Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love "The Room”
This is a story about listening to your customers, and being open to suggestions. It’s also a story with gratuitous nudity, an underdog victory, and an alcoholic drink called the "Scotchka". This post’s got something for everyone, including bar charts and movie clips.
PROLOGUEIn the summer of 2010, I was six months into operating a movie theater. As an “Art House” theater, we showed limited release films, which also meant limited profits. To increase revenues, I had introduced Late Night movies, and experimented with various genres. Overall, I had not had much success. As the first chart shows, a number of them actually lost money!
Why was I losing money? Many of these were films where I said “I like this movie. I want people to see this movie. And dammit, I have a movie theater and I can play what I want!” But I was not enticing customers, because I was selecting movies based on my own tastes. This is a lesson I learned the hard way, by paying for two employees to sit around for two hours while one customer watched a movie. (True story. But at least I showed it! My predecessor refused to show the film to fewer than 5 people, which I disagree with. If only one person shows up, it’s not their fault – and that one person deserves to see the movie. A private screening is actually a wonderful thing for the audience, just not the theater operator.)
This chart shows the net of Ticket Sales + Concessions Sales – Movie Cost. This is for all of the Late Nights I'd played in my first eight months that were NOT new releases - in other words, ones that I'd selected, with the exceptions of Candyman and Hedwig, because other people picked those.
Quick tangent #1 – how does a film lose money? When you show a movie, you negotiate the price (“terms") on a film by film basis. For Late Nights, a common set of terms was “$250 / 35%” which means that you pay 35% of all ticket revenue to the studio… but there’s a minimum cost of $250. This is the "Movie Cost" in the equation above. Don’t sell $250 worth? Then the movie lost money. (In case you’re wondering, $715 in ticket sales is when you start paying more than $250.) And I hate to call attention to it, but I was losing money simply on tickets + concessions sales! This doesn’t include overhead costs like rent, salaries, power, etc.
ACT ONEThe first request came in through Facebook: “When will you play The Room?” they asked. I did a quick internet search and learned that The Room was a movie so execrably bad that audiences verbally mocked it. And threw plastic spoons.
“No thank you” I said to the requester, “showing bad movies isn’t my thing”. (OK, I have no idea what my literal text was, but I think it was something to this effect.) This was how I honestly felt. With the opportunity to program a weekend late night series at an awesome movie theater, I didn’t want to squander it showing bad movies, or let audiences damage it by throwing things.
Then more requests started to come in for The Room. Now the entrepreneur in me was intrigued. OK, it might be bad, but my choices of “good” films weren’t really doing so hot…
One of the wonderful things about the movie theater business is the fast product lifecycle. Every week was a new product, and there was a continuous feedback loop of interacting with my audience. If this many people were asking for a film, then that was a good sign that people would turn out to see it.
I contacted another theater manager to ask him about it. “We’ve shown it and it’s awesome,” he said. “You’ve got to do it!” (Again, I’m paraphrasing.) He gave me an e-mail address and a warning. “The movie is made by Tommy Wiseau, and he owns the rights to it. You’re dealing directly with him, but he pretends to be his own assistant named Johnny.” (He must like the name, it’s also his character in the movie.)
With great trepidation, I reached out to “Johnny” and asked about the possibility of playing the film.
Impressively, Johnny responded in four hours, and was all business:
OK, so his e-mail writing was as stilted as his script, but this was promising. I responded with answers and we were off. Dealing with “Johnny” was an amazingly smooth process. His terms were close to normal, but delightfully random: $295/38%. The more interesting operational part was the rider to the film. He was very specific about how it should be shown and advertised. For example, I had to show it four times (no problem – I just added a Wednesday show to our regular Fri/Sat/Thurs schedule) and I must display posters 30 days in advance, telling the date of the next show. And (this is the weird part) ONLY the next show, not all future shows – his rider was explicit on that.
The good news: he was sending me posters. The bad news: this was the poster:
I even had to send back pictures of the posters on display, which I did.
When I announced the movie on Facebook, the buzz was immediate. I did my best to spread the word, even though I had no idea what to expect. Here’s how I promoted it at the time:
The film will have a hard time being more enjoyable than the reviewer comments. For example, IFC.com described Wiseau's speaking voice in the film as "Borat trying to do an impression of Christopher Walken playing a mental patient." Or the description in The Guardian, which called the film a mix of "Tennessee Williams, Ed Wood and R. Kelly's Trapped in the Closet".
We encourage audience interaction for this film, and we will have guidance from members of the improv group The Abe Froman Project at Thursday's show. A great site to read to prepare yourself is here. (Visible link: http://www.avclub.com/article/a-viewers-guide-to-the-room-25721)
I was serious about the link at the end of the blurb. The Room had a reputation as being “like Rocky Horror” in that there were specific things that people did at certain times. I figured it would be best to prepare people. I still think this is the most informative guide you will ever see.
Quick tangent #2 – Writing blurbs on movies was one of the hardest parts of the job, and writing the weekly e-mail was more painful to me than filing payroll taxes. Forget about the annoying newsletter tool I was using… writing movie blurbs was hard because:
- You’ve got to make the film sound interesting.
- Although you’ve never seen it
- And your information is really just from reading reviews.
- But no plot spoilers.
ACT TWOThe film opened on a Friday night and we sold 236 out of 245 seats. A virtual sell-out, but we didn’t have to turn anyone away… perfect! Sell-outs are generally chaos, and this - our first one - was no different, although it was a fun and profitable chaos, with lots of drink orders. ($1,180 in tickets and $640 in concessions at that first show.)
It took a while to get people seated then I gave a little intro speech with a plea not to throw footballs at the screen. (At the time, I didn't know that the proper way to throw a football for The Room involved standing around like a game of hacky sack.) When we showed it at later engagements, I would don my Tommy Wiseau costume – including a long black wig - and greet the crowd with my best Tommy impression, which lasts for exactly two words: “Oh haiiiiiii,” I would sing out. “Oh haaiiiiii,” the audience would yell back. Those were great moments. This clip is a compilation of "Oh, hi" moments in the film:
Simply put, it was one of the greatest movie audience experiences of my life. First, I was professionally thrilled because he’d sent us a brand new 35mm print. It might be a bad movie, but it looked and sounded amazing on the screen. Second, people were having a blast. They were yelling, laughing, and interacting with the film and each other. It was a communal event and the whole audience was sharing in the experience, whether they wanted to or not. (And THAT is why you never want to watch this movie at home - please trust me on this.)
People compare The Room to Rocky Horror, and there is a similarity because audience participation is encouraged, if not required. But the comparison doesn't do justice to The Room or its audience. Rocky Horror audience participation is rigidly scripted and acted out by a small group of people in lavish costumes, like opera. Also like opera, if you don't know it already (you’re a "virgin") you will feel left out. The Room is more like jazz. There's a loose structure for audience interaction, but there's more improvisation. It’s easy to enjoy if you get in the groove, and it's a little different every time.
Anyway, the long and short of it is that the Room was a smash success. Put on a graph of my first 21 months, the three times we booked it stand out.
OK, enough bar charts - what about the gratuitous nudity?Ah yes, the movie. The movie is definitely bad. The script is bad, the acting is bad, the music is horrible. There are even issues with the focus. The movie starts, and almost immediately goes right into an atrocious sex scene. It's atrocious because naked Tommy Wiseau is frightening – he’s buff, but looks like a space alien’s attempt to take human form. His fiancée seems (quite reasonably) scared of him. I learned later that they shot the sex scenes immediately after hiring her. Their lack of chemistry is apparent.
Most of the action takes place in a single room, hence the title, and there are many pictures of spoons on the walls, for no apparent reason, hence the spoons. Whenever they are visible, people yell “Spoon!” and throw plastic spoons in the air. (We cleaned them up after the show with a snow shovel.)
Here's a fairly representative scene between Tommy and his fiancée:
**This clip is "official" (that's good) but it is missing the additional part that the clip used to have, which included Tommy saying that he doesn't drink... hence the tangent.
Quick tangent #3 - Tommy seems to be telling the truth that he doesn't drink - because when they do drink they mix Scotch and Vodka together. This is (now) a drink people call the Scotchka. People would order it but I refused to serve it. We had Oban and Absolut, and mixing the two would be an abomination! In retrospect, I should have bought cheap versions of each and poured away, but I had more principles then.
There are some scenes filmed at locations outside the room, but they’re not any better. In my opinion, the roof has the best scenes. This is a good example of a roof scene: it combines awkward dialogue, horrendous acting, non-sequiturs… and chroma key views of San Francisco:
The movie has a plot, but it’s not important. Characters come and go, and some of them seem to be played by different actors later. (I’ve seen it several times and I’m still not clear if they’re the same characters or not.) Tommy has dubbed his own dialogue, poorly.
Yet, the movie has a pathos that draws you in. And it’s not just the plight of the protagonist. It’s also that this was obviously a passion project for the lead actor/writer/director – Tommy Wiseau. The movie is an amateur vanity project gone wrong. He poured his heart, and (reportedly) $6 million dollars of his money, into this movie. He’s trying to express some kind of inner yearning, but lacks any clue of how to do it. And ever since, he has been mocked constantly. Including by me, right here in this post.
ACT THREEAnd that is where this story has a surprise ending.
After production wrapped, Tommy premiered his film at a local LA theater, only to have it fail spectacularly with audience walkouts and scathing reviews.
But by the end of its 2-week run, people were dragging their friends to see it because of its awfulness. And when the 2-week run was done, they begged that it be brought back, then invited more people to share it. Then other theaters heard about this and wanted to show the film, and the phenomenon spread.
Now here is where it’s important to understand something about movie distribution. Normally, someone makes a movie and then finds a distributor, who buys the rights to represent ("distribute") the film to theaters - and takes a cut of the profits. (Think about Disney distributing the early Pixar films.) Tommy Wiseau had no one who wanted to buy his film, so he released it himself – and absorbed the cost of bringing it to the theater (the first 35mm print can cost tens of thousands of dollars) and its initial financial failure.
However, when people started to replay the film, and sell tickets to those shows, the person who was making all of the money was… Tommy Wiseau. He owned the rights and distributed the film himself! And as the craze grew, he started to make personal appearances – for a fee, of course. His audience loved the film because it sucked, and Tommy was able to accept that and profit from it. (Now he claims that this was his intent all along, but anyone who watches the film can see that this is clearly retroactive justification.) But his success was real: his film was being seen, and he was profiting mightily.
So let’s all learn a lesson from Tommy: listen to your customers and don’t hesitate to acknowledge when you’re wrong and your audience is right. It sounds obvious, but a good way to succeed with your audience is to fulfill their wants. The Room taught me that programming films is not about the audience liking the programmer’s tastes… it’s about the programmer understanding the audience. Thanks to The Room, that finally clicked for me.
As a film programmer, I had it easy because I could adapt weekly to customer requests. Consider how pivotal it was for him. He had sunk a lot of his own money into a production so bizarre that James Franco is making a movie about the MAKING OF the movie: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3521126/ And when his failure of a film became an unlikely winner, he embraced it and he’s succeeded, beyond any conceivable expectation for the original movie.
EPILOGUEWhile writing this blog, I realized that my movie poster collection was lacking one for The Room, because the few posters we had were so precious that I left them with the theater. Happily, Tommy is now running his own website – and he will autograph items if you buy them! They have t-shirts, posters, DVDs, and underwear (Tommy’s own line – they look comfy, but I haven’t tried them.) So please check out their selections. As you can see, it looks like he personally maintains the website too! http://www.theroommovie.com/buydirect.html
I ordered a poster and asked him to write a greeting, which he did. It’s a quote from one of my favorite scenes, where Johnny exhibits his inner Buddha while planning to do something near to my heart: go see a movie.
“Don’t plan too much,” Tommy cautions, “it may not come out right.” Good advice for us all.
I'll treasure it always...