RiffTrax: Michael J. Nelson & The MST3K Crew Riff On Hollywood

Mystery Science Theater 3000 - affectionately known as MST3K to its legion of fans - is a "cult television comedy series" that mocked forgotten science fiction films from 1988-1999. Its heart still beats, as three long-time writers and stars for the show - Michael J. Nelson, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy - continue to serve up hilarious "riffs" on B-movies online at their site RiffTrax

Now the trio want to take on Hollywood - with your help - and mock big-budget blockbusters, such as Twilight and The Hunger Games, in front of a live audience. They also want to help everyone create their own riffs on movies and TV shows.

Movie Rights Are Not Cheap

The tagline for RiffTrax is: "We don't make movies, we make fun of them." But Hollywood doesn't want its movies made fun of, so the RiffTrax crew can currently do their thing only for films that are either in the public domain or whose rights come very cheap. (Owners of really bad movies, not surprisingly, let their works go for very little.)

For flicks like Birdemic or Kingdom of the Spiders (William Shatner's finest performance of 1977), RiffTrax customers download a single file (available in numerous formats), typically for $10, and watch on an iPad or laptop, or burn it onto a DVD. But that won't work for popular films, like Thor or The Avengers, or the Patrick Swayze classic, Roadhouse, whose licensing costs are too high.

For blockbusters, the RiffTrax group records its audio commentary in MP3 format. Users download the file, typically for a $4 fee, then play the MP3 on a laptop or iPod, for example, while watching the movie on a television screen. It's certainly not an elegant solution, so the crew is trying raise enough cash to license more high-profile films.

A highly successful Kickstarter campaign seeking to secure the rights to broadcast Twilight - just so it can be made fun of - netted $265,000 against an original goal of $55,000. The hope, according to Bill Corbett, is that by "backing up the money truck" to Hollywood, RiffTrax can secure the rights to the movies that need mocking most.

Once a deal is signed - it's currently in negotiations - the trio plan to riff the film live and stream the performance (also live) to "hundreds" of other theaters. They also hope to offer a copy of the performance as a DVD or download - film and riff embedded together.

The Riffmasters

To get the inside scoop, I spoke with "riffmaster" Michael J. Nelson:

ReadWrite: Describe RiffTrax to the uninitiated.

Mike Nelson: It's like sitting down to watch a movie with your funniest friends. 

ReadWriteWhy are there no puppets like on MST3K? 

Mike Nelson: RiffTrax is a different animal. We don't own the copyright to the MST3K puppets. Plus, it just wouldn't work for synching commentary tracks to the popular movies." 

ReadWriteWhy start the Kickstarter campaign with Twilight?

Mike NelsonTwilight's been our single most popular [downloadable] riff to date. We want to do a live riff of the film and stream that to hundreds of other theaters.

ReadWriteWhat's the process for choosing a movie to riff?

Mike Nelson: It's hard to make fun of a film that's trying to be funny but fails. It has to be either unintentionally bad or taking itself too seriously. When I first watched Birdemic, for example, I assumed the director had to be joking. He wasn't - that makes all the difference. 

ReadWriteDo fans help you decide which movies to riff on?

Mike Nelson: Definitely. On Twitter and Facebook, or the user forum on our site. We have a backlog so can't always get to their choice right away, but we listen.   

ReadWriteTell me about iRiffs.

Mike Nelson: iRiffs is the section on our site where anyone can upload their movie commentaries. We have minimal requirements - as long as the content isn't deeply offensive, you can offer your riff through the site.

ReadWriteAnd you split the revenues with the individual?

MN: Correct. I would like to say that anyone who uploads their riff to our site, please use a halfway decent USB microphone. Too many poor mics have killed some otherwise great performances.

ReadWriteThere were several other people involved in writing and performing for Mystery Science Theater. Why only you, Kevin and Bill for RiffTrax?

Mike Nelson: Kevin, Bill and I were the last in-theater performers when MST3K ended. We all lived near one another in Minnesota, and were doing a lot of projects together. We fell into an easy rapport, so when I started RiffTrax in 2006 it was easy to bring those two onboard. Joel [Hodgson - the original host] wanted to get Cinematic Titanic up and running so it never worked out for everyone to be together." [Cinematic Titanic includes several MST3K performers who similarly offer film riff performances of B movies. The group has said that this will be its final year working together.] 

Finally, I asked riffmaster Bill Corbett if the crew had any plans to make it's own deliberately bad movie:

None. I think it would be surprisingly hard to recreate the magic of an unintentionally bad movie. It would wind up too self-conscious. We've seen a lot of attempts to do that, and they never capture the exquisite fun and weirdness of someone trying in earnest to make a serious movie, and just making a mess of it.

Lead image from Mystery Science Theater 3000 Presents Laserblast.

Picture of the RiffTrax team, from left to right: Bill Corbett, Kevin Murphy, Michael J. Nelson.