A couple of weeks ago, after reviewing RiffTrax and its cousin project, Cinematic Titanic, I had the happy opportunity to speak with Mike Nelson, the face of RiffTrax. In particular, I was most interested in talking to Mike about some of the business model issues I raised in that earlier article. He graciously agreed to discuss them.
You started RiffTrax in 2006. How long did it — let me just ask this very bluntly. Is it a living?
It is, yeah.
And how long did it take to become self-sustaining?
It’s interesting that you ask that, because it’s a topic that…I want to be careful about this. I think there’s a point where people think “If someone else is making money, they’re doing something wrong or they’re exploiting me” and we are not to that point, believe me. It is a living. But I also try to insulate myself from the financial part of it, and that’s why I teamed with a going company to create it.
So, you don’t want to be deciding what jokes to make based on popularity or something like that.
Yeah, to be poring over a financial statement is not what I do, so that is why teaming up with a company that was already in existence made sense to me.
How much has the ability to riff on current movies, “A-List” movies for lack of a better term, made a difference to you? One of the things that excited me about RiffTrax was that I could hear people make fun of a movie I loved, rather than a Roger Corman B movie.
That was part of it. I had always thought that this process of riffing on stuff will make sense with movies that are good as well, because we certainly had plenty of people at Mystery Science that thought some of the movies we did were good and instinctively went “Oh, how could you do that to that movie?” and it’s like “Well, y’know, the movie exists without us on there. We didn’t go paint a moustache on the Mona Lisa. You can watch the movie without our commentary.” And so it’s kind of a metacommentary that can add to and make the movie funny, but it’s also — when the movie deserves some ribbing it gets it, but otherwise it’s just kind of floating on top of the experience, if that makes any sense.
Yeah, it does. Actually, One of the things I like about the audio-only experience is that it feels much more like people in the room with you rather than watching a performance. Obviously, it is still a performance, i’m sure you rehearse a lot, but it feels like less of a performance to the audience.
We work really really hard on the script, and then the moment where we perform it is just like it sounds, where we’re having a lot of fun, and it is a bunch of guys and now we can relax because we’ve done all this work in advance and perform this thing that we now really all agree upon that we like. Hopefully, that feeling comes across that we’re not laboring in the recording studio. It’s fun, at that point. We’ve done all the work and labor up front.
How did you end up working with Weird Al? Did you find him or did he find you?
We found him, actually. He was one of the people that I’ve always wanted to work with. I’ve admired his work ethic. He seems to have a philosophy — and he sort of confirmed it for me — that he just wants to make people laugh, he wants to make them happy, and he wants to make as many people laugh as possible. And I share that. So I was really happy to get him on board. And then to find out that he was just an amazing performer and really enthusiastic in the studio was fantastic.
Do your relatives watch RiffTrax? Have any of them had trouble getting it to work?
I have a lot of nieces and nephews of the age that would be interested, and they had been spontaneously listening to it and knew more about it than I had ever imagined. I’ve always been one of those people that loathed working in front of my family. In fact, I hated it whenever any of my family members came to see any of my shows. “I don’t stand over you at work, please don’t think you have to come see me.” But several of them have started to get on the RiffTrax bandwagon. None of them have had any trouble getting it to work.
If there is any fly in the ointment of RiffTrax, it’s that there is this process of synchronization. How much do you think that impacts — not sales, so much, but the experience?
I think — you can only know anecdotally, but it’s definitely a factor. Before we even started the business we wanted to make sure there were a number of people who understood the concept and were comfortable doing it. But yeah, you meet plenty of people who just immediately shut off to the process and that’s a problem, and we’re working all the time to get it working for those people. And it does no good to explain that it’s not difficult. There’s enough people (obviously, along age lines and along tech savvy) who are able to do it without any problem or explanation. So, it’s a problem and we’re working on solutions, yet at the same time the number of people who have no problem with it is growing all the time.
There’s a phrase that people bandy about called The Long Tail. One way to look at that idea is that you have a large back library of things, and you may only sell a few of each one, but that the depth of the library leads to many sales, which adds up. Have you seen that in effect for you?
Yeah, it is helpful. And one of the things that almost directly correlates to sales is availability of the movie, that’s a component of it. But having a bigger library and appealing to tastes that are just slightly outside of the mainstream is a goal of ours. And having a varied library is important so that when a big title is released, people will come to check it out, but then say “Oh yeah, here’s this movie that nobody else knows about.” It may not sell many on its own, but it will cause an up-tick over time. Having the library definitely does help, and makes it a a richer experience. Some people don’t want to see Star Wars at all.
You did a commentary on someone else’s DVD — I believe it was Night of the Living Dead. Do you anticipate that happening again, or does it take a particularly open-minded director to allow someone to make fun of his movie?
You know, it’s funny. I pitched a network show called “What The Hell Were You Thinking?” where you bring in someone who has had a long and successful career and you look at their less-successful things and you get them to open up about why they failed, and what they were thinking, and what were the pressures, and I just got all these responses that there would never be anybody who would do that, and I just don’t believe that for a second. And I think they were just saying that because they were afraid of talking to these people. I think it would be a fascinating show. So, my point being, I think there’s plenty of people who would like that, and would enjoy commentary where you actually talk frankly about critical and financial failures in the industry, in a fun way, and in a funny way, without trying to tear the person down. So I think it’s quite possible, and I’d love to do it.
I have one question that I’m sure everyone asks you. Out of all the riffs you’ve done, do you have a favorite?
They all have their fun side. I’m partial to the movies of the ’80s, the Over the Tops, the Roadhouses and yet I really got a lot of joy at grinding away at movies, to solve the movies that are troublesome. To get through a section where there’s nothing and turn it into something. So that said, I like the more action-oriented movies. Of those movies that I’ve done with with Kevin and Bill, the big blockbusters yield the most fun for people. So that’s my wormy answer. Personally, I love to do the ’80s movies, but on a satisfaction level I love “solving” the action movies.
Thanks for your time.