please don’t be shy. You can buy the book now on Amazon (and also please don’t be shy about sharing, and reviewing the book when you do read it.) Both Toxie and I greatly appreciate your support! – Jeff Sass

 

Chapter 2: The Troma Building

In the heart of Hell’s Kitchen. Ninth Avenue and Forty-Ninth Street to be precise. A four-story walk-up brownstone that Lloyd and Michael had wisely purchased with the profits from one of their early hits, most likely the light T-and-A comedies Waitress and Squeeze Play. The north side of the brick-faced Troma Building was exposed, unadulterated, and clearly visible to all traffic heading downtown on Ninth Avenue. It was adorned with a giant-sized version of the one-sheet (movie parlance for a poster) of The Toxic Avenger movie and the greeting, “Welcome to Tromaville.” Yes, as countless buses, cars, and taxis voyaged down Ninth Avenue into the famous Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, they were greeted not by graffiti but by the infamous hideously deformed creature of superhuman size and strength. A truly supersized Toxie, complete with a mop the size of a schoolyard flagpole. Heading south on Ninth Avenue, there was no question you had arrived in Tromaville.

That small investment in Manhattan real estate was one of the many business and marketing strokes of genius executed by Lloyd and Michael and it, quite literally, put Troma on the map (at least on the map of the West Side of New York City). Think about it: Which other independent film studio could afford billboard advertising in midtown Manhattan, albeit the somewhat seedier side of said midtown? Still, it was great exposure, and it was free.

Speaking of free, the ground floor of the Troma Building had a retail space that was rented out to a variety of tenants over the years. The building was bought for cash and had no mortgage, so as long as the rent from the retail tenant covered the cost of insurance and real-estate taxes, Troma’s film business could occupy the rest of the building essentially rent-free. This low overhead advantage probably kept the company alive during the many lean times. And there were many lean times.

•••

That’s Chapter 2 – Another short and sweet one. Stay tuned for “Chapter 3: Meet the Moguls” and my first in-person encounter with Troma founders Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz…

The book in previous posts:

Foreword, by Lloyd Kaufman
Introduction: Lights, Camera, Action!
Chapter 1: Welcome to Tromaville!

Chapter 1: Welcome to Tromaville

Greetings from Tromaville! Here is Chapter 1 from my book, Everything I Know about Business and Marketing, I Learned from THE TOXIC AVENGER. If you haven’t done so already, you can read the Foreword by Troma co-founder, Lloyd Kaufman, and the Introduction to the book. Stay tuned for additional chapters to be published here. If you like what you read and can’t wait for more, please don’t be shy. You can buy the book now on Amazon (and also please don’t be shy about sharing, and reviewing the book when you do read it.) Both Toxie and I greatly appreciate your support! – Jeff Sass

 

Chapter 1: Welcome to Tromaville

New York, just like I pictured it. Actually, it was New York, just as I always knew it, having grown up in Forest Hills, Queens, and acclimated at a young age to the Q60 bus to Manhattan and the E, F, G, N, and RR subway lines into “the City.” Tromaville, on the other hand, was less familiar.

I was working for a relatively unknown TV-and-film-distribution company, Satori Entertainment, my first job out of college, when I first heard about “the Troma Guys.” Satori, an interesting story in and of itself, was run by the late Ernie Sauer, in many ways a TV pioneer and visionary, who, among other things, started the first satellite-distributed radio service long before the likes of Sirius and XM Radio were a twinkle in their founders’ eyes.

During my tenure at Satori, in the early ’80s, the company achieved some notoriety as a leading importer of “English-language foreign films”— in other words, films from Australia, New Zealand, and Great Britain. We would obtain the North American rights to these films and license them to the burgeoning pay-TV market, including the early days of HBO and Showtime, and a small network of over-the-air STV (Subscription Television) services that were cropping up in a handful of markets around the country—all precursors to the cable-TV and home-video explosions that were on the cusp of arriving. We had a few early successes, like Dot and the Kangaroo, an Australian live-action and animated children’s film, and Bruce Beresford’s Don’s Party as well as the early Mel Gibson film Tim, with Mel and Piper Laurie. In a few cases, we dabbled in releasing some of our imports in theaters, and for a while, we played host to an Australian Film Festival at the old D. W. Griffith Theater on East Fifty-Ninth Street.

Then the home-video revolution arrived, and our growing catalog of films found new value on VHS. Dot and the Kangaroo was licensed to Andre Blay’s Magnetic Home Video, which eventually became Fox Home Video, and a new, lucrative market emerged. Along the way, we went public, and after Satori’s IPO, we realized that it made sense to acquire more films and grow our library as our distribution channels into the developing pay- TV and home-video markets continued to expand and thrive. It was with such acquisitions in mind that I decided to call on “the Troma Guys,” who, after all, were situated in “the Troma Building,” a mere seven blocks north on Ninth Avenue from Satori headquarters, adjacent to the Port Authority Bus Terminal.

I had heard of Troma and the story of Lloyd and Michael’s little film fiefdom. I may even have seen a Troma film or two. But mostly I was aware they had built a nice-sized library of low-budget films they had produced themselves or acquired from others: films I presumed would potentially have value in the growing pay-TV and syndicated-TV marketplace we were supplying. I gave them a call and was invited to come visit them.

•••

That’s Chapter 1 – short and sweet. Stay tuned for “Chapter 2: The Troma Building” and my first journey into the heart of “Hell’s Kitchen.”

The book in previous posts:

Foreword, by Lloyd Kaufman
Introduction: Lights, Camera, Action!

,

Introduction: Lights, Camera, Action!


Greetings from Tromaville! Here is the Introduction to my book, Everything I Know about Business and Marketing, I Learned from THE TOXIC AVENGER. If you haven’t done so already, you can read the Foreword by Troma co-founder, Lloyd Kaufman. Stay tuned for additional chapters to be published here. If you like what you read and can’t wait for more, please don’t be shy. You can buy the book now on Amazon (and also please don’t be shy about sharing, and reviewing the book when you do read it.) Both Toxie and I greatly appreciate your support! – Jeff Sass

INTRODUCTION: Lights, Camera, Action!

There are a lot of similarities between making movies and starting companies. Film producers and directors are as much entrepreneurs as anyone who might create or aspire to create a Silicon Valley start-up. The purpose of this book is to draw valuable lessons in business and marketing from my experiences making movies—not in Hollywood, mind you, but rather in Tromaville. Since my filmmaking days, I’ve been a start-up cofounder, COO, CEO, and currently a CMO, and I don’t think I ever could have survived the C-suite if I hadn’t had the experience of making B-movies.

•••

Early in my career, I spent seven and a half years working for Troma, the low-budget film studio probably best known for the cult-classic action/horror film The Toxic Avenger. As I am sure you must know, The Toxic Avenger is the heartwarming story of Melvin Junko, a lowly mop boy who, teased and taunted, falls into a vat of radioactive waste and emerges as…the Toxic Avenger—the First Superhero from New Jersey!

As a movie, The Toxic Avenger was sloppy, gory, cheesy, tasteless, and perhaps even unsavory. But as a character, the Toxic Avenger (now affectionately known as “Toxie”) was remarkably endearing, especially for a hideously deformed creature of superhuman size and strength. In his 1986 review of the film, Stephen Holden of the New York Times said The Toxic Avenger “may be trash, but it has a maniacally farcical sense of humor, and Tromaville’s evildoers are dispatched in ingenious ways.”

The oft-warped brainchild of two Yale graduates, Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz, Troma has indeed been ingenious in creating a world outside the Hollywood norm, their own Tromaville, where the filmmakers are beholden to no force other than their own off-kilter creative muse. The proof of their ingenuity? Today Troma Entertainment still lives on, over forty years old and arguably the world’s oldest independent film studio. That monstrous creature Toxie? He’s gone on to survive three sequels and a Saturday-morning cartoon spin-off, along with the requisite comic books, toys, games, and apparel. A rumored “big studio” remake even threatened to star Arnold Schwarzenegger as Toxie.

The Troma Team is notorious for giving young, inexperienced aspiring filmmakers a chance to work, often way over their heads and always way under their expected minimum wage. But the experience, as they say, is priceless. It was for me. And as I hope this book will expose, my lessons from Tromaville extended far beyond my celluloid dreams. While many former Tromites went on to impressive (and more traditional) Hollywood careers (including the likes of actor Kevin Costner and director James Gunn), my own post-Tromatic career led me down the path of a marketer and tech entrepreneur. I think I am pretty good at what I do. I’ve had many great experiences in the business world since I emigrated from Tromaville in 1994. But if I am truly honest with myself, I must admit that I couldn’t have done it without Toxie.

Making movies is hard work, especially making movies on a shoestring budget. Actually, we couldn’t even afford shoestrings—we had Velcro budgets! But I learned a lot: how to mix theatrical blood, how to make a ripe cantaloupe substitute for a head being crushed…but making movies also taught me a lot about business and entrepreneurship.

In truth, a film production is like a start-up on steroids. You go from screenplay (business plan) to product completion in a matter of months. You have to hire, fire, build up, tear down, raise money, spend money, rally the troops, fight deadlines and external forces, and make constant compromises, all the while fighting to stay the course and make the best film (i.e., product) you can. Teamwork and camaraderie, on and off the set, make a big difference (culture), and in the end, success or failure comes from ultimately finding an audience (satisfied customers).

Nobody sets out to make a bad film, just like nobody starts a company with the intention of failing.

•••

That’s the book’s introduction. Hope you enjoyed it. Next, “Chapter 1: Welcome to Tromaville.”

 

Foreword by Lloyd Kaufman, Troma Cofounder

When I wrote my first book, the Tromatic tome All I Need to Know about Filmmaking I Learned from The Toxic Avenger: The Shocking True Story of Troma Studios, on page 210 I wrote that Jeff Sass was “probably the best Troma employee ever…” Well, of course, that couldn’t possibly still be true. After all, when Jeff decided to leave Troma to pursue a real career, we replaced him with a kid named James Gunn. Now, James actually helped me write All I Need to Know about Filmmaking…and James has gone on to become one of the most talented and commercial directors living today (yeah, that Guardians of the Galaxy James Gunn), and he still talks to me. So, clearly, James Gunn was the best Troma employee ever.

That said, Sass was all right, even though he refused to sleep with me.

A fellow Ivy League graduate with an actual reputation and work experience when we hired him, Jeff Sass was the exception to our typical Troma Team employee, but we gave him a chance, and miraculously he not only survived but thrived during his seven-year stint on the dark side. He created the world-famous slogan “The First Super Hero from New Jersey.” You’ll read about that in chapter 4.

During Jeff’s tenure, and with his inspiration and input, we experienced some of the golden years of Troma, becoming Troma Entertainment. Jeff was instrumental in turning Toxie, an R-Rated movie featuring a child getting his head squashed by the wheel of an automobile, into a delightful, highly rated, environmentally correct cartoon for kiddies on Fox TV Saturday morning. He also launched a huge licensing and merchandising division. We advanced into the computer age under Jeff’s geek guidance and made some of our most ambitious, and now-classic, films with Jeff on the producing line, including Troma’s War and Sgt. Kabukiman, NYPD. While Jeff’s former stature in the film industry dwindled, Troma’s star rose, and Troma’s rose bloomed thanks in large part to Jeff Sass’s many talents and contributions.

As for this book, while Jeff may no longer be Troma’s best employee ever, he may have written the best book on Troma ever. And more important, he has managed to turn his experiences in Tromaville into a veritable MBA course for anyone interested in entrepreneurship, business, and marketing. Dear reader, you hold in your hand an extremely entertaining and funny look behind the scenes and under Kabukiman’s kimono, but within Sass’s Troma tales are real, very meaningful lessons of business value for everyone, including me! And 2017 marks my fiftieth year of making movies nobody sees.

Now, about that James Gunn guy…

Lloyd Kaufman

Cofounder, Troma

Next: “Introduction: Lights, Camera, Action!