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Cinematic Titanic, a movie-riffing direct-to-DVD franchise created in 2007 by Joel Hodgson, is one of two spiritual successors to the dearly departed television show Mystery Science Theater 3000, which went off the air in 1999. Perhaps inspired by The Film Crew and Rifftrax (the other spiritual successors to MST3K, created by former cast members Michael J. Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett), Hodgson left his job as a writer for late night TV's "Jimmy Kimmel Live" and started working on CT, bringing him circuitously back into the world of performing and making fun of movies for the enjoyment of others.

While Hodgson's work on the project alone would make it interesting to fans of MST3K ("MSTies"), the proverbial ante was upped fourfold with the addition of fellow MST3K alumni Mary Jo Pehl (Pearl Forrester), Trace Beaulieu (Dr. Clayton Forrester and the voice/puppetry for Crow T. Robot until 1996), Frank Conniff (TV's Frank) and J. Elvis Weinstein (Dr. Laurence Erhardt and the voice/puppetry for Tom Servo and Gypsy during MST3K's run on Minnesota's KTMA-TV and later on the first season of the nationally syndicated show). Add the silhouetted figures of the cast members, a bad movie and non-stop schadenfreude and sarcasm, and you get what MSTies have been sorely missing since MST3K was given the boot from the Sci-fi Channel in 1999 after ten laugh-filled seasons.

CT is a fairly large endeavor, too—its production facilities are in Hollywood instead of Eden Prairie, Minnesota (where MST3K was made); George Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic does the post-production work; the props department has a dedicated workshop and an ample budget (as opposed to MST3K's shoestring budget and endearingly cheap props); and best of all, CT isn't subject to the whims of television, as all their releases are on DVD.

The only real differences between CT and MST3K are how it looks (bleacher-like seating instead of a row of theater seats), how it sounds (five participants instead of three), and its method of delivery (DVD instead of cable TV). Each of the five members of CT take part in the writing, editing and performing of each episode. The acquisition of the rights to the films featured is handled the same way it was for MST3K: that is, a few phone calls, meetings with legal staff, stipulations devised and contracts signed. Then, after a bit of brainstorming, some writing here, some editing there, rehearsals of the written material, the final performance, and a bit of post-production thrown in for good measure, and poof—an episode is ready for DVD mastering.

I think the biggest departure from MST3K is, actually, the lack of puppets. And because it isn't "just a show" taking place "next Sunday A.D.," there's no need to involve a suspension of disbelief. It's just pure riffing, bad movies and fun! And get this: CT also does live shows. A couple of weeks before the release of their first DVD, they performed its contents live for employees of ILM. They plan to do this with subsequent releases, from time to time.

Despite how revered MST3K was (and continues to be), no one involved with it who would go on to CT ended up doing anything really great after it ended, which is unfortunate because they were all very creative and side-achingly, mouth-hurtingly funny. Here's a brief summary of what each member has done since its end (or, in everyone but Pehl's case, when they left the show):

Joel Hodgson went on to work behind the scenes on quite a few projects, most of which were stillborn: he directed Statical Planets (1997), was a consultant for "The Paula Poundstone Show" (1993), the official "magic consultant" for "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch" (1996), a producer for The TV Wheel (1995), wrote a single episode of "Space Ghost Coast to Coast" (1995), guest starred on several episodes of "Freaks & Geeks" (1999), wrote the jokes and questions for three episodes of the game show "You Don't Know Jack" (2001), and finally ended up as a staff writer for "Jimmy Kimmel Live" (2003). He also appeared with several former MST3K cast members in the live action video game Darkstar (2006), playing Captain Kane Cooper.

Mary Jo Pehl worked with several other MST3K alums as a voice actress for "The Adventures of Edward the Less" (2001), which was directed by Patrick Bransteg, the former voice/puppeteer for MST3K's Gypsy, and also appeared in an episode of "The Adventures of Pete & Pete" (1993). She also appeared in Darkstar, playing Captain Beth Ingram.

Trace Beaulieu, in his first post-MST3K job, wound up in TV purgatory as a staff writer for "America's Funniest Home Videos" with Weinstein, before moving on to greener pastures as a writer for the TV movie People Traps (2002) and the direct-to-video The I Do Diaries: Wacky Wedding Videos (2005). He also acted in the film With or Without You (1998) and appeared on an episode of "The West Wing" (1999). He, too, appeared in Darkstar, playing Ross Perryman.

Frank Conniff penned the TV special Attack of the Killer B-Movies (I haven't seen it, but it sounds like a soul brother to MST3K) and worked as a writer for "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch" (with Hodgson) and Jhonen Vasquez's "Invader ZIM" (2001). As an actor, he appeared in Hodgson's Statical Planets, Lord of the Road (1999), and guest starred on two episodes of "Sabrina" and one episode of "ZIM." He appeared in Darkstar as Alan Burk and took to YouTube in late 2007 with a parody of the WGA strike.

J. Elvis Weinstein was known as Josh Weinstein when he worked on MST3K; he changed it to his current moniker sometime after for reasons unknown. He's worked steadily as a TV writer for "America's Funniest Home Videos" (with Beaulieu), "Later with Greg Kinnear" (1994), "Malcolm & Eddie" (1996), "Fast Food Films" (1999), "Freaks & Geeks" (1999), "Dead Last" (2001) and "My Guide to Becoming a Rock Star" (2002). He also penned the TV movie Bunk Bed Brothers (1996) and appeared in, you guessed it, Darkstar as Captain Cedrick Stone.

Darkstar was, by all accounts I've read, a terrible game.

It should be noted that while CT is clearly the most ambitious post-MST3K project for all of its principal players, it isn't the first to carry the movie-riffing torch. As I mentioned above, Hodgson's replacement on MST3K, Michael J. Nelson, along with his Sci-fi Channel-era co-stars Kevin Murphy (Tom Servo and Professor Bobo) and Bill Corbett (Crow and Brain Guy), formed The Film Crew in late 2004. It's more or less identical to MST3K, only without any host segments, premise, or row of theater seats—their commentary is dubbed in over the movie. The Film Crew has appeared on the American Movie Classics cable channel and has released a number of DVDs through a media company called Shout Factory. It also branched out into the internet arena by recording commentary for a number of (mostly) recent mainstream Hollywood blockbusters and releasing them (as MP3 files) via the web, where they sell it for $3.99 (USD) per file (with a few bargain-priced at $2.99). The catch is that you have to play the commentary in sync with the movie it was recorded for. The audio service, called Rifftrax, has so far tackled Transformers, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, Spider-Man and Star Wars - Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, along with a number of wonderfully absurd/so-bad-it's-good favorites like the Star Wars Holiday Special (1978), Troll 2 (1990) and (dear god) Road House (1989), among others a few dozen others. Sometimes guest riffers appear on Rifftrax releases, including Jurassic Park with "Weird Al" Yankovic and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory with Neil Patrick Harris (aka TV's Doogie Howser, MD). They also brought in (rather curiously) Chad Vader to do the Rifftrax for Star Wars - Episode II: Attack of the Clones.

According to CT's website, new episodes are planned for DVD release approximately every three or four months, with downloadable episodes released simultaneously. The first CT DVD was released, through EZTakes, on December 21, 2007.

Sources:

Cinematic Titanic
The Internet Movie Database (IMDb)
                •Joel Hodgson
                •Mary Jo Pehl
                •Trace Beaulieu
                •Frank Conniff
                •J. Elvis Weinstein
                •Brain of Blood (1972)
                •The Doomsday Machine (1972)
                •The Wasp Woman (1959)
The Film Crew Online
Welcome to Rifftrax!

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