Greg Laemmle—relentless supporter of indie moviemakers—suggested I include moviemaker Tommy Wiseau in my self-distribution series. Turns out Wiseau’s movie, The Room, made 10 years ago, has not only become a “cult” phenomenon, but a veritable lesson in paint-by-numbers, cult-by-design moviemaking. Wiseau was very entertaining and still, after all these years, passionate to tell the story of his movie and its conception.
How would you go about creating a cult classic? Is it possible to pre-determine the transformation of a movie from mere movie to audience obsession? According to Wiseau, it is. He assured me, rather adamantly, that he had envisioned it as a repeat performer when he wrote it. He wanted to “provoke” the audience. Initially, he intended it for the stage, but it was too ripe for cult classic-ness and Wiseau felt it had to ultimately hit the big screen. Over and over and over.
The Room, an over-the-top melodrama, was first panned when it hit the critics’ eyes. But, in classic Ed Wood fashion, Wiseau ignored the negative commentary and plowed on in his quest for exposure. Rather than settle on one of the distributors who expressed interest but gave the moviemaker very little in return, Wiseau decided to distribute it himself and the film played in a slew of theaters across the country. It became a classic DIY distribution story.
The film ultimately found its home at the Laemmle 5 on Sunset Boulevard. It’s been playing the midnight slot once a month for close to five years now, drawing a repeat audience, and packing the house.
The critics said it was “the worst movie ever, you have to see it!” Wiseau laughed as he shared this backhanded recommendation. He has a good sense of humor about his film and its merits. Hell, as long as he keeps generating such a loyal following, who cares what the critics think!
The audience exhibits all the assorted cult classic reactions one would expect: Speaking the key dialogue points, throwing things at the screen and mimicking the action, words and emotions of the characters. You know, The Rocky Horror Picture Show but without the music, singing, dancing and amazing actors.
“I like when people laugh. You can laugh, you can cry, but please don’t hurt each other,” says Wiseau. I couldn’t detect the wink in his voice, but I’m sure it was there.
Wiseau warned me that the movie “is not for everyone.” Some individuals just can’t take it. The love scene, for example, pushes some people’s buttons; some even find it shocking. Wiseau claims the scene is fairly graphic, more than earning its R rating. “Are they actually having sex?” I ask. He misunderstands at first and for a moment I assume he had real sex on the set and I’m super jazzed to see it—so edgy! But we discover we’re having a communication glitch.
“No, not real sex. But almost.” What is that? Almost? I didn’t press further, I just let my imagination run with it…
Wiseau sent me a DVD of the audience reactions to the movie, taped as they exited the theater. These young people (most were in their 20s) were high on euphoria about the movie and they expressed a sort of hero worship to the ruggedly handsome, long-haired Wiseau, who, with his French accent, caused a few gals to swoon. The audience members re-enacted lines; some claimed to have attended more than 13 screenings.
I began to understand why people were being seduced by this man and his movie. Such sincerity, such passion, such stubborn conviction. That mindset, I believe, has catapulted Wiseau successfully into the self-distribution biz.
The Room has been released on DVD through Amazon.com. Tommy says they’ve done fairly well. Again, self-distributed. So, has it broken even? Tommy wouldn’t say directly. As with most moviemakers, he’s coy about sharing concrete financial figures—though he did say he’s happy with the situation thus far.
So, you want to distribute your own movie? How committed are you? It’s no picnic. It’s like getting into production all over again. It’s possible the process will require vast reserves of time and money. You may have to go back to your investors or dig deeper into your own pockets. For many, it’s worth it. Sometimes the DVD deal you can broker is much better once you’ve had a theatrical run (given that it is successful in the distributor’s eyes). So if you don’t have the heart for it or the stomach, think twice. You’re entering another realm of the business, one with its own rules and challenges. If you believe in your movie and are willing to take a risk and spend the time, then more power to you!
Next installment, Part III, I’ll go over some online alternatives for self-distribution.