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4 YEARS

Why 'Repo! The Genetic Opera' Could Be the Next 'Rocky Horror Picture Show'

‘Repo! The Genetic Opera’
Kristian Dowling/Picturegroup

Every few years, film fanatics anoint "the next Rocky Horror Picture Show," a movie that fizzled at the box office but found a cult audience on the midnight-screening circuit. Remember the horror flick Birdemic? Came and went like a dodo. The 2003 campy drama The Room? Still draws crowds, but mostly just at West Hollywood's Laemmle 5.

The latest cult phenomenon gathering steam is Repo! The Genetic Opera, a horror-musical-thriller from Darren Lynn Bousman, director of the second, third and fourth Saw movies. The $8 million-budgeted Repo! earned just $147,000 when released by Lionsgate in November 2008. "The film is bad -- not good-bad, tacky-bad or fun-bad, just plain awful and nearly unwatchable," the Los Angeles Times wrote.

And yet about 150 people show up on the last Friday of every month at the Vista Theatre in L.A.'s Los Feliz neighborhood, many in costumes, to participate in a "shadowcast," where fans mimic the movie as it plays. Screenings of the futuristic tale of family secrets, botched plastic surgeries and genetic destiny now take place from Bakersfield to Toronto. It plays weekly in Portland, Ore., and quarterly in Chicago, and the first shadowcast in Grand Rapids, Mich., was Jan. 29.

Fishnets and bondage suits are the preferred attire, and screaming phrases like "My legacy is not up to my genes" is encouraged.

Bousman is partly responsible for the delayed success. When the movie tanked, he asked Lionsgate for a print and spent months touring the country by car trying to get it played at theaters. Inexplicably, people began showing up with tattoos of the movie's characters. It was the goth crowd, the Saw crowd, the high school drama club crowd.

A phenomenon was born.

Lionsgate's only involvement is providing the film rental (it gets a onetime distribution fee for that midnight screening). But if Repo! continues to spread, the dollars could add up. Rocky Horror opened in eight cities in 1975 but has since grossed $112 million. Post-2008 box-office figures for Repo! aren't available.

"What made this movie work was that it failed," Bousman says. "Fans discovered it and made it what it is." The filmmaker, who recently began shooting the supernatural thriller 11:11:11 in Spain, gets irritated when he meets execs who say "Sorry about Repo!" To him, the movie has succeeded in a way he couldn't have imagined.

"Just because you flop does not mean your movie is dead," he says. "You can change the fate of your movie."