The Riff Wars: "MST3K" vs. "RiffTrax" vs. "Cinematic Titanic"

The original Rocky Horror riffers, Dori Hartley and Sal Piro at the Waverly Theatre in New York in 1977.
The original Rocky Horror riffers, Dori Hartley and Sal Piro at the Waverly Theatre in New York in 1977.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show was a combination of musical, sexual exploitation and splatter film. Initially it tanked at the theaters, and was all but pulled from general release when it's distributor, 20th Century Fox, decided to recoup the budget by releasing it as a midnight movie. The few theaters that were still showing it attracted the same audience week after week. One night in 1977 in a New York City theater, some wise-ass who had seen the film a few times began heckling. Other audience members found this amusing and joined in on the fun. Some of them memorized the funnier jokes, and a week later yelled the same ones at the screen.

As the months passed the audience developed a ritual of heckling the same lines in unison, and even using props, such as hurling rolls of Scott Tissues at the screen when Barry Bostwick said the line "Great Scott!". Some audience members began to dance in the aisles, mimicking the dance steps of the characters on screen. Others wore costumes based on characters in the movie, and acting out the film as it went along. After a couple of years The Rocky Horror Picture Show was the most popular midnight movie ever, selling out in every theater it was booked, thanks to the audience ritual which spread across the country. To this day the movie is still in theaters, giving it the record of the longest running theatrical release in film history, all thanks to the show the audience created.

20th Century Fox hoped to duplicate this success. In 1981 the studio hired the same creative team responsible for Rocky Horror and made a sequel called Shock Treatment that was deliberately designed for audience participation. But Rocky Horror fans already had their film, and were not interested in a weak sequel. Shock Treatment failed even as a midnight movie, proving that the success of Rocky Horror could not be reduced to a formula and reproduced.

According to many Rocky Horror devotees, the word "riffing" came from their film, taken from one of the characters named Riff Raff. But while The Rocky Horror Picture Show may have represented the first time "riffing" was used commercially, it did not originate with that film. People had been heckling movie screens as far back as the silent era. This type of audience participation even predates movies, if you count Vaudeville where nervous performers could easily hear dissatisfied customers insulting them.

Mystery Science Theater 3000 Is Born

The artwork included inside "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" that inspired Joel Hodgson.
The artwork included inside "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" that inspired Joel Hodgson.

Heckling in any theater was considered rude, but not so at home while watching TV among friends. By the 1950s there was plenty of bad television broadcasts to heckle. Movie distributors sold the broadcast rights to both popular and less desirable films. If you ever wondered why any station would grab the broadcast rights to an Ed Wood film, it was probably because it was part of a ten film movie package that included a popular John Wayne film. As long as stations had these B movies, they decided they may as well air them. The science fiction and horror films were usually lumped together on their own separate show with names like Chiller Theater or Creature Features, often introduced by hosts in costumes appropriate to the horror genre. In many cases the host segments became more popular than the movies themselves, and with the poor quality of films they introduced each week, many of these hosts would often ridicule the films during the host segments.

The old fashioned horror movie program, with its costumed hosts, was on its way out in the late '80s. By then, better syndicated programming was available for local stations to air and an influx of infomercials were buying time during the off hours—the same hours usually filled by the B movies. Local stations had less time to program B movies and with the arrival of the FOX network, followed by UPN and WB a few years later, local television programming all but died out in the '90s.

It was around this time that prop comic Joel Hodgson made a proposal to Minneapolis TV station KTMA to air his own B movie show. The original concept had Joel as the lone surviving human after an apocalypse, sending out a television signal in hopes of reaching any other survivors, and making comments on the film during the host segments. While the show was in development, Hodgson was inspired by the film Silent Running (1972) and decided that his lone survivor should be above Earth in a satellite with a couple of robot companions. Further developing the premise, the apocalypse setting was abandoned, and instead Joel was a prisoner on the satellite (now called The Satellite of Love by Joel, or SOL for short). His character was put there by a couple of mad scientists who wanted to monitor his brain waves while showing him bad B movies.

But the biggest inspirational breakthrough happened when Joel saw the artwork featured inside Elton John's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album. The artwork for the song I've Seen That Movie Too was a frame from Gone With the Wind that included a silhouette of a young couple in the bottom of theater seats.

Joel thought that KTMA could utilize the same technology used to put weatherman in front of his weather map to superimpose theater seat silhouettes over a film. These silhouettes would be Joel and his robot friends in the theater, commenting on the movie as it played. The final link in the chain was the show's title, Mystery Science Theater. The number 3000 was added just prior to the show's broadcast.

An Instant Hit

KTMA was a UHF broadcast station that attracted very few viewers. The station's production manager, Jim Mallon, attempted to boost ratings by offering to produce comedy starring viewers themselves. It was while searching for local talent that Mallon met Hodgson, who himself had been thinking of doing a classic B movie show, and from there the concept was developed onto MST3K. Joel in turn recruited local comedians Trace Beaulieu and Josh Weinstein who would both play the mad scientists (Dr. Clayton Forrester and Dr. Laurence Erhardt, respectively ), and also work the robot puppets that joined Joel in the theater (Crow T Robot and Tom Servo, respectively). Mystery Science Theater 3000 premiered on Thanksgiving Day, 1988.

The show was an instant hit and KTMA expanded the episodes ordered from 13 to 21. But while MST3K became the stations first and only hit show, it was too little too late. By the end of the year KTMA was filing for bankruptcy.

Hodgson and Mellon formed Best Brains Productions with the crazy idea of pitching the show to cable television. Armed with their highlight reel of the KTMA episodes, they approached HBO who were about to launch The Comedy Channel. HBO was interested, and MST3K was picked up as one of their first series. The original format of The Comedy Channel was to show clips from stand up concerts along with clips from classic comedy films. Executives at HBO tried to get Best Brains to produce a version of MST3K that riffed clips rather than entire films. Eventually the network was talked into allowing MST3K to keep its original format. Much like what happened at KTMA, the show became an instant hit for The Comedy Channel. Unfortunately HBO was having problems convincing cable companies to carry The Comedy Channel, and it was not widely available.

Beginning with the early KTMA days, fans of the series began videotaping episodes to trade. The same thing happened with episodes shown on The Comedy Channel. Minneapolis fans, unable to get The Comedy Channel, began trading with cable subscribers who never saw the KTMA episodes. Copies of these tapes soon found their way to those who neither lived in range of KTMA, nor had The Comedy Channel on their cable system. MST3K soon had a huge following among the tape traders, perhaps even more viewers than they had on KTMA and The Comedy Channel combined. Best Brains acknowledged this during the ending credits with the caption "Keep circulating the tapes."

MTV had their own comedy channel, called HA!, launched at the same time as HBO's channel. It had the same format of stand up and film clips, with a few humorous music videos thrown in. It also faced the same problem of not having enough cable providers interested in carrying their channel. In 1991 with both The Comedy Channel and HA! close to failure, MTV and HBO agreed to give up the competition and merge both channels. The single comedy channel, to be called Comedy Central, would now be on twice as many cable outlets than each separate channel was. Programming from both channels were combined, which included MST3K. Many cable companies that were previously not interested in carrying a comedy channel, were now interested in the new Comedy Central. MST3K was suddenly available in millions of more households than it had been the previous year.

The innovative series caught the attention of the mainstream press. Several print articles and a feature story on Entertainment Tonight soon followed. It became Comedy Central's highest rated show. And with the publicity it was getting in the press, it made Comedy Central the new channel everyone wanted. Recognizing how popular the show had become, Comedy Central ran it at least six times a week with five reruns every late night, and the new episodes on Saturday afternoons. Each Thanksgiving, Comedy Central programed a MST3K marathon and when Best Brains edited 30 episodes into the syndicated Mystery Science Theater Hour, Comedy Central aired them mid-days.

The Downfall

Joel Hodgson left MST3K mid-way through the fifth season.
Joel Hodgson left MST3K mid-way through the fifth season.

The first cast member to leave the show was Josh Weinstein midway through the Comedy Channel seasons. Still a teenager when MST3K moved to The Comedy Channel, he decided the show was not as fun as it was at KTMA where they improvised their riffs while watching the movies. When The Comedy Channel ordered a second season, Weinstein opted out. By that time the show's bigger budget allowed Hodgson to hire an entire staff of writers who would pour over that weeks film and write the riffs for Joel and the robots to use when the episodes were actually taped.

With Josh gone, comedian Frank Conniff was hired as both a writer, and as Dr. Forrester's new assistant who went by the name TV's Frank. Writer Kevin Murphy became the new voice ( and puppeteer ) of Tom Servo. Other writers were hired, who in turn occasionally appeared as characters in skits shown during the host segments. Among the new writers was Mary Jo Pehl and Paul Chaplin. Michael J Nelson had been brought in as an intern, but quickly rose up the ranks to become the show's head writer.

The second major defection happened midway through the 5th season when Joel Hodgson left the show. He had been at odds with the show's co-creator Jim Mallon over the direction of the series, especially over Mallon's plans for a theatrical film series. Rather than continue to fight with Mallon, Hodgson decided it was time for the second cook to leave the kitchen. Years later Hodgson would admit leaving the show was a bit rash, and he regrets leaving the show he loved. It was decided that head writer Michael J Nelson would replace Hodgson. In his final episode Joel escapes from the SOL, forcing Forrester and TVs Frank to improvise and kidnap their janitor ( Nelson ) for further experiments. The next season Frank Conniff left the show. He was replaced with writer Mary Jo Pehl as Forrester's mother, Pearl Forrester.

Shortly after Frank left the show, work began on the rather pointless Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie ( 1996 ).

The only difference between the movie and the average television episode was the novelty of seeing MST3K in theaters. But as MST3K was preparing to make its big screen debut, things were not going well back at Comedy Central. With episodes airing almost every night, and both Joel and Frank leaving the show withing a year of each other, ratings began to drop. New management at Comedy Central were not happy with the idea of a show their network did not own the rights to. Comedy Central took it's time ordering a seventh season, and then only ordered 6 episodes. Realizing this was probably the series final season, the last episode was designed as a series finale. Dr. Forrester announces that his funds for experiments was cut, so he decides to send the SOL hurtling into space. At the end of the episode it hits the edge of the universe where Mike and the robots all turn into pure energy, allowing their consciousnesses to escape the SOL to explore the universe. In a parody of the final scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey ( 1968 ) Forrester rapidly ages, then after expiring in his deathbed, turns into a star baby. He is then immediately snatched up by Pearl who is overjoyed she has been given another chance to raise her son.

The cancellation could not have come at a worse time for Gramercy Pictures, the distributors for the about to be released Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie. They had been counting on promotion from Comedy Central and the show itself. Now only the die-hard fans would know the film was coming out. Gramercy decided to only release a couple of prints which would be shown in a few theaters, promising a wider release sometime in the future. At parent company Universal's insistence, the budget planned for the movie's publicity was instead ceded to the budget for Gramercy's next release, Barb Wire, a science fiction film starring Pamela Aderson. Because of this MST3K:TM ended up only making $1 million at the box office. Fortunately it cost nearly nothing to produce, using most of the same sets and props (and puppets) from the television series, and even shooting mostly on video and transferring onto film stock. But low budget or not, zero publicity or not, $1 million at the box office in 1996 was considered a failure, putting an end to any hope that there would be sequels. The higher budget Barb Wire did not do much better, making only $3 Million. Gramercy lost an opportunity by not thinking of combining Barb Wire with the MST3K movie, having Mike and the robots riff that film instead of This Island Earth (1955).

Fortunately Mallon had been shopping the show around prior to its cancellation and already had a new network interested in picking it up. The Sci-Fi Network had been launched in the fall of 1992, but had so far failed to generate enough interest among fans of the genre for them to pester their cable companies to add it. Part of the problem was the channels inability to land the rights to two key science fiction shows, the original Star Trek series, and Doctor Who. Sci-Fi needed at least one cult show on their network to generate buzz, and MST3K was perfect. Once again MST3K was instrumental in building a network.

While Mallon was able to convince most of the original cast and writers to return, Trace Beaulieu decided not to return. Writer Bill Corbett took over as the robot Crow, while Mary Jo Pehl returned as Pearl Forrester, taking over the experiments for her son who she apparently killed in between seasons. Aside from working the robot puppets, Corbett and Kevin Murphy were also cast as Pearl's assistants, Professor Bobo and Observer.

Once again it was a change in management that doomed the show. After three seasons the new general manager of Sci-Fi decided not to order any new episodes. The announcement of its cancellation came just after the taping of their 10th anniversary episode, in which Joel and Farank returned as surprise guests. There were still a couple of episodes left under the contract, which allowed for another series final to be taped. This time the satellite drops out of orbit and crashes onto the planet Earth. Somehow Mike and the robots survive and end up living together in an apartment where their favorite pastime is watching and riffing movies on television.

The Aftermath

MST3K was a problematic series. The rights to films needed to be acquired, often without the producer that owned the pictures realizing that their films were to be made fun of. Very often the studios that owned the rights to these films would refuse to renew the rights. When the series moved to Sci-Fi, they did not have the rights to any of the movies that aired on Comedy Central, therefore could not air any of the past MST3K seasons. It had inspired two cable series. In 1994 Reel Wild Cinema hosted by comedian Sandra Bernhard took the same movies that had been featured on MST3K, edited them down to ten minuted highlight reels, and aired three of them per episode. There was no riffing during the movies. Instead, Bernhard and occasional guests would comment on the film after it aired. In 1995 Cut to the Chase came closer to what MST3K was doing. Comedian Art Mann played a magic usher in a movie theater who, through editing trickery, was able to enter B movies and become an extra character. The only show to offer pure riffing was Beavis and Butt-head. As a way to save money and time and to tie the show into the channel's all music format, segments had music videos with the voice-overs of Beavis and Butt-head commenting on them.

When MST3K was cancelled by Sci-Fi, fans immediately began petitioning other cable networks to pick the show up. They even suggested that the show could continue as direct-to-video episodes. But the problem of acquiring the broadcast rights to any movie riffed, along with Best Brains' insistence that they own the rights to the series and its episodes, made the series undesirable for both any other cable network and any video company looking to finance direct-to-video episodes.

But the main reason for the show not returning anywhere else was that almost everyone involved was ready to leave the show. Had Jim Mallon found a new cable network to pick up the show, it was very unlikely that Mike Nelson and other key cast members would have agreed to return. Mallon himself was ready to retire from show business, or at least go on an extended hiatus. This explains the difference between both series finales. The finale from Comedy Central was easily redact-able for the Sci-Fi network. The first Sci-Fi episode had the disembodied consciousnesses of Mike and the robots drawn back to the SOL and turned back into their physical forms, only to find that it was again in orbit around Earth, and they were once again its prisoners. But for the Sci-Fi finale the SOL crashes onto Earth and is presumably destroyed, its passengers safely returning to civilization. This was a finale designed for a series that had no chance of returning.

MST3K had been fun when created back in the KTMA years, but since then had gradually become a pain in the ass. Producers caught on that their old films were being made fun of and refused to allow MST3K to have them. MST3K made B movies popular again, and the distributors began asking for more money for the broadcast rights. Prior to MST3K those films had been considered worthless. Cable networks, which had allowed their talent to be creative in the '80s, became more controlling in the '90s. Sci-Fi Network restricted MST3K to only science fiction and horror films, which they did with one exception. They also insisted on the show having a story arc within its host segments, which is why it initially had the SOL traveling across the universe with Pearl in her own space ship chasing after them. And there was also the ratings. You could have low ratings on a cable show in the '80s and still be considered a hit.

By the end of the '90s, cable networks were expecting the same ratings that the major networks were getting. They had been spoiled by the success of shows like South Park and The Sopranos, and all insisted on having their own hit shows. While the cult following MST3K had during the early '90s may have been desirable to the cable networks, the same following a decade later was considered a failure. It did not seem to matter that shows with cult followings were still generating a lot of money, or that on their own the cable networks were not capable of generating more than a couple of "hit shows" per channel. By the 2000s, creativity in cable television was all but over.

But Best Brains still existed. During the Comedy Central years and continuing until 2001, the company had been producing and distributing VHS tapes to be sold directly to fans of the show. Originally these were behind-the-scenes footage and host segments, but gradually included compilations of the public domain shorts. The final tapes featured entire episodes from the Sci-Fi channel. After the cancellation at Comedy Central, Mallon decided to find a legitimate home video company that could afford the licencing fees of the movies they riffed for the general release of entire MST3K episodes. Surprisingly it was not Universal. Universal already had the exclusive home video rights to the feature film, and it would have made sense for them to have begun releasing the Sci-Fi episodes as the first five were horror films produced at Universal.

The company chosen was Rhino, a label that originally released novelty albums, such as the Golden Throats series, but had recently branched out into the home video market. Rhino seemed to be a perfect fit for the series. Between 1991 and 2001 released 22 episodes on VHS along with re-releasing four of the Best Brains fan tapes. Beginning in 2000 Rhino began releasing single episodes on DVD, and beginning in 2002 began releasing them in four-episode box sets.

In 2003 the founders of Rhino, Richard Foos and Harold Bronson, were forced out by the new parent company Warner Music Group. The new management at Rhino continued to release the box sets, but both Best Brains and the series fans were not pleased with the results. They were slow on acquiring rights to films, and as a result some volumes were padded out with shorts instead of entire episodes. Rhino decided not to include the episode with Santa Claus Conquers the Martians in a box set, but as a double DVD set with the already released Manos: The Hands of Fate episode, forcing fans to buy that episode twice, and at the same price as the four-episode box sets.

But one of the biggest problems was with maintaining film clearance. Volumes would go out of print long before demand waned because the rights to one of the films in the set expired. Volume 9 went out of print in a single year due to a very limited window for the rights to Women of the Prehistoric Planet, while Volume 10 was pulled off the shelves in its first week of release due to the fact that Rhino had not cleared the release with Toho for Godzilla Vs. Megalon. Both volumes became collectors items very rapidly, meaning the price shot up to $900 from those sellers that still had them in stock. Fed up with Rhino, Best Brains discontinued licensing the show to their label in 2008. Soon after they signed with Shout! Factory, the DVD company started by former Rhino chief executive Richard Foos.

Towards the end of their association with Rhino, Best Brains began producing new segments for the DVDs. Mostly new intros from past cast members, but more notably a brand new host segment featuring Joel, Trace, and Frank for Volume 10.2, the replacement set that replaced the Godzilla film with Giant Gilla Monster. The new segment explained why the initial set needed to be pulled.

By this time Jim Mallon was the sole owner of Best Brains. With new segments being recorded for the DVDs, and the approaching 20th anniversary of the first MST3K episode, Joel Hodgson made a phone call to Mallon with the idea of Best Brains producing a direct to video reunion episode, and the further possibility of reviving the series. But after a few minutes it was decided a full reunion would not be practical. Not only did they have two hosts, Mike and Joel, but two Crows, two Tom Servos, and six Mads. Choosing any cast would alienate the other cast members. Would the core cast be Joel, Trace and Josh, or Mike Kevin and Bill? The idea of reviving MST3K died of very quickly. Shortly after that phone call Joel decided the solution to a reunion was to create a brand new direct-to-DVD show with new characters, but with the original cast. The only problem is that Joel was not the first one to think of this.

The Rival Riffers

Kevin Murphy, Michael J. Nelson, and Bill Corbett, the core cast members of MST3K during its three years at Sci-Fi.
Kevin Murphy, Michael J. Nelson, and Bill Corbett, the core cast members of MST3K during its three years at Sci-Fi.

The Film Crew was a comedy team comprised of Michael J Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett, the core cast members of MST3K during its three years at Sci-Fi. Formed a few years after MST3K was cancelled, they initially preformed comedy skits on NPR, various cable movie channels, and on a Three Stooges DVD. It was not long before they decided they wanted their own show, one where, predictably, they would riff B movies. A deal was struck with Rhino to produce a series of direct to DVD shows, four of which were produced in 2005. The premise was that they worked for Bob Rhino, the fictitious owner of Rhino video. Bob had hired the film crew to put commentaries on the obscure B movies his company was releasing on DVD. Each episode opened with a host segment where the Film Crew introduced themselves, then answered a phone call from Bob Rhino who told them which film they would be commenting on that week. Cutting to the film itself, The Film Crew would then riff the movie, sounding exactly like the final seasons of MST3K. The only difference was the absence of the theater silhouettes. You heard Mike, Kevin and Bill on the movie, but did not see them. There was a break in the movie where The Film Crew had lunch, which would involve a skit, and a skit when the movie ended. In other words, a show that was very much like MST3K.

But Rhino never released the episodes. One story circulating claims that Jim Mallon caught wind of the new show, and threatened to pull MST3K from the label if they released any Film Crew DVDs. Whatever the reason, Rhino was no longer releasing the new show, so the sets were torn down, and it was theoretically cancelled. It would not be until 2007 that Shout! Factory agreed to release the four filmed episodes, but with the name Bob Rhino re-dubbed as Bob Honcho for legal purposes, as well as all references to the crew working for Rhino Video removed or replaced. While Mike, Kevin and Bill had agreed to do some voice over work for a cancelled show, they had by this time no interest in reviving it. By this time they had an even better gig.

Most DVDs have a commentary track, either from the cast and/or director, or for old films where the cast and/or director is no longer alive, from a film historian. Michael J Nelson himself offered humorous commentary tracks for such B movies as Plan From Outer Space and Little Shop of Horrors in the capacity as an authority on cheesy films. But not all DVDs have had commentary tracks. With the rise of the Internet and peer-to-peer trading, some people began creating their own commentary tracks for their favorite movies, releasing them as MP3 files that could be played on an IPod while watching that same film. The premise of the aborted Film Crew show was that their riffing was supposed to be them recording cometary tracks for obscure movies.

With The Film Crew stalled, Nelson wondered about the legality of creating his own MP3 commentary tracks for copyrighted films, and even selling them. A lawyer confirmed that as long as they did not use any of the audio from the movie itself, there was not a damn thing any studio could do to stop him from creating and selling a commentary track for their films. Founding the company RiffTrax in 2006, Nelson created an MP3 riff for Road House (1989), the film he credited as being the cheesiest movie ever made. Initially the MP3s just featured Nelson with an occasional guest, but eventually Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett became part of the permanent team. By the time Shout! Factory had released episodes of The Film Crew, RiffTrax had taken off to the point where Nelson, Murphy and Corbett were doing live shows. RiffTrax had become The Film Crew or is it vise-versa?).

This was around the time Joel had wanted to do a MST3K reunion show. The ever-inventive Hodgson came up with an idea that could reunite all the cast members on a single project, Cinematic Titanic. The premise was that an unknown government agency has recruited the former cast of MST3K to record riffs for B movies and to store each recording in its own time capsule at the end of the movie. Apparently the cast members are restricted to some sort of base they are not allowed to leave until they have riffed all the films the agency has selected—or at least that is the description of the show given on the Internet. The direct-to-DVD episodes I have do not include this back story, and I have the first four episodes according to the numbers on the spine of the DVD box. Perhaps this back story was explained during one of the many Cinematic Titanic live shows. Along with the self produced direct to DVD episodes, the cast has been touring the country, riffing live for fans of the original MST3K. And much like MST3K the cast is shown in silhouette. But instead of the theater seats the cast stands (or sits) at either side of the movie.

The cast members Joel rounded up include everyone but The Film Crew. There is the first defector from MST3K, Josh Weinstein, now going by the name J Elvis Weinstein, Trace Beaulieu who left the show after its run on Comedy Central, Frank Conniff who left midway through the Comedy Central years, Mary Jo Pehl who stayed with the show till the bitter end, and part of the mix Joel Hodgson. So far 12 DVDs and/or online downloads have been released, three which are recordings of their live shows.

With the former MST3K cast split between RiffTrax and Cinematic Titanic, and both with competing live shows, there were the inevitable rumors of a rivalry between Hodgson and Nelson. Everyone involved on both projects has so far denied any animosity between the two comedians. However, Joel did mention in an interview how both groups were not in direct competition. While Cinematic Titanic was riffing old B movies on DVD, RiffTrax was mostly riffing current A list Hollywood films as down-loadable MPE files. This would soon change. In 2006 Nelson had been hired by Legend Films as their Chief Content Producer. It was in association with Legend Films that he created RiffTrax. In 2009 Nelson used the company's home video division to release RiffTrax DVDs, initially with public domain films and shorts, but all the same class of B movies that Cinematic Titanic were riffing.

Michael J Nelson and Joel Hodgson continue to claim no rivalry exists, the truth is that there is actually a three-way rivalry. Jim Mallon owns the rights to the original MST3K, the episodes which he intends to release on home video. Apparently Mallon did not want the competition from The Film Crew, and reportedly succeeded in scuttling that project. Meanwhile Cinematic Titanic has riffed Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, a film that was previously riffed on MST3K.

With the possibility of re-riffing films used in the original MST3K, another problem is on the horizon: What will happen when Cinematic Titanic or RiffTrax uses a copyrighted movie? That would mean that they hold the home video distribution rights for that film, thus preventing Mallon from releasing it on DVD as a MST3K episode. Mallon, Hodgson, and Nelson are all targeting their DVDs to MST3K fans, and there are just so many DVDs those fans can buy. Not to mention the existing competition from all those MST3K episodes that were being traded for free back when the show was looking for all the publicity it could get, and are now being traded as video files. Where in the past the members of MST3K encouraged their fans to circulate the tapes, today they ask their fans not to pirate their DVDs.

So, who is the winner? The MST3K episodes will always be favored by the fans. It is the show that has the characters the fans love, their favorite cheesey films, and there is always the memories. But home video was never in consideration when the series was made. But Mallon does not own the rights to the films riffed. While some are public domain, many are still copyrighted, many from major studios who are reluctant to allow them to be released by rival home video companies, or are currently asking for way too much money to licence the films. Mallon believes that at least a third of the MST3K episodes will never get the clearance to be released on home video. Cinematic Titanic is perhaps the closest thing to new MST3K episodes, but is also the most complicated to create and distribute. They have gone from producing four episodes a year, to one episode a year in the past three years. Currently their touring show is on an extended hiatus because all of the cast members now live in different cities and are involved with different projects of their own. And since they have been pressing their own DVDs rather than releasing them on an established label, DVDs are frequently out of print and unavailable while they rotate through them.

The real winner here is Nelson's RiffTrax. Not only has he found a way to legally riff copyrighted films, including major releases, the absence of any silhouette not only makes production easier and allows all three riffers to work from different locations. It has also benefited their DVD releases. By changing the optional riff track one can simply watch the movie. It is possible that some RiffTrax DVDs were purchases not for the riffs, but because the film they are riffing is currently only available on their disc. And there is also the possibility that the major studios will wise up and pay RiffTrax to include the riffing on their DVD release of the film. For instance, any future release of Road House could double in sales if it included the RiffTrack as one of the audio options.

MST3K fans welcome the wealth of newly riffed movies from past cast members and they hold out hope that eventually all of the original MST3K episodes, even the KTMA episodes, will be released to the home market. But they also hold out hope that a revival of the original show will one day happen. RiffTrax and Cinematic Titanic may both be suitable substitutes for MST3K, but they do not have the magic of the original. One thing missing is the premise that the riffers are being forced to watch these films against their will. That may seem trivial, but it made the riffing more credible. Why else would the riffers watch an entire movie they did not like unless they had no choice? Another thing missing are the puppets. I can't explain why, but I miss the puppets. While currently Mallon and Hodgson think a proper reunion is not possible, that attitude could change in a few years. After all, no one thought they would return to riffing once they left MST3K, and now there are two separate riffing crews.

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Comments 3 comments

David Markham 3 months ago

An almost accurate history of the show. There are, however, much better ones (with less editorializing and speculation).

10 months ago

And that was okay. Mike's delivery was better and the invention exchange had played out long enough.

Mills P 16 months ago from East Chicago, Indiana

The show was never the same after Joel left.

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