So I recently listened to an hour long podcast from B-mania, an incredibly well produced show. It was about a film I directed with Mike Aransky and Phil Guerette in 2003 calledLand of College Prophets. This is a film about low-level superheroes who work at community college. They awaken a haunted wishing well that ends up possessing some of the people in their town. Initially I was kind of mortified at the idea that someone would a review a film that I made in my early 20’s from a 2018 perspective but they actually had a lot of fun with it and were very polite about our low-budget romp.
I remember spending a year in pre-production, building that well with my father and working with my brother Bruce to secure funding. We shot the film for 12 grand but $3,500 of it was spent on a Panasonic DVX100, one of the first digital 24p cameras.
So the B-Movie Mania guys unearthed the Land of College Prophets DVD at a Dollar Tree store presumably somewhere in New York. To be honest this is the kind of thing that I always hoped would happen. When Ken Powell and I were going on VHS hunts for the TromaVHS Massacre documentary we loved whenever we found a weird film. Films like AIP’s Night of the Kick-fighters comes to mind. The idea that the film is not totally lost to time is a great feeling.
I made this film after the New York Times trashed my first 16mm feature, Everything Moves Alone. I just decided to dive-in into the B-movie genre pretty hard. Author Mike Watt once referred to my film as a kitchen sink movie, blending multiple genres together. Although EMA had a small theatrical run at the Pioneer Theater in the East Village, I always blamed the New York Times for killing the home video release. They referred to it as “Unfortunate Backwash” and that drowned out all the actual positive press from Film Threat or the Daily News. So after spending years on a feature and then being denied a home video release, it was pretty demotivating. So my answer to that was to AGAIN spend years to make another film to counteract it.
When we finished Prophets, Edward Haven and Lloyd Kaufman at Troma actually loved the film but Lloyd was very honest about the fact that we may not be able to recover the budget if we put it out through them. At the time after spending 12K on the film we decided to go with York Entertainment in the hopes we could make enough money to make another movie. The film won 7 awards, was distributed in 8 different countries and was a top seller with the company but York Entertainment never paid us a dime. They have been out of business for some years now. So in hindsight we should have gone with Troma for the “street cred”. Prophets did however get released through Hollywood Video, Movie Gallery and Netflix which was great. I can’t really describe what a victory this felt like to me in 2005. Keep in mind Prophets came out years before other “backyard” super hero movies like James Gunn’s Super, Special with Michael Rapaport or Defendor with Woody Harrelson.
For some people this would be a starting point for their career or perhaps some folks would be disappointed with a video release. Where I grew up in central Connecticut people didn’t really make films. We used Robert Rodriguez’s Rebel Without a Crew as our bible. I would get ridiculed by other people that I worked with who told me I needed to move to L.A. to make a film but after all my hard work and determination, their local video stores would carry my film on the shelves right next to the larger releases. We tried really hard and it paid off. I’ve made six other feature films since LOCP and have worked every where from CBS, NBC, IGN to CUNY but I will always remember the Land of College Prophets and the people who helped me make it. I didn’t even have to move to LA to do it and so now my heart lives in NYC with my amazing wife and the (very few) video stores that still remain.
UPDATE: 5/30/18: Hunter College gave me a little write-up for my participation in the 38th annual Telly Awards here!
VHS Massacre, a feature length documentary that I directed with Ken Powell about the decline of physical media picked up a Silver Telly Award in the Non-broadcast (under $700 a minute) category and a bronze in both the Documentary and Entertainment Non-broadcast categories. It’s so cool that New York Cinema Productions which really just consists of me at this point can hang in there with the likes of PBS, HBO, National Geographic and so on. Watch the film on Amazon Prime , iTunes, GooglePlay or on Blu-ray!
When I was younger and working at CBS I had heard about he Telly Awards but back then in the late 1990’s it was more exclusively for broadcast and that meant that this type of award was not particularly accessible for an independent filmmaker. At CBS and NBC we all knew about the Regional Emmy and the Telly Awards. For many of us it was something to aspire to. In 2007 I was working for Black20 Studios (that was eventually sold to FOX). They specialized in internet videos featuring some impressive young performers and filmmakers like Amy Schumer, Eric Andre, Aubrey Plaza. I was camera operator on a show directed by Mike Aransky of IGN fame. That show net_work ended up getting a Broadband, Daytime Emmy nomination through (of all places) Myspace. The Daytime Emmy’s, probably in response to awards shows like the Webbys, wanted to adapt to the changing times. So what does this have to do with VHS Massacre? Well recently the Tellys have added additional categories that open up the show more to non-broadcast and streaming content. So the Tellys like others awards has changed with the times.
When I made VHS Massacre for Troma Studios, it really was a love letter to Troma, Lloyd Kaufman and the gang for altering how I saw cinema. They had a powerful combination of comedy, horror and the grotesque. It opened my mind to the idea that you could blend genres, you could be unrestricted by censors and you could still make a solid point. The Toxic Avenger could easily been seen as an environmental film for instance. So the idea that making a film about Troma, B-movies and the video store era could win awards was not in my head. I just believed in idea and wanted to make it. So these Telly Awards mean a lot to me. Thanks to everyone involved including Producer and Composer Timothy Kulig, Ken Powell, Stephanie Perez and the rest of the gang! Long live Troma!
So I’ve been working on my MFA at Hunter and I had to make some short docs for class. They center around my friend Jonathan Alexandratos author of Articulating the Action Figure. I found his book to be fascinating. When you re-create the human image and then sell it, it says a lot about the society we live in. So there is a certain responsibility in the design and manufacturing of certain toys. I posted all three shorts on the New York Cinema Drive-in on YouTube. I hope you dig them, please feel free to share them around if you into the whole toy collecting thing.
Some cool news! My documentary VHS Massacre (Co-directed by Ken Powell) is now available on iTunes! This is great news because the only other film I have on there is London Betty. It’s interesting to me how certain film make it to certain formats. Land of College Prophets (a weird little film I did) made it onto Netflix before Netflix was cool. Now they don’t seem to be buying Independent content but Amazon Prime does and in result VHS Massacre in on there too! Certain distributors will package films together and license them to companies. Filmrise worked with Troma and then worked with Prime as opposed to Netflix. I would image at some point Amazon Prime will be “too cool for school” and no longer buy Independent films.
Getting your film distributed by a company or studio is the equivalent in my opinion of getting a book deal. So you could self publish and there is nothing wrong with that but I was always proud to compete in the professional market with a distributor. Similarly you could make a film and put it on YouTube or Vimeo but for me still seems like a place a feature film might end up when film gets older or stops making money. In many cases people tune into YouTube for certain personalities, ERB, Joe Rogan. Others tune in to watch Ted Talks or people play videos games. There are all sorts of amazing things on YouTube but as of yet, I still don’t think it’s exactly the right venue for new feature films.
I remember over a decade ago I create a trailer mashup called PG 300 or Cake Town as people called it. It has over 10 million view now. Meanwhile one of my earliest 16mm feature films that played at the Pioneer Theater in New York fifteen years ago Everything Moves Alonehas but a few hundred. I think my point is that the views don’t always reflect the true value of a film or video. A video could make a company 80 grand on YouTube but it can still be garbage.
VHS Massacre got a great review this month from Gross Movie Reviews! They called it a “Great documentary!” In this cynical internet environment, when trashing films is the cool thing to do, I’m amazed when any small film get s good review! So thanks guys! Also I’ve been posting about an episode a month on New York Cinema Radio. This month I interview Chris Ferry about his new book-narration gig Stuck in the Stone Age. Chris is part of the comedy troop Story Pirates and this is their first book. So check out New York Cinema Radio!
I recently created a micro-doc entitled Artifactthat explores the strange overlap between action figures and religious statuettes. I believe it went well so I may working on a another project this year. The jury is out on whether this will be feature length or not. I always tend to lean that way because it is typically a more valuable property that can be formerly distributed on venues like Amazon Prime, Netflix and such. There is something to be said for creating a short film and entering the film festival circuit. For one thing, the entry fees are cheaper, secondly some film festivals like to play more shorts than features and I can understand why. For instance I entered some festivals last week and I’m already a semi-finalist at the San Mauro Film Festival in Italy. Playing a feature film is a much larger commitment for a festival because typically their time is limited. In most cases they are paying for the venue or they are doing it as a hobby. Making a short version could be a great way to test the waters. I’m planing to do a lot of experimenting this year by entering different awards shows, contests and film festivals. I have always been fascinated by what a person can do without a manager, producers rep or P.R. company. Finding the cracks in the system is interesting to me. As a matter of fact I’ve entered the Telly’s and Webby Awards with two different projects. So I’m excited to see if I can win!
What I can’t stand to admit is that the entertainment business is in fact a BUSINESS. Although I’ve had producers reps and distributors throughout my career I don’t believe I’ve made a ton of money for anyone in particular with my own films. I’ve made the films that I wanted to make and I’ve helped friends create them as well but the days of a low-budget movies killing at the box-office are incredibly rare. The films of Neil Breen or Tommy Wisaeu come to mind. So the point is, that if you can’t make a studio a lot of money with a film, it may be hard to move up the ladder. Collectively I’ve spent years at places like CBS, NBC, Fisher Price, IGN, College Humor using my creative energy to make their content and I was good at it, I made them money but I was also left creatively exhausted with little energy for my own stuff. So it took a while to actually work with a film studio on a feature film and a series (VHS Massacre, Monster Kill) and that studio was Troma Entertainment. They let me do what I wanted but again I seriously don’t think those projects will make them any money. I’m incredible proud of working with Troma. Some people wouldn’t be but they are the longest running Independent film studio in history, even longer running than Roger Corman’s current company. So again, a personal victory but not much of a path to something else.
The web seems to have devolved into a place where trashing a film is the only way to talk about it. So I sometimes wonder if it’s even a good move to make another film, of course that’s never stopped me in the past. So on the fringes of American independent cinema many of the films are passion projects with people like me vying for recognition in the artist community and there is great value in that but little money and we can’t seem to help tearing each other down.
VHS Massacre makes the top list of most popular Documentaries featuring sci-fi subjects on IMDB! Also updates on Mark of the Beast and some new great VHS Massacre Movie reviews. TES director of such films as the Amazon Prime documentary VHS Massacre, Troma’s Monster Kill Original Series, Mark of the Beast, tells us what he’s up to. Tom has been called a top underground filmmaker in the U.S. and is known among other things for his work on the Emmy Nominated Hulu web series net_work.