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For a good time on the Croisette, call Troma

AS TRAVELERS DEPARTED the Cannes Film Festival last weekend, the question most frequently asked was not “How did you enjoy it?” but rather, “How did you survive it?” Once renowned for its joie de vivre, the Cannes fest circa 1994 can best be described as feral and frenetic. Also sweaty and overcrowded. Its cocktail parties offer as much levity as a Time Warner board meeting. No one takes time even to stare at the topless sunbathers anymore; who has time for bikinis when you can argue about adjusted gross?

When one reporter tried to reach portly Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein — a hard-core bon vivant in former years — an aide barked, “Harvey ain’t talking, he’s buying.” When he tried again around dinner time, the aide reiterated, “Harvey ain’t eating, he’s buying.” The reporter knew a historic landmark of sorts had been reached –“Even Harvey Weinstein was passing up meals,” he announced.

GIVEN THIS GRIND-IT-OUT atmosphere, it takes a bit of effort to enjoy Cannes. One technique that works for me is to search out someone like Lloyd Kaufman — the only CEO I know who goes to Cannes to have fun. Bearded and unstintingly eccentric, Kaufman can be seen milling around the Carlton, keeping up a flow of light-hearted banter about his films.

For precisely 20 years now, Kaufman and his partner, Michael Herz, have presided over an idiosyncratic little company called Troma Films, best known for such filmic flights of fancy as “The Toxic Avenger,””Teenage Catgirls in Heat” and, of course, that classic “Surf Nazis Must Die.”

When some people hear titles like that, they assume Troma is some sort of practical joke, but it’s not — it’s a solid, if offbeat, cottage industry. While big studios endure their ups and downs, Troma continues to build its mini-niche. Indeed, Kaufman cheerfully admitted at Cannes that, between parties, he’s writing the next Toxic Avenger sequel, “Mr. Toxic Goes to Washington,” and also is prepping his company’s first venture into Shakespeare, “Tromeo and Juliet.”

Troma has even completed its first infomercial, pushing T-shirts, posters, trailers and other Tromabilia. How else would you know where to obtain trailers of such classics as “Rabid Grannies” and “A Nymphoid Barbarian in Dinosaur Hell.”

Though Kaufman jests good-naturedly about his product line, he’s pleased that others are taking Troma’s 20th anniversary seriously. The American Cinematheque, for example, plans a June weekend festival showcasing Troma classics (even the critically overlooked “Chopper Chick in Zombietown”) and various webs such as Showtime and HBO have scheduled Troma packages.

At Cannes, Kaufman, always impeccably attired in white suit and tie, can be seen escorting Toxie, the amiable monster, around the Croisette, and also sees to it that Tromie, the Nuclear Rodent, gets proper exposure. Yet Kaufman also has time for a drink with friends and even a quiet dinner with his vivacious wife, Patti.

“The trouble is that 99% of the people in Cannes don’t have any fun, but the other 2% are the happiest people in the world because they’re doing what they like best,” Kaufman says, acknowledging that his arithmetic might not be as astute as his powers of observation. “The attitude is reflected in the product,” Kaufman adds. “Roger Corman and I walked around AFM together earlier this year and, as we stared at the posters, we realized that practically every project looked the same. I mean, are we making movies or sausages? We’ve got to decide.”

KAUFMAN HAS DECIDED. His movies haven’t won any Oscars, but they’ve managed to create an oddball cult market. Now and then Troma has tried to expand the envelope a bit, with mixed results.

A deal was struck with New Line to create a higher-budget Toxic Avenger series, but New Line apparently changed its mind and a lawsuit rather than a movie was the result. Now Troma is trying its hand at costume drama: At Cannes the company is premiering a movie called “Young Goodman Brown,” based on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story — its debut is scheduled the day before the unveiling of “Femme Fontaine, Killer Babe for the CIA.”

With all his quirks, Kaufman, a savvy Yale alumnus, knows his company must toe the line in the ’90s. It is dutifully expanding into licensing, merchandising, comic books and videogames, and also is exploiting its library of 100 feature-length films in different media.

Kaufman understands the demands of the business in the ’90s — even of Cannes in the ’90s. But, watching him loping along the Croisette with his nuclear rodents, you get the feeling he’s having a helluva time. He’s ready to deal, yet will never miss a meal.

“After all, this is Cannes,” he says. “We have excitement, we have crowds, we have buyers, we even have sunshine.” Kaufman didn’t notice, to be sure, that it was raining.

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