How 'The Room' Went From Disastrous Flop to Cult Phenomenon
The inspiration for James Franco's 'Disaster Artist' had possibly the worst premiere in Hollywood history ("One of the most embarrassing evenings of my life," recalls the film's publicist) — only to become a cult classic.
"Line? What is line?"
In the TIFF feature dramedy The Disaster Artist, James Franco struggles with his script on the set of 2003's The Room, widely regarded as the best "worst" film of all time.
With Franco directing and playing the movie's eccentric writer-director-producer-star Tommy Wiseau, The Disaster Artist — based on the book by fellow castmember Greg Sestero (portrayed by James' brother Dave Franco) — dramatizes the comically shambolic "making of" story behind The Room. The film, which at its appallingly scripted heart chronicles a love triangle involving Wiseau's character Johnny, his fiancee Lisa and his best friend Mark (Sistero), may have landed with a near-silent thud 14 years ago, but now regularly sells out special screenings all around the wolrd, with fans screaming out lines, loudly jeering at the endless array of faults and queuing up to get Wiseau's autograph.
But while Franco's film recounts the The Room's production, culminating with the world premiere at the Laemmle Fairfax theater on June 27, 2003, it still may leave one question unanswered: How did a movie deemed so unbelievably awful that one of the few early reviews said watching it was "like being stabbed in the head" make the dramatic leap to laugh-out-loud, crowd-pleasing cult phenomenon?
The Los Angeles publicist who worked on the film's original launch says it wasn't by accident.
"We came up with this idea to make it a campy, crazy thing — something to replace The Rocky Horror Picture Show," says Edward Lozzi, who was hired by Wiseau to look after the premiere and marketing (and says he consulted with Franco for The Disaster Artist).
And, according to Lozzi, it all began on the night of the disastrous premiere.
"It was one of the most embarrassing evenings of my life," says the PR man, who hadn't been allowed to see the film first and saw his reputation go up in flames as The Room bowed to the 500-seat theater he had filled with clients and friends (most of whom he claims had "hightailed it" before the end).
Adding to the spectacle, Wiseau insisted that goodie bags be given out containing a DVD of the film's music and a glossy "making of" magazine. He also demanded that he and the rest of the cast arrive by limo.
"But when Tommy pulled up in his, he said there weren't enough people out front, so he kept on going around the block," says Lozzi, who had to pull his staff out of the theater to form a welcome party after he'd already done three laps.
Among the eclectic audience members were Martin Landau, Rod Steiger, Karen Kramer (director Stanley Kramer's wife), Lou Ferrigno, George Barris (famed for creating the 1966 Batmobile), two-time Academy Award-nominated songwriter Carol Conners, husband and wife Marty Ingels and Shirley Jones, The Young and the Restless' Brenda Dickson, TV game show host Wink Martindale, Renee Taylor, who played the outspoken mother on The Nanny, film and TV star Chuck McCann and THR's own former columnist George Christy.
After the screening, Karen Kramer (Wiseau had taken her daughter Kat Kramer as his date for the night) approached a visibly worried Lozzi.
"She could see the look on my face. She goes, 'We gotta fix this. We've got to come up with a spin on this thing,'" he recalls.
So they approached Wiseau at the afterparty, down the road from the theater at the now-closed Mimosa Restaurant (a path Wiseau reportedly had insisted be red-carpeted all the way).
"We told him, 'We're going to make this a campy comedy, make it where the joke is on the audience, an almost slapstick kind of thing,'" says Lozzi. "And he looked at me and said, 'You're fired.'"
Within days, however, Lozzi was rehired and began a new marketing approach: to ditch the lofty comparisons (early promos had described The Room as having "all the passion of Tennessee Williams") and head in a more self-deprecating direction aimed at film students ("Because everything you're not supposed to do in a motion picture is in this film") and midnight movie enthusiasts.
Around the same time, help already was at hand in the form of Michael Rousselet, director of 2015's Dude Bro Party Massacre III. Then just 20, Rousselet had seen a trailer for The Room and was instantly drawn by what he describes as a "bombardment of drama." Driving past the Fallbrook Laemmle with two friends days later, Rousselet saw that the film was screening and gave it a go (despite a "no refunds after 15 minutes" sign and repeated warnings from the cinema staff).
"After the first line of, 'Oh hai, babe' we just lost it," he says. An obsession had begun. "Before the film was over, we were on our phones telling our friends they had to see this movie," he says.
Rousselet hid in the (empty) cinema for the second showing, sneaking in about 15 friends through the back door. The following day, he returned, this time with around 30 more.
"We were the outcasts, the weirdos who liked bad movies and kitsch stuff," he says. "We just wanted to bring as many of our friends as we could — we didn't want it to disappear and nobody would get our in jokes."
For the final screening before the run ended, the group gave it a "proper Viking funeral," bringing about 100 people, many dressed up as characters from the film.
After The Room left the Laemmle in the summer of 2003, Rousselet and his friends took their new love to the internet, writing gushing reviews on IMDb (and creating fake accounts so they could hit it multiple times).
Under pressure from his growing cohort of fans, Wiseau eventually invited them to two free screenings in an office in Beverly Hills, before hosting a couple of free screenings at the Fairfax Laemmle in 2004. As the film's popularity grew, the most dedicated attended repeatedly, sometimes in costume and often with plastic spoons on hand to throw at the screen whenever a framed photo of a spoon appeared (a frequent occurance). Spoon chucking is now a mainstay at The Room's global screenings, although Rousselet says there's a tussle between two friends over who initiated it.
Wiseau, by now convinced he had a genuine phenomenon on his hands, began presenting monthly midnight screenings. But this time there was a catch: You had to pay.
"It was genius," says Rousselet, who even got a job at the cinema because the manager was so impressed with his crowd-amassing skills. "He was like a drug dealer who had given us a taste."
The number of fans needing a hit grew exponentially. One booked screening room eventually became all five available at the theater, with lines snaking around the block. Wiseau started to capitalize on his growing cult infamy with lines of merchandise (T-shirts, posters, watches and even his own line of Tommy Wiseau-branded underwear).
And celebrity fans joined the fun.
"I went fairly early on in the whole process," says David Cross, who says he and Will Arnett would share YouTube clips of The Room with each other. "It was much more fun than I expected. Even though it's a terrible, terrible film."
Paul Rudd, Jonah Hill and Kristen Bell were also early adopters, with Wiseau once telling THR that he wanted Bell to star in The Disaster Artist (as his character's two-timing girlfriend Lisa).
When it comes to the financial rewards of The Room, box-office figures alone don't do it justice. Its two-week run in 2003 produced a haul of only $1,800 (off the back of an estimated budget of $6 million, financed entirely by Wiseau). Rick Harper, who made the doc Room Full of Spoons about the making of The Room — a film that Wiseau has blocked via a court injunction — estimates that Wiseau, who declined to comment for this story, is generating about "$20,000 to $25,000 per month" from the film, which is still a midnight movie staple around the world, from New York to New Zealand.
James Franco optioned the The Disaster Artist and gained life rights from Wiseau and Sestero in late 2013, bringing on board Seth Rogan to co-produce with him and waiting for The Fault in Our Stars writing duo Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber to free up to pen the script. With A24 now having set an awards- season-friendly December release following a well-received screening at SXSW and a Toronto premiere, The Disaster Artist looks poised to spawn a whole new generation of The Room fanatics.
As for Rousselet (who managed to sneak onto the set of The Disaster Artist as an extra during the world premiere scenes), Wiseau has partially acknowledged his crucial role in The Room's popularity, calling him out from the queue at screenings ("This is the guy who started it all!").
"But he still made me buy my own DVD!"
A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.