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Still Making Schlock-Waves in France

Cannes Report: For 25 years, Troma chief Lloyd Kaufman has made tastelessness pay.

May 23, 1999|AMY WALLACE | Amy Wallace is a Times staff writer

CANNES — When Lloyd Kaufman, the gross-out indie movie mogul who first put Kevin Costner and Billy Bob Thornton up on the big screen, strolls the Croissette promenade here at the Cannes Film Festival, he turns a lot of heads.

It's not that most people actually recognize the flamboyant president of New York-based Troma Entertainment, which over the years has released films such as "Sizzle Beach USA" (which featured Costner), "Chopper Chicks in Zombie Town" (which introduced Thornton) and such other low-budget cult hits as "The Class of Nuke 'Em High" and "The Toxic Avenger." Rather, people gawk because even at the world's biggest film fest, where public spectacle is commonplace, Kaufman and his posse stand out.

The women around him, dubbed Tromettes, are beautiful, buxom and mostly bare. The men, if they can be called that, wear grotesque rubber outfits. Dolphin Man has a fin on his head and squirts water out his nose. The Toxic Avenger has one eyeball dangling from its socket. Sgt. Kabukiman wears a black, white and red warrior mask, while Killer Condom--well, don't ask.

This is Kaufman's so-called Troma Team, and this year it has a new member: Dale Hankins, 46, a divorced father of three from Ft. Benton, Mont. (population 1,250). Hankins, a county planner and former big-game guide who has never set foot outside the United States, was chosen at random from nearly 100,000 contestants to win Troma's "Now You Cannes" contest. His prize: a plane ticket to France, a bed in one of Troma's overcrowded apartments and a job promoting Troma's bawdy, deliberately tasteless films.

"Hey, they can put me in any costume they want," Hankins said in a phone interview before he left home for Cannes, admitting that before he entered the contest on the Internet, "I really didn't know what Troma was about. But this looks pretty darn exciting to me."

Hankins' arrival is only the latest stunt Kaufman has devised to put Troma on the map in Cannes. Last year, he held a mock conference here on global warming, appointing "Baywatch" star Carmen Electra honorary chairperson "because she is a renowned expert on the warming of globes both large and small." This year, he promises to solve the Y2K bug with a specially designed "Tromillenium Survival Kit." Anything to get attention.

But for all his adolescent grandstanding, the sprite-like 53-year-old Kaufman is actually an established veteran of the festival--this is his 30th visit. It also marks the 25th anniversary of the scrappy B-movie studio he runs with partner Michael Herz.

Troma's films, aimed at young audiences, are made on the cheap and, he says, are almost all profitable. The company distributes not just its own films and those it acquires, but also videos, DVDs, comic books, T-shirts and toys. Its Web site (http://www.troma.com), where all these things are on sale, gets 2 million hits a month.

A key thing to understand about Kaufman is that he has chosen this niche. A graduate of Yale, he is not without connections--he grew up, for example, with director Oliver Stone, whom he has used as an extra, and he is married to (and has three children with) New York state's film commissioner. Kaufman's fluent in Chinese and is just as apt to quote respected sociologist C. Wright Mills' book "The Power Elite" as he is to make a joke about flatulence.

Talk with him awhile, and it's clear Kaufman has enough business sense and natural showmanship that had he wanted to make it in Hollywood, he probably could have. But Kaufman likes running his own show. And he loves to bash studio movies.

"I mean, 'You've Got Mail'?," he says. "Give me a break. There's a brilliant woman, Nora Ephron. She's rich as all hell. Why does she have to do that crap?"

At Cannes 1999, they are screening--and selling distribution rights to--seven films, among them "Terror Firmer," a gory new comedy Kaufman wrote and directed that is based on his recent autobiography (now in its third printing), "All I Need to Know About Filmmaking I Learned From the Toxic Avenger."

"If there ever were an auteur film, 'Terror Firmer' is it," Kaufman said. "I write it, direct it. I'm in it. It's based on my life. Still, I've never said, 'A movie by Lloyd Kaufman.' Even though every schlocko $50-million piece out of Hollywood has 'A Film by So-and-so.' I mean, I know that my movies have influenced a lot of people. But I wouldn't presume."

"Terror Firmer" is the latest in a movie career that began with Kaufman's debut, "Sugar Cookies," which he describes as "a lesbian 'Vertigo,' " and has spanned such tongue-in-cheek titles as "Schlock and Schlockability" and "Tromeo and Juliet."

Andrea Alsberg, the head of programming for UCLA's Film and Television Archive, calls Kaufman "the P.T. Barnum of the movie world." In 1996, UCLA had a retrospective of Troma films, which Alsberg admits took place largely because Kaufman talked her into it.

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