Since 2009, the RiffTrax Live series of performances featuring former Mystery Science Theater 3000 performers Michael J. Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett, along with special guests and broadcast to participating theaters, has been skewering a selection of B-movies ranging from notorious (Reefer Madness) to obscure (Jack The Giant Killer, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians). The offshoot of Rifftrax, these events — presented in hundreds of cinemas across the nation by Fathom Events — have become a solid cult success of their own, selling more than 700,000 tickets and bringing in $8 million in revenues since launch.
The group’s latest show, which starts tonight, features Miami Connection, the celebrated ultra-low-budget martial arts movie made 1987 by Florida martial arts teacher Y.K. Kim, resurrected in 2012 as a beloved cult hit. In advance of that, Deadline spoke with Nelson, Murphy and Corbett about Miami Connection, the joys of B-movies and the success of the RiffTrax operation.
RiffTrax was built on the ground tread by Nelson, Murphy, and Corbett’s previous project, the long-running cult hit series Mystery Science Theater 3000. Airing for 11 seasons on Comedy Central and later on Sci-Fi Channel (now Syfy), the show was built around the performers watching terrible, obscure or just plain weird B-movies and mocking them with with skits and quips and comments uttered rapid fire. Established in 2006, RiffTrax is similar in concept, with the primary differences being that it’s stripped down to just the jokes and that episodes are available as downloadable audio commentary tracks listeners cue up with the film in question on their own home video platform.
This system gets around the rights issues that limited MST3K to cheap B-movies only — not having to pay for licenses allows RiffTrax to riff on bigger-budgeted, far more popular fare like The Phantom Menace or The Avengers. But with the 2009 launch of RiffTrax Live, the group returned to their roots. “We were doing those big-budget movies because I think we were just eager to get to them because we never could on MST3K,” Corbett says, noting that fans had long requested them. “But we eventually missed doing the B-movies.”
The rights issues also were in play. In live theatrical events the films have to be licensed, so at first they stuck to staples of B-movie marathons such as Reefer Madness and Manos: The Hands Of Fate. But with the success of the series, along with the recent adoption of Kickstarter campaigns to fund licensing, RiffTrax Live has expanded to bigger-budgeted fare including Starship Troopers and, earlier this year, Anaconda.
“We couldn’t do these titles the way we’re doing them without the Kickstarter,” Nelson says. “Movies of all stripes — the license fees are just too big for us. It’s sort of preselling this to a hopefully willing audience, and it works out that way. If people want to see movies a little broader in scope than an older black and white.”
As for the shows, the intent isn’t to simply demolish a film. “We have considerable affection for people who try to make good movies and are just incapable,” says Murphy. “I think we save our sharpest invective for the movies where it’s apparent that the people who made it just didn’t care.” Cautioning that it risks catching that cynicism when you’re bogged down by ire, he added, “It gets old fast for an audience when it just gets mean.”
To that end, Miami Connection “a perfect example for us … it’s that weirdly special.” The guys note that even director Kim is in support of RiffTrax taking a swing at it, inviting people to the screening held near where he lives in Florida. “From what we’ve heard,” Murphy says, “he’s delighted when anyone pays attention and is bemused, and just happy.”
RiffTrax Live – Miami Connection happens tonight in participating theaters, with a second showing on October 6.