15/02/2012 17:10 GMT | Updated 16/04/2012 06:12 BST

Wiseau Serious? How Audiences Transform 'The Room' From a Romantic Drama Into an Unintentional Comedy Sensation


Last weekend, more than 3,000 people flocked to see a film that has frequently been described as one of the worst ever made.

Directed, produced, written by and starring the enigmatic Tommy Wiseau, The Room tells the story of a San Franciscan banker who discovers that his fiancee and best friend are having an affair. It is so terrible that early screenings reportedly prompted most of the audience to ask for a refund before even 30 minutes had passed.

Yet the Prince Charles Cinema in London hosted 14 sold out screenings between Thursday and Monday this week, each one preceded by a Q&A with Wiseau and co-star Greg Sestero. I personally travelled for nearly three hours to be there on Friday night, despite owning the film on DVD, and having already seen it three times in a cinema. What, you might legitimately ask, is wrong with me?

The answer is that ineptitude has never been this much fun.

The Room has come a long way since opening at a handful of LA theatres in July 2003, steadily acquiring a cult following that now extends across North America, the UK and even to parts of Australia. Demand is so high here in the UK that it has played at the Prince Charles every month since July 2009, and it nearly always sells out. Even the most successful of Hollywood blockbusters would struggle to generate such enthusiastic repeat business.

Last year, I conducted some research aimed at explaining the relationship between the film's appeal and the behaviour of its 'fans'. What began life as an apparently serious romantic drama - its original tagline was 'a film with the passion of Tennessee Williams' - has effectively been transformed by audiences into a riotous comedy experience. Theatrical screenings more closely resemble a football match than a film. Attendees laugh hysterically throughout, but also sing, chant, heckle, and most famously, hurl plastic cutlery at the screen.

Journalists have tended to assume that, because this behaviour is so unusual and enthusiastic, those who attend must know the film like the back of their hand. As filmmaker and writer Peter Rinaldi has put it, "It seems like the film world is split between people that haven't heard of The Room and obsessive fans that have seen it many times, and not much in between." Actually, however, my research showed that first time viewers are common at these screenings, and that 'in between' audiences are central to understanding what has made the film so popular.

Importantly, it is almost impossible to discover The Room without also hearing about its reputation as 'the Citizen Kane of bad movies.' Those who turn up to the cinema to watch it are therefore primed to expect a certain type of comedy - one they will be laughing at, not with. Rather than being a fairly rigid performance of amusing 'rituals' between audience and film (as is the case with most Rocky Horror screenings, for instance), seeing The Room in a cinema is a collective attempt to find as much humour as possible in the film.

Newcomers learn to do this by listening to and observing the more experienced fans. Almost like an exaggerated version of a sitcom laugh track, the behaviour of the group draws attention to comic moments, as well as demarcating 'right' and 'wrong' ways for the audience to respond. Ordinarily of course, talking or throwing things during a film would prompt angry reactions from surrounding patrons. Here though, it is actively encouraged. If you have a fresh observation or a well timed heckle, an entire room full of people is waiting to hear it. The likely outcome is that your feedback will be instantaneous: yes, you are indeed brilliant!

Part of the appeal is that The Room's incompetence is just so incredibly spectacular. Its numerous plot holes, continuity errors, nonsensical dialogue and histrionic performances provide plenty of raw material for attendees to laugh at or respond to. Some moments stand out more than others, but none speak for themselves, and all require an audience's laughter to turn them into 'jokes'. As such, no two screenings are ever identical. What one audience finds funny will depend upon the group dynamic and the level of their familiarity with the film.

At one point during the Q&A I attended, Wiseau inexplicably segued from a question about marriage to mankind's future, "on another planet, when we are Martians." My instinct was to laugh, as I do at most of the bizarre comments he makes. But in many ways, the experience of watching The Room in the cinema turns most understanding about film, and indeed life, on its head. Bad becomes good, drama becomes comedy, anti-social behaviour becomes social, and Tommy Wiseau is hailed as a hero. So I guess I'll be seeing you all on Mars.

The research mentioned in this article was published in Participations: Journals of Audience and Reception Studies, and is freely available here.