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The last stand of the American exploitation film. In a post video store era, media consolidation has led to the censorship and near death of the independent and exploitation film industry. Joe Bob Briggs (Last Drive-in), Debbie Rochon (Toxic Avenger IV), Lloyd Kaufman and James Rolfe (Angry Video Game Nerd) take us on an adventure that leads from the last Blockbuster video store in Bend Oregon to Troma Entertainment in New York, all in an effort to examine how history keeps repeating itself from the video store era to the modern streaming. This film is a follow-up to the 5 time award winning VHS Massacre documentary, winner of three Telly Awards, a Gold Remi from World-fest Houston and Best Documentary at Miami Sci-Fi!
January 14th 2020
So we had a sneak peek of VHS Massacre Too at Anthology Film Archives in New York City last week. I really didn’t know what to expect on a freezing, Wednesday night in the East Village but I loved it. I saw a lot of friends and family, some fellow grad students and a lot of Troma fans! I even signed some autographs and Thom DeMicco and Dwayne Steeler from Troma were there. The thing about having an event is that although I was relieved that it was well attended, the press generated from the event was far greater. So as an example both Dread Central and the Horror Society both covered the event. So thousands of people are now aware of the film and that’s pretty cool! So if anyone out there has a film but is reluctant to screen it, I’d say go for it and Anthology Film Archives ,New Filmmaker New York is a great place to submit!
In other cool news the Independent Horror Awards has selected VHS Massacre Too for competition. It appears to be a competition that celebrates indie horror flicks that are off the beaten path and rebels against cookie cutter studio films. So it’s an honor.
I was excited to learn that James Rolfe had actually watched the first VHS Massacre and liked it but more about that later. So I’m slowly chipping away at my MFA and I’m about half way done at this point. The Hunter Intergraded Media Arts Program has been challenging but it will ultimately be rewarding. It’s been humbling being a 42 year old graduate student and it is exhausting working full time and going to school at night. I’ve gotten to learn from Academy Award winning cinematographers and NPR Radio producers. In this sense I feel like I’m starting to get the most out of Living in New York City, even if it took a decade or so to find a decent quality of life. As I prepare to be a father I wanted to have a project going to tinker with on the side the same way my father works on computers, inventions, or wood working. So at least for now that seems to be the VHS Massacre films.
The great news is that over the last month I’ve gotten some really solid interviews. James Rolfe a filmmaker known as the Angry Video Game Nerd has joined the cast of VHS Massacre 2. The views on his web-series are literally in the billions. He made his first feature a few years back and I got to hear about how that process went.
The next person to join the film is independent film juggernaut and film reviewer Shawn C. Phillips. With over a 130 movie credits, he has carved out a solid career but also his physical media collection is really amazing! His insights into the value of exploitation films are really powerful as well!
Lastly but certainly not least Mr. J.R. Bookwalter, that man whose first feature was funded by Sam Raimi (The Dead Next Door). He has worked on so many Full Moon classics that it will make your head spin. For instance Witch House 2,3, Curse of Puppet Master and so on! He’s had a great career and his expertise in independent film distribution is a really important in regard to this film. A few more interviews, some B-roll and I should have enough material to finished VHS Massacre 2! Hopefully toward the end of next year. With the success of the first VHS Massacre, it is my hope that I continue to work in the documentary field.
I was thinking about it and the narrative feature films I’ve done over the years, Everything Moves Alone, London Betty, Mark of the Beast were done to the best of my ability. The budgets, give or take were about 10 grand a piece and I really did try my best and push things are far as possible. They even had stars in them like Ellen Muth, Clint Howard and Daniel Von Bargen. Here’s the thing, running around with a camera over my shoulder and moving lights around for 12 hours a day is a young man’s game and that’s what it takes to make a feature length film so cheaply. With documentary you can do a couple of interview a month in your spare time and it’s a lot more manageable. So you could say I’m retiring from narrative feature length films until which time as someone funds $100,000 plus project for me. If I’m going to make another narrative I need to be able to take my time, hire the right people and do it right.
Another reason to want a higher budget is that the average viewer has changed in their expectations. The way film criticism is set up online, where people are pushed and encouraged to rate and review has really created contempt for small films because as some statistics are starting to find, angry people tweet and review more than happy people and so it’s never an accurate representation online. When a low-budget film gets trashed there is no recourse, no million dollar PR machine to counteract this through advertising. So it dies on the vine right there and it becomes difficult for that filmmaker to make another film. I grew up in a time where a low-budget feature film was considered a kind of miracle and people wanted to see what you could do for no money. Now many young adults think of content as free, and when people think something is free, they don’t always appreciate it as much. So it’s a different era.
As far as my career in documentary film it is Troma Entertainment that makes this worth doing. For filmmakers like Eli Roth, Debbie Rochon, James Gunn, Marisa Tomei, Matt Stone, Trey Parker or Sam Jackson, Troma is where you start out your career. For me although I’ve had some successes, it may be where I end up but I think I’m ok with that. Stay tuned for more news!
Jan. 2019 UPDATES!
As the new year begins a few things are starting to fall into place. My new feature length documentary VHS Massacre 2 is coming along slowly but I’m making steady progress. I just finished a great interview with my friend Jason Carvey. He is a writer/director that cast John Krasinksi (The Office,Jack Ryan) in one of his first feature films. Carvey speaks about how certain distribution companies have really hurt independent filmmakers. Even when a film is profitable sometimes the distribution company refuses to honor their contract and pay filmmakers. I had the same situation happen to me with the film Land of College Prophets back in 2005. The film was successful but York Entertainment refused to pay us once they reached the break even point. If you can’t pay back your investors it can become difficult to raise more money again. This in a weird way works as a form of censorship though this is not necessarily the intention of a crooked distributor or the studio system. By financially starving out independent filmmakers “society will eventually lose out” to quote my friend Professor James Richardson.
This is different than banning a film from major streaming sites like in the case of Debbie Rochon’s Model Hunger. This is particularly bizarre in that I can watch films like Human Centipede 1-3 or a Lars Von Trier film on most formats but simply because Debbie has an unrated film from a smaller distributor, they lack the power and influence get it though. The third piece of this would be the outraged mobs on social media helped to get Debbie fired from her day job for playing evil nazi villains or doing nudity in films, something that even academy award winners have done like Christoph Waltz, Holly Berry or even Charlie Chaplin. With nearly 300 features under her belt Debbie Rochon might be the most prolific American Independent film star in history…and she has been treated like shit. She is a trailblazer for women in the genre and routinely tops lists of women in horror. To paraphrase her, “the judgement I get from a seemly younger generation is baffling.” Looking down on her for the roles she has taken. A bizarre twist to me that they can’t see a hero from a villain.
Exploitation films are meant to do what studio films can’t, push the envelope. Specifically in the horror genre that idea of a non-offensive nightmare seems rather toothless. After all we see horror film to be scared and shocked in a safe way. Odd that people would try to hold horror films to the same standard as a terrible network sitcom. This documentary has led me down some strange path but I think it is a good thing.
Then there was Blockbuster Video. Jason speaks how in order to get certain films into Blockbuster, films at times were heavily censored. In addition that fact that Blockbuster killed the independently owned video stores is a from of censorship because they only carried family friendly content. Exploitation films and low-budget content was to a significant degree excluded.
What I see from these three forms of censorship is problematic. What tiggers people now might not be what triggers people ten years from now. So in destroying a filmmakers career on social media, we may lose out on how we may reinterpret a film in the future or we may lose out on how that artist evolves. James speaks about how black exploitation films of the 70’s planted the seeds for Marvel Superheroes in present day. Even though the representations are imperfect and in some cases offensive we can look back and see that they are very important. If we look back at the past and cringe a bit, it is a good thing because it means that we’ve made progress. If we demonize the past by the standards of today the whole world looks evil though that lens. The problem is what we’re doing in 2019 will be demonized in five years as well but we don’t yet know how. How do you know you are the right side of history until the future bear its results. So I don’t think censorship good for a society in the long run. Take what is relevant and meaningful from the past, leave what is irrelevant where it originated, in the past. As of right now that that feels true to me. As the film unfolds I hope to learn more.
We are currently shooting interviews for EX Massacre, a follow up to the 5 time award winning documentary VHS Massacre! VHS Massacre was distributed by FilmRise and Troma Entertainment who is currently in production with Legendary Pictures!
So I’m working on the follow up to the VHS Massacre documentary with Kenneth Powell. That film was shot from early 2012 until 2014 and released in 2016. A lot has changed since then and lately I’ve been trying to put my finger on it. Recently we got some great footage from the Last Blockbuster in the U.S. located in Bend, Oregon courtesy of producer Tom Poirier. It made me think of how Blockbuster starved out independent video stores and in turn, they starved out a number of exploitation filmmakers. You couldn’t see certain films that pushed the envelope in most Blockbuster Videos. For the most part Troma films, rare films, certain exploitation films and adult films were simply not available. Blockbuster was a family store and so they just didn’t carry certain titles. They certainly wanted to monopolize the industry and I think a side result was a deep censoring of certain films to the public and that is never good. So just as people got the freedom for the first time to rent the films at a reasonable price, certain films was quickly excluded. In a new interview I spoke with my friend Professor James Richardson about his favorite exploitation films and why they were important.
So now that Blockbuster Video is in the past (sort of) what has changed? I’d say independent films are being starved out in a different way. Be it through predatory distribution contracts that never pay out, being banned or blocked from premier streaming sites, or simply being paid pennies on the dollar from YouTube. (I once calculated that you have the same odds of playing in the NBA versus making six figures a year on YouTube) to make things worse YouTube recently kicked thousands of channels off of the partnership program cutting them out of the money making process altogether. In a recent interview with Debbie Rochon she speaks of her horror film Model Hunger being banned from major streaming sites because of graphic violence. Ironically I can watch all of the Human Centipede films on various formats. Why is this? Money and influence of course. Even though Debbie Rochon’s film model hunger starred horror icon Lynn Lowry (Crazies,Shivers), it was low budget and so it was harder to push back.
Lloyd Kaufman himself will tell you that Netflix was built on the backs of low-budget filmmakers like Debbie or Troma Studios and their nearly 1,000 available titles. I even had a few titles on Netflix like Land of College Prophets in there in early 2000’s. Now of course we have all been kicked out. We were good enough for them as they were building their company but now they don’t need us. This a theme that seems to repeat over and over for indie filmmakers. So right now Prime Video and iTunes still have their door open to independent content so that is a light at the end of the tunnel. Though Prime to me is more promising. They have a massive subscriber base and there may be more of a chance that people hear about your film on the web and watch it on Prime without paying a separate rental fee.
So the new doc is going to be about modern censorship of Independent and exploitation films. We may dabble with origin of film censorship in the U.S. for instance the banning films of prize fighting films in the late 19th century, pre-code and post-code and so on. The main focus however will talk about the risks of making exploitation film today. Ex Massacre I’m calling the film. I have about 40 minutes roughed out but I need some more interviews for sure. I’m starting to book them now.
All this to say I’m excited to be working on a new project and still grateful for the response to my last feature length documentary VHS Massacre. To be honest that’s why I’m doing the new one! There are still people who post pictures, videos, tweet or even drop us a line to tell us they liked the film. This has been happening for about three years now. To have ANY lasting impact in 2018 to me feels like a miracle.
I went to New York Comic Con this year. I stop by the Troma Entertainment booth every time I attend. Mostly because I’m a fan. I like to pick out a few new blu-rays I’ve never heard of. Some times they are pretty out there and offensive but sometimes I honestly like to be shocked. You are watching a spectacle and that can be exciting! I wouldn’t want to censor that. It’s easy enough to avoid material like that and that’s a powerful form of protest to simply not buy or watch more of those films. So it upsets me when people try to go after filmmakers on social media. It crosses the line of trying to destroy the person rather than boycott the art. Some films should be fucked up, if that freedom becomes censored through the government or even worse, the public, then ours is a republic in crisis… and we may be there already.
That being said thanks to everyone for making VHS Massacre possibly one of the best received films of my career! The last time I spoke with Lloyd Kaufman he said that VHS Massacre was a best seller for Troma Entertainment. The last time that happened to me was about 15 years ago for a film called Land of College Prophets. Thanks ya’ll! Happy Thanks Giving! More to come soon!
More news to come!