The Midnight Magic Of 'The Room': Tales From Screenings Of The Worst Movie Ever Made

The Room is many things. An endless well of internet memes. An absolute trainwreck of a film. But it's also the most successful midnight movie of the modern era, the heir apparent to Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Since The Room debuted in 2003, it's developed an intense fan following on the midnight movie circuit. There are dozens of callbacks and hundreds of spoons. Director/writer/star Tommy Wiseau makes frequent appearances at screenings. So does his co-star, Greg Sestero, who co-wrote the behind-the-scenes book, The Disaster Artist, that's now a movie of its own.

But how exactly did The Room achieve this unique cult status? I spoke to managers and events directors at movie theaters across the country to piece together its rise. They shared stories of elaborate costumes, questionable callbacks, and the work that goes into hosting the most boisterous movie screening in town.

The Beginning

The Room, famously, bombed on its original release on June 27, 2003. Wiseau booked a two-week run at two theaters in Los Angeles that kicked off with a disastrous "world premiere." But someone managed to wander into an empty showing during those two weeks: Michael Rousselet. The screenwriter has been credited as the "patient zero" of the Room cult thanks to a 2008 Entertainment Weekly article. By his account, he and his friends would bring along 100 people to a single showing. After The Room concluded its initial run, this budding fanbase began calling the theaters where it played, demanding its return. They were persuasive. According to Vulture, it was in the midnight screening rotation at the Laemmle Sunset in Los Angeles by 2004.

It took a few years for the movie to break out of LA, where Wiseau's face literally loomed over the highway on a billboard he rented. Wiseau released The Room on DVD in 2005. A few national stories on the movie's cult status followed. But it didn't seem to escape California until around 2007 or 2008.

"I think The Room first came to Coolidge in, must have been, 2007," says Mark Anastasio, the program manager at the Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline, Massachusetts. "We saw some articles. The Los Angeles screenings started to get national attention. I remember our associate director at the time showing the article to myself and our program manager back then and asking us to look into it. We ran it for the staff, to sort of test it out amongst ourselves. The staff screening was a huge hit. We thought it was hysterical and a lot of fun. We booked it for midnight shows and we began to run it monthly. It's been screening here regularly ever since."

Tom Beddow, the director of event marketing for Landmark Theatres, tells a similar story. "I actually was working at the E Street Cinema [in Washington, DC] as a manager in 2008 and we had just restarted our midnight program that fall. So our film department was asking us what we wanted to play and I had seen clips of The Room on YouTube and kind of heard that it was becoming a midnight phenomenon. I suggested this movie to our film department and they had never heard of it. But we had actually also gotten some emails from patrons asking, 'Are you guys ever going to play this movie, The Room?' The first time it played, it sold out."

By around 2009, the movie was in midnight rotation at the multiple Landmark Theatres, Coolidge Corner Theatre, the Belcourt Theatre in Nashville, and so many other locations across America. As the film gained traction, so did the unique rituals attached to the midnight screenings of The Room.

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Callbacks and Costumes

You never hear much movie dialogue at The Room screenings, because the audience is too busy shouting and singing at every opportunity. Although the callback lines can vary depending on the theater, quite a few have entered the national lexicon. Fans chant, "Go! Go! Go!" during any pan of the Golden Gate Bridge, cheering if the pan reaches the end or sighing if it cuts. They also sing the Full House theme song over appropriate shots of San Francisco. They'll scream, "Focus!" whenever the camera goes out of focus or "Close the damn door!" anytime a character leaves the front door ajar. The characters in The Room also seem to play football a lot (although "play" is a strong word for whatever it is they're doing) so fans will smuggle in footballs of their own to toss during these scenes. And that's just scratching the surface. More complete lists of the callbacks can be found here and here.

Audience members also dress up as characters from the movie. Tuxedos, which Wiseau's character Johnny and his male friends don for one scene, are the most common. Women also frequently show up in red dresses, similar to the one worn by Lisa (Juliette Danielle). But some people get very creative.

"We had a person come dressed as the flower shop lady," says Bob Roberts, the front of house manager at the Belcourt Theatre. "She even had a stuffed dog that she was carrying around with her. I just thought that was amazing. We have also had people come as the bearded and non-bearded Mark. Just two guys show up as Mark before and after he shaved."

Elisa Melendez, a longtime Room fan, has also brainstormed some imaginative costume ideas.

"My husband and I have debated a quick change into track pants and tank tops to do a lap around the theater during the jogging scene," she writes in an email. "But we haven't implemented it yet."

While costumes and chanting might be fun, there's one tradition that eclipses all the rest.

A Brief Word on Spoons

The most famous ritual associated with The Room is throwing plastic spoons towards the screen. For whatever reason, Johnny and Lisa's fictional home is full of framed photos of spoons. So as soon as one is visible onscreen, viewers will scream, "Spoon!" and chuck plastic cutlery towards the front. This happens so frequently that any theater is blanketed with spoons by the time lights come up.

Unsurprisingly, it's the staff's least favorite part of these screenings.

"Literally every auditorium we had at the E Street Cinema, if you looked under the screen, there would be spoons," says Beddow. "They would all hit the screen and fall behind the curtain, so it would just be hundreds of spoons back there. Every couple months, we'd go in and do a spoon clean-up."

"Any event that has people clear the shelves of the local pharmacy of all their plastic silverware and then leave hundreds of thousands of them just dumped on the floor is going to be a source of agitation for the venue," says Anastasio. "But I think at the last show, there must have been at least 20 to 30 people, audience members, who stayed to help fill giant Hefty bags full of spoons."

Beyond the clean-up, the spoons can pose deeper problems. Several theaters warn audiences before each showing that they are not supposed to actually hit the screen. Structural damage is a real fear for multiple managers, who have had to institute a list of rules thanks to a couple bad fans.

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Fist Fights and Frat Boys

The crowds that show up for The Room are usually described as "rambunctious" or "rowdy." But some fans go well beyond those playful terms. Beddow remembers discovering, to his horror, that someone threw a large soda at the screen after one of E Street Cinema's Room showings. The staff informed the next audience that if it happened again, they'd stop showing the movie entirely. But at least that incident didn't come to blows.

"The first time it was here, there were some people who didn't understand the whole spoon throwing thing," Beddow says. "I'm not sure exactly what happened, but basically a fist fight broke out in the theater. I guess people didn't understand that it wasn't just the people behind them hitting them with spoons? We actually had to stop the show because there was a 7 or 8 person brawl going on."

Multiple managers have also detected misogyny among certain fans. Anastasio remembers some troubling callbacks concerning the female characters. "Every once in a while, you'll have people that see the plot of that movie and really get into hating Lisa," he says. "They'll just begin to shout really over the top derogatory things. I don't know if there's a jovial way to tell people to not be shitty, but that's pretty much the job when I come in to introduce that film."

"I think that has cooled down a bit, but I think at first [The Room] kind of had this reputation as a drunk frat boy midnight movie," Beddow agrees.

Still, it sounds like the problems posed by a few crappy fans are nothing compared to the stories surrounding the movie's creator, who's burned bridges at more than one theater.

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Close Encounters with Tommy Wiseau

When you mention Wiseau to movie theater managers, the response is usually a chuckle or a deep sigh. Although no one disputes Wiseau's appeal to audiences, he's been branded "difficult" by several theater staffers.

Anastasio took a long pause before answering, noting that his operations director was laughing in the background as he tried to gather the correct words. "Tommy became increasingly difficult over the visits we've had him here for," he says. "He's great on stage, people love him. But he's a real tough person to manage. I'm patient and the last time that Tommy was with us, I don't think it was even a goodbye. I think he was asked to leave. I mean, that's the truth."

Beddow interacted with Wiseau a few times, and says he did not encounter problems so much as eccentricities. "Tommy, at the time, I don't know if he still does this, was writing emails under the guise of his assistant named Johnny," he says. "Or John, rather. You could clearly tell it was him because he wrote in the exact same parlance as he speaks." But after Beddow changed jobs, he heard from coworkers that Wiseau started ignoring manager requests, throwing merchandise into the crowd, and giving orders to the audience. He believes E Street Cinema has also pressed pause on any future appearances.

Sestero seems to be the preferred guest for these screenings. Anastasio and Roberts praised him as a "friend of the theater" and a "great guy," respectively. But Sestero and Wiseau are both bound to get even more of these requests, as The Disaster Artist film enters serious awards discussions.

"I can see that the only place this is going to go is Tommy Wiseau on the red carpet at the Academy Awards," Anastasio says. "There's no way around that. That is the way that this story is going to unfold. And that's nice." He pauses, then laughs. "I'm sorry, I'm hiding such pain."

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The Enduring Appeal of The Room

14 years after its debut, The Room doesn't show any signs of slowing down. The managers interviewed for this piece reported its screenings are still selling out. Anastasio says the movie's popularity actually helps fund other programming for Coolidge Corner Theatre. But every person has a different theory on what's kept The Room viable all this time.

"A lot of the movies you see that get labeled 'so bad, they're good' are movies that are bad because maybe one element didn't work," Roberts says. "In The Room, nothing works. It fails on every possible level, not just a couple of them, and it's so mind-bogglingly bad that it can't help but be fascinating. But there's also a sort of sincerity to it. Everybody involved with The Room is obviously trying so hard to make something good... you can't help but sort of root for it."

Anna-Lisa Campos, the general manager at Nitehawk Cinema in Brooklyn, believes it's all about the crowd. "I think with any of the camp things that achieve cult status, it's a lot about the communal appreciation of it," she says. "It's the same as when I was in college and everyone would watch Troll 2. It's just something that people share in terms of humor and appreciation. The joy of it exists in watching it with a crowd."

But for fans like Melendez, The Room has a much larger significance.

"It's a much needed bright spot in our current hellscape," she writes. "That this thing can get made, and this dumpster fire can turn to comedic gold...maybe, just maybe, there could be hope for all of us."