THE ROOM: How A Horrible Film Became A Cult Classic

In 2003, a billboard was erected in Hollywood. The billboard promoted the booking of a new film. The only image on the billboard was the battle-worn face of the man who produced, directed, wrote and starred in the film. The film was a labor of love for this man, whose biggest dream was to be a big Hollywood star despite being told repeatedly that he had no chance of “making it”.

After spending an outrageous six million dollars of his own money creating the film, this would-be Hitchcock screened his movie on June 27th of that year. It was greeted not only with unintentional laughter but people demanding a refund half-an-hour into the screening. It was a total disaster on every level that should have killed the filmmaker’s dreams forever.

The filmmaker was Tommy Wiseau and the movie was The Room.

This begs the question: how did The Room go from being a rotten crate of produce to the midnight-movie sensation that it is now?

We probably never would have had heard of Tommy Wiseau or his movie had it not been for Michael Rousselet Turning – creator of 5-Second Films. While watching The Room, he turned it into his own episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, riffing on the movie. Rather than telling him to be quiet, the audience started laughing at his jokes and even began to make their own wisecracks. Turning realized that he had struck gold and soon started inviting his friends to attend screenings with him. Some of those friends included Paul Rudd, David Cross, Patton Oswalt, Seth Rogen and James Franco.

They became so obsessed with The Room that they began attending screenings two to three times a week during the initial run. The improvised wisecracks gave way to established riffs. Their antics further evolved to include physical gags such as throwing spoons whenever a photo of a spoon was visible in the background or passing around footballs whenever the characters played football on-screen. The show within the show quickly became popular among the hipster film fans of Los Angeles.

Alas, the film was pulled after a brief run.  That might have been the end of things had Wiseau not decided to book a midnight screening of The Room in 2004. It was a massive success. After that Wiseau started holding regular midnight screenings and each one was just as crowded as the first due to word of mouth.

Suddenly all of Hollywood began flocking to see the film. Kristen Bell acquired a 35 mm reel of The Room to screen for her friends. One of them was producer Rob Thomas, whose response to the film was such that he began to reference Wiseau’s movie in anyway that he could on Veronica Mars.

The Room was released on home video in 2005. By this time, the cinema underground was well aware of the film’s existence and attending a midnight screening was deemed a right of passage to cult film aficionados in much the same manner as The Rocky Horror Picture Show. 

Now, nearly fifteen years after its creation, The Room is on the lips of Hollywood elites just as Wiseau dreamed. This is due to the upcoming biopic The Disaster Artist – James Franco’s film based on the book of the same name by Greg Sestero, which detailed his friendship with Tommy Wiseau and the making of The Room.

I myself was first introduced to The Room in 2009. A fellow film critic was telling me about it and curiosity got the best of me. It was around that same time I noticed Rifftrax was about to release a audio riff to play along with the film. So I said “what the heck?” and paid $10 for the DVD.

Now, I have seen some seriously bad films in my life but this one floored me. It was as if I was watching space aliens trying to make their own version of a Cinemax After Dark show. From the poor acting to the subplots that had no resolution, I was dumbfounded. Then I re-watched it with the Rifftrax and laughed whole-heartedly. Then I started attending the midnight screenings in Dallas.

Flash forward a few years and The Room has become a bizarre yet major part of my life. It is a film I never thought I would become synonymous with. yet somehow that’s happened. I recorded my own comedic commentary on the movie. I’ve participated in live script readings with Greg Sestero himself and even helped financially support the mockumentary The Room Actors: Where Are They Now?

Why has this film done this to me and so many others? Why has it become a film that people obsess over? It is hard to pinpoint exactly why but let me give you my reasons.

Whereas Rocky Horror became a cult classic due to its providing a safe space for misfits, giving them a place to be themselves, I think two things fuel The Room’s popularity.  The first is schadenfreude (laughing at the misfortunes of others) in its’ purest form.  The second factor, ironically, is the sense of hopefulness the film inspires.

Tommy Wiseau has become a symbol of the American dream. He worked hard and created something that will ensure his immortality. I am sure this is not the way he wanted it to be, but he still got there. It is kind of hard to hate a man who was the ultimate underdog who still succeeded in spite of the odds against him.

So, long live The Room. May this film that is riddled with issues upon issues continue to entertain us for all the wrong reasons for a long time to come.

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