How The Room Made $30 Million by Being a Terrible Movie

, How The Room Made $30 Million by Being a Terrible Movie
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, How The Room Made $30 Million by Being a Terrible Movie

Released in 2003, The Room is widely considered to be one of the worst films ever made. It holds a score of 3.7 out of 10 on IMDb and an astounding 9 out of 100 on Metacritic. Film critic, Marg Mohan, claimed that the film “oozes sincerity, which is then slathered in a thick coating of oblivious narcissism, and sadly serves as an example that not everyone should follow their bliss.”

It earned $30 million on a $6 million budget. Most of that went right into director Tommy Wiseau’s pockets. In other words, he got the last laugh.

When my colleague Pierson and I were chatting about this movie, we looked back on our experiences with it with fond cringing, as one does. On a lark, I Googled how successful this film was, and was shocked by what I found out. Like I said, The Room made $30 million which was five times its budget. That’s pretty damn impressive for any business venture, let alone one dogged with the kind of critical vitriol that Wiseau endured.

“So bad it’s good”

Everything in this film – from the basic storyline beats to the acting, cinematography, pacing, dialogue, and editing – is bad. The film screams incompetence and ego in every single frame. Its initial box office earnings were just $1,900.

There is a teenage character by the name of Denny, played by a then-26-year-old man, who wanders in and out of the protagonist’s house with no rhyme or reason. There is a sex scene that goes on for entirely too long and is, at one point, interrupted by Denny. A character announces they have cancer, and it’s never mentioned again. Denny got mixed up in drugs. People randomly stop to play “football” in scenes that do not further the plot at all. On top of that, there is a lot of weird misogynistic stuff that I have to mention, but couldn’t possibly describe.

The end result is a film that defies any explanation that can be provided by the written language by any writer in any language. So here is a supercut of some of the weirdest scenes if you want to watch.

Heads up: there are spoilers, as well as some pretty graphic sex and violence in the video below. Plus, the film itself earns its R rating and has nearly 20 minutes of unengaging, basically pornographic material in it. So maybe don’t show the kids this one.

Had the development process been slightly different, it likely would have been forgotten. But in the bizarre timeline we live in, The Room has been lionized as the king of “so bad it’s good movies.” That means it tops out Troll 2, Plan 9 from Outer Space, Manos: The Hands of Fate, Titanic 2, Birdemic: Shock and Terror, and – yes – Sharknado.

Journey with me to find out just how dramatically Tommy Wiseau failed up, why The Room is still being talked about now, and what we can learn from it.

What is The Room about?

Spoilers ahead. Jump here if you don’t want to read them. But honestly, the plot isn’t the point of this movie, and the spoilers won’t ruin it.

To say that The Room is bizarre is a massive understatement. But it clearly wasn’t intended to be that way and the trailer even unironically says that the film has “the passion of Tennessee Williams.” The initial description of the film on IMDb can be paraphrased as follows:

Johnny is a successful banker with great respect for and dedication to the people in his life, especially his future wife Lisa. Johnny can also be a little too trusting at times which haunts him later on. The Room depicts the depths of friendship and relationships in one’s life and raises life’s real and most asked question: “Can you ever really trust anyone?”

Now in just a minute, I’ll be explaining why it doesn’t play out like this. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t just go ahead and say this: I respect the hell out of Wiseau’s ambition. He’s the kind of guy who watched Mulholland Drive and said, “I could totally do something like that.”

He had a creative vision, he saw it through to the end, and he relentlessly self-promoted. Just wanted to say that first because I’m about to give his work so much grief.

The Room, a scene by scene analysis

I sat at my keyboard for several minutes, unmoving, trying to think of how best to summarize what happened in the film. The film is so disjointed partly because while it does follow a narrative arc, most of the film doesn’t exactly follow a standard plot diagram.

So in lieu of a summary, I’ll give you a timeline. With a critical business analysis of most movies, this would be gratuitous. With The Room, it’s necessary.

My timeline is a long one, so click here if you don’t want spoilers or don’t want a recap.

(Thank you to Nostalgia Critic for creating a detailed video that saved me from watching this film once more in its entirety instead of doing billable client work.)

Forgive me for the crude illustration, but to properly diagram Tommy Wiseau’s method, you have to be able to use non-Euclidian geometry.
Act 1?

Johnny is a successful businessman, engaged to Lisa. Denny, a wandering teenager(?) is introduced into the film by walking into Johnny’s house with no clear purpose. The film makes it seem like he’s a neighborhood kid who looks up to Johnny.

Johnny (protagonist) says he’s “going to take a nap”, Denny (teenager) asks if he can go too – a perfectly normal request. Lisa (fiancee) says she’s going to join him in a suggestive way.

Denny (teenager) looks sad, then goes upstairs and interrupts their pillow fight. It’s OK, because he “just likes to watch you guys.” To which Johnny (protagonist) retorts “two’s great, but three’s a crowd.”

Denny leaves, and Johnny and Lisa make love for more time on the film than most people do in real life. (The average length of adult relations is 5.4 minutes, so I am not exaggerating.) The critical consensus, with which I agree, is that it is uncomfortably graphic and unflattering.

Lisa’s mother comes over. Lisa confesses that she doesn’t love Johnny any more. Her mother tells her to stick with him because of his high-paying career. Thanks, mom.

Lisa invites Johnny’s best friend Mark over for a “talk.” She tries to seduce him, and Mark takes a long time to figure out what she’s doing. Gratuitous lovemaking ensues.

There is an extremely weird scene where Johnny buys flowers for Lisa.

Purportedly teenaged Denny comes over once more, this time to flirt with Lisa. Lisa rebuffs him, because he’s a teenager being played by a 26-year-old man and there are just some lines you don’t cross, dammit.

Johnny gives Lisa the flowers. They talk about how he didn’t get the promotion. They drown their sorrows with mixed drinks made of vodka and rose wine, and of course, sex. Again. (People in this movie are like rabbits.)

Act 2?

Lisa’s mother drops in and claims she’s dying of cancer. This is immediately glossed over and completely forgotten about for the rest of the movie. The soon-to-be wedded Lisa pivots the conversation away from the cancer diagnosis, complaining that Johnny is a drunkard who hit her. This is, as far as the film is concerned, a lie. (But given this film is likely based on a personal story makes you question why he wrote this in.)

Lisa’s friends – never before introduced in the film – sneak into her home and inexplicably begin to do the one thing people do best in The Room – have sex at inappropriate times. Perhaps five seconds after they start, Lisa and her mother walk in, stage left, and catch Lisa’s friends in the act. This entire encounter, as with many other things in the movie, is glossed over.

Remember when Lisa told her mom that Johnny hit her? Well, when Johnny ultimately hears Lisa’s lie about him. He doesn’t take it well.

Plucky teenaged Denny is confronted on the rooftop by a gun-toting gangster. Johnny rescues him. Denny admits he owed the guy drug money. This is never mentioned again after the scene ends.

Lisa and Mark, Johnny’s so-called friend, cheat again.

After ending a screaming fit with meme-able line, “oh hi, Mark,” Johnny and Mark have a banal conversation about how bad women are. #NotAllMen.

Denny walks up to the roof after Mark leaves, and confesses that he’s in love with Lisa. Johnny laughs it off and says “don’t worry about that, Lisa loves you as a person, as a human being.” This never comes up again.

Later, Johnny hysterically confronts Lisa about her lie.

Shortly after this fit of pique, cut to Johnny and some of his guy friends playing football in the alley. Well, they’re playing catch with a football, which is the closest they get to playing the actual game. During the fourth down of their game of catch, one guy falls over. It’s a weirdly dramatic scene lacking any context, and apparently, lacking consequences as well, as this is never mentioned again.

Act 3?

Lisa and her mother have a conversation about how she doesn’t love him anymore, essentially repeating one from earlier in the movie. Johnny overhears it.

In other news, all the guys get dressed up in their tuxedos to go play football in the alley. Yes, the tonal shift really is as sharp as I make it sound.

Lisa and Mark meet up again to keep their sordid affair going, and their explicit deeds take a lot of runtime.

Cut to the guys playing football in the field again. Cut to Lisa and Mark doing it again. Then cut to Lisa and her mother talking about how much Johnny sucks again.

Johnny comes home to a surprise party. Lisa sends everybody but Mark outside for some “fresh air.” As if driven by fate, they succumb to their urges and have sex at an inappropriate time and in an inappropriate location once again.

Johnny’s friend walks in and catches them in the act. This friend was never introduced and is never seen again after this scene. Word gets around, and Johnny finds out that Lisa was cheating on him with his old pal, Mark. Johnny responds by pushing Mark around and making a scene at the party – the first normal human behavior thus far shown in the film.

Going upstairs, Johnny locks himself in the bathroom, refusing to come out. Later, Johnny leaves the bathroom, walks around his home, slowly breaking everything in sight. He tips over furniture, smashes mirrors, and throws a TV out the window.

Then he commits suicide. Mark and Lisa find his body. Denny, who again inexplicably runs into the home again, also finds the body and breaks down sobbing.

The end.

The Room’s (extremely) critical reception

In the hands of skilled writers and actors, and a different director, the basic concept of The Room could have become a serviceable drama. Personally, I don’t think it would have made it into the Criterion Collection unless Daniel Day-Lewis was the lead.

It’s not hard to find hateful criticism of The Room online, but here are a few snippets from Rotten Tomatoes if you enjoy florid critical prose.

In the dynasty of dung, among the many pretenders to the best worst movie throne, Tommy Wiseau and his oddly named tragedy truly earns their rotten rep.

Bill Gibron, Popmatters

This self-financed flick’s shortcomings go way beyond the standard array of glaring continuity errors, dodgy sets and stagnant editing.

Gavin Bond, Sunday Times (Australia)

If you experience brain damage as a result of watching this film, I disavow any responsibility whatsoever.

Sarah Boslaugh, Playback:stl

To make a movie that’s so bad it’s good you need vision, drive, luck and obsessive vanity. Fortuitously, The Room’s writer/producer/director/star Tommy Wiseau appears to possess all of these qualities, combined with a total lack of acting talent.

Steve Rose, Guardian

It is, in short, the ne plus ultra of crap. A trash masterpiece.

Nick Schager, The Daily Beast

You get the idea. To post further criticisms would be to further denigrate the reputation of a man already drug through the mud. Between the universal critical shellacking and the initial box office receipt earnings that wouldn’t buy a 20 year old car, you’d think the story of The Room would end here. End scene.

Who is this Tommy Wiseau guy anyway?

After reading the film’s plot, you might logically question the mind behind it. That would be lead actor, writer, executive producer, and director, Tommy Wiseau.

Good luck finding out information. His age, the source of his wealth, and background are all unknown. Wikipedia lists his place of birth simply as “Europe.” The best guess I can find is that he was born in the Eastern Bloc sometime in the late 1950s.

In the movie The Disaster Artist, which is about the making of The Room, Wiseau, as portrayed in that film, claims to be “from the bayou.” As in, Louisiana. Asked his age, he says “the same as you, haha.”

The same book I linked a moment ago states that Wiseau claims he was nearly killed in a car crash and was hospitalized for several weeks. Some people believe that this, combined with a possible insurance payout, led to his desire to pursue his dreams. Others say he laundered money.

Or alternatively, you could highlight another section from the same book, as Vox did: “[Wiseau] may have endured brutal working conditions, police brutality, anti-communist prejudice, homelessness, and a stint as a prostitute before finally securing a passport and a trip to America to begin a new life.”

Hell, maybe he’s Elon Musk’s long-lost cousin.

So to answer your question: no one actually knows.

Why The Room “failed”

The Room failed because it got bad critical reviews and bombed at the box office. Well, at least that’s the primary cause on the death certificate.

If you watch The Disaster Artist, you get the impression that Tommy Wiseau is this ultra-ambitious thwarted creative with a bone to pick with women. He then draws people into his orbit with his weird charisma, and you have all sorts of codependent relationships that come out of it. As Vox put it, “The Room is the result of Wiseau’s own exorbitance and desperation to achieve lasting success, fueled by his apparently bottomless wealth.”

That’s another fairly common take, and I think a good one. But since this is a business blog, I want to really zero in on some financial figures. Particularly, I want to focus on that $6 million budget.

Tommy Wiseau, the $6 million man

In the movie world, $6 million isn’t much. Avengers: Endgame cost $400 million to make. Napoleon Dynamite took $400,000. As you can see, there’s a lot of variation here.

The average indie film budget has been pegged somewhere around $750,000. But let’s not get too narrowly focused on that number since there is, after all, a lot of variation.

You have to look at Wiseau’s film and wonder how a $6 million film came out looking like crap. In the general vicinity of $6 million, you can make a damn fine film. Little Miss Sunshine and American Psycho both cost $8 million each. Juno cost $7.5 million. Shaun of the Dead was around $6 million. Memento was around $5 million.

And if we push this a little further, look at other indie films that made more from less. Garden State took $2.5 million to make. Saw took $1.2 million. Paranormal Activity cost $15,000 to make. Primer took $7,000.

They blew through money making careless mistakes. Wiseau stayed in a fancy trailer while the actors worked on hot days without air conditioning. They shot the movie on both 35mm and digital HD film, then scrapped both. They went through three photography directors. Watch The Disaster Artist and you can see more weird examples of how he pissed away that budget with nothing to show for it.

Did I mention that most of this money seemed to come out of Wiseau’s inexplicably bottomless coffers? The whole situation was just weird.

The $1,900 premiere

One industry source states that the combined gross from the two-week run at two theaters — the Laemmle Fallbrook and Fairfax — was just $1,900. Michael Rousselet, a young screenwriter who seems to be Patient Zero of the film’s cult, says he first caught the movie at an ”absolutely empty” theater. ”It was like our own private Mystery Science Theater,” he says.

”I was calling friends during the end and saying, ‘You have to come to this movie.’ We saw it four times in three days, and on the last day I had over 100 people there.” Soon, screenings of The Room were thick with both laughter and cutlery. ”The spoon thing probably started during the fourth screening with my friends,” says Rousselet. ”I was like, Why is there a spoon in the picture frame? Every time it came up, I’d scream ‘Spoon!’ So we brought spoons.”

The crazy cult of The RoomEntertainment Weekly

So here is the marketing checklist that Wiseau followed for his film’s debut in 2003.

  1. Open in a few LA cinemas.
  2. Offer a free soundtrack CD to ticket buyers.
  3. Promote the film with TV and print campaigns comparing The Room to the work of Tennessee Williams.
  4. Rent a billboard on Highland Avenue, which was mostly a close-up of his face.
  5. Submitted film to the Academy Awards. (He didn’t win.)

That’s pretty much it. As you can imagine, poor distribution didn’t do him any favors, the billboard confused people, and the TV and print campaigns must not have converted. But then again, when your billboards look like this…

…who is going to show up in the first place?

How The Room became a cult classic

Like Rocky Horror Picture Show, The Room is a film that rewards audience participation. If you want to learn more about how that works, check out this handy-dandy guide. Make sure you bring some spoons and a football to the theater.

This sort of raucous audience participation led to people telling each other about the movie by word of mouth. The movie went on to get late-night screenings for rowdy audiences. Sometimes Wiseau himself showed up to answer questions and read Shakespearean sonnets, as one does.

Word kept spreading around Los Angeles, with more and more prominent people hearing about the movie. Wiseau later released the film as a DVD in 2005. Events occurred, people watched, and the word spread.

In this sense, The Room is a massive success of organic marketing. You cannot make something like The Room on purpose. Something like this could only be the result of an authentic creative vision and a massive budget. (Though some say that the uncredited script supervisor, Sandy Schklair, pulled the strings behind the scenes to make sure it came out as a comedy. Believe what you will.)

The Room succeed because it is, for lack of a more precise term, honest. It’s real, it’s raw, it’s weird, and it’s truly one-of-a-kind. It is a transcendent cinema experience for all the wrong reasons. And slowly, over time, the light of the movie has burned for long enough to make Wiseau a cool $30 million in revenue, or $24 million in profit.

I reiterate.

5 surprising lessons which The Room can teach us about business (and life)

For as much as I’ve ragged on this movie for the post, I want to end on a positive note. Believe it or not, for all the bad qualities of the film, and perhaps even the director himself, there is actually a ton we can learn from it about how to be better versions of ourselves.

I’m being completely serious here.

1. Earnestness and authenticity are valuable in their own right.

“Authenticity” is this ethereal quality that many businesses chase down and never quite manage to achieve. Tommy Wiseau, for better or worse, is authentic. You know that The Room is a product of his warped mind, and that’s what makes it one-of-a-kind and shareable. If he tempered his vision with restraint, he’d be broke right now.

2. Learn when to pivot.

At some point – it’s hard to say when – The Room went from being pitched as a drama to being pitched as a comedy. Particularly, it was pitched as a “so bad, it’s good” kind of movie.

Wiseau sure as hell didn’t mean to make a terrible movie, but he did. From what I can tell, he took the hint and embraced his reputation. It takes a certain sort of grit to be able to swallow your pride and do that.

You may remember that I ripped on the old Rax restaurants for a misguided business pivot in my last Weird Marketing post. Here’s the key difference between those guys and The Room. Rax abandoned a faithful target audience. Wiseau endeared himself to his true target audience, once he figured out who they were, despite the fact that they were mocking him.

3. Sometimes, it takes time to build an audience.

Wiseau was a Hollywood outsider, and I’d argue still is. There was no way he was going to surge to millions in the box office, even if he did a great job with the movie. Yet his particular sort of delusional attitude gave him the fortitude to stick it out and keep self-promoting. He stayed in the game so long that he saw his flop turn into a smashing success.

Don’t get me wrong – quitting can be a very good thing to do when the time is right. But if your ideas just need some time to blossom, patience is a virtue.

4. Relentless self-promotion sometimes works.

We all know someone who tries to hard to promote themselves, their products, and their businesses. Sure, we probably talk about them behind their backs about it, but let’s be real: the big-mouthed networkers get serious traction. Remember that when you want to skip out on a networking event!

5. Communities build around the remarkable.

Sometimes, people will strike up conversations out of the blue. It helps, however, if you give them something interesting to talk about. God-tier marketer, Seth Godin, calls this concept the “purple cow.” If you saw a purple cow, you’d talk about it with others!

The Room is a purple cow from space with antlers dripping with honey. It’s so weird that you can’t not look. You can’t not talk about it. Mentioning the film’s name is enough to often get strangers talking, so it’s no wonder that a community started to form as well.


So now if you’ll excuse me, I will watch another series of supercuts from this movie, football in hand. Until then…

You’re my favorite customer. Thanks a lot. Bye.

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