Single Screen Movie Theatres and the Joy of Watching the Worst Movie in the World

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poster for the movie The Room

There's something about watching a really bad movie. Like, a reeeeeeal stinker. See it on your own, in private, and it's a bore and a chore. I rented Reefer Madness fifteen years ago and watched it by myself, wondering what all the hype was about. I didn't find it "so bad it's good," just dated, lousy and dull. I've since heard it's better to see it in a room packed with people, lit joints circulating. A year ago I saw The Room (certainly on par with Reefer Madness in terms of cinematic putrescence) in a well attended screening at the Rio - an independent single screen theatre and live venue in Vancouver - and laughed and laughed. There was a curious sense of bonding with the rest of the audience. The newbies followed the lead of repeat viewers, who were cocked and ready to join the catchphrases, respond to certain lines at high volume in unison, and incorporate the props they'd brought. It was a group experience, and a blast. And it wouldn't have been possible without the particular set up of that particular kind of independent local theatre.


The macro is stomping the micro in North America, every chance it gets. Chains squish independent businesses. They've got the money, the hype, the brand recognition. But the little guys have advantages of their own. Creativity. Flexibility. Community. The personal touch. The Rio gives people in Vancouver unique and intriguing options on how to spend their evenings out. Similar businesses in other cities are doing their own Tommy Wiseauversions of this kind of thing, making our cultural landscape that much more interesting.


For instance…


The Room has emerged in the last decade as a bizarre and consistent cult hit. It regularly sells out midnight screenings all over Canada and the US. Writer, director, producer and German accented lead actor Tommy Wiseau makes personal appearances, and on September 24th he'll not only attend two screenings of The Room at the Rio, and do post-show Q & As at both, he'll conduct a directing workshop that afternoon. He seems okay with the fact that people have taken his serious character drama about the dissolution of an engagement and embraced the terrifically bad acting, unexplained plot points, irrelevant characters and sex scenes that feature Wiseau's muscular ass pumping away to make to make The Room the "most successful worst movie ever made," as the Rio's press release describes it.


I've tried to tell people how strange and entertaining this movie is. But watching scenes in isolation on youtube doesn't capture what it's like at the theatre. Check out this nineteen second scene where Johnny (Wiseau) buys flowers for his fiancee.




I doubt this scene would have stood out to me if I'd watched it on video. But laughter, like fear, is contagious. People a few rows away tittering at the subtle awfulness of the acting (and the way the characters' responses are slightly out of time) made me consider the comic value of it. The scene goes on, the laughter builds. Soon you're laughing too, and find yourself remembering that scene afterward as a stand-out entertaining moment.


I'm a cinephile, and having grown up in Vancouver, appreciate that this kind of looseness and fun is a new thing to the city's moviegoers. I've seen it in the indie movie theatres in other cities. Cinema du Parc in Montreal played obscure movie trailers before their features, back in the pre-youtube days, when such things were extremely rare and traded among collectors. The Royal in Toronto had Kung Fu Fridays, and their regular programming might include a Canadian zombie movie, an Alien/Aliens double bill or the latest nominees for Best Foreign Language Film. The Enzian in Orlando seats the audience on couches, and serves full meals and beer. It's good to have a cinema with character in one's city.


Running a single screen theatre comes with challenges, the Rio's general manager and part owner Corinne Lea related in a recent interview. Working with Hollywood is costly. Distributors require large deposits on certain films, and guarantees that a movie will screen for a set number of weeks. Fine, but what if it bombs? A megaplex can shunt a turkey onto one of their smaller screens, but a one screen theatre winds up with two more weeks of single digit audiences and double digit income.


So bring out that flexibility. The Rio includes live events in its programming: concerts by local and touring artists, the rio theatre, vancouverperformances from the city's comedy festival and burlesque festival, a stage adaptation of Pink Floyd's The Wall, which ran for two weeks. They screen hockey games during the play-offs, soccer games during the World Cup, they show the Oscars, and had four hundred people in to watch Barack Obama's inauguration - charging no admission, as well.


They present a double bill of cult movies every Friday at midnight, with staff in costume, and a two dollar discount for audience members who deck themselves out in the spirit of the film. "On average, at least 10% of the audience shows up in costume," says Lea. "For Rocky Horror Picture Show, it's about 90%. For The Big Lebowski, 60%. It adds to the fun. People get into it more when they show up for a movie in their PJs and bathrobe."


The double bills are always presented by a performer, setting up the screening as a special event from the start. The screening of The Room I attended had a local actor in a wig, doing a thick German accent, introducing himself as Timmy Wiseau - the director's brother. He prompted the audience to join in with the movie's most notorious catchphrase "You're tearing me apart, Lisa!" and awarded B-movie DVDs to people who answered trivia questions.




Lea, who bought the Rio with a team of investors in 2008, is a participant in the city's burlesque scene, and knew there was a demand for more places to put on a show, a wealth of performers eager to entertain an audience, and many people looking for something to do at night other than the same old same old. So give em a little variety. Let them have an experience they haven't had before. Fans of Friday the 13th, The Outsiders, Dazed and Confused or The Goonies are used to watching them alone, on a small screen. "Most people have seen these movies ten, twenty times," Lea says "so it's not about hearing every single word, it's more about being able to yell out and participate, and share in the community feel. We all love this movie, and we're here to celebrate it together."


The Rio has an application under review for a liquor license for its live events - and your signature on this petition could help them get it. There's still a provincial law in place prohibiting the sale of alcohol at movies, entirely inconsistent with the the band Hey Rosetta playing at the Rioready availability of liquor at live theatres, concert venues and sporting events. Lea explains this strange logic in terms of the law's origin in the 1930s. "Wealthy people went to the theatre" says Lea, "commoners went to the movies." Aristocrats, it was believed, would behave better than the plebes. Why are irrelevant, anachronistic laws like this still in place? Social lubricant lowers inhibitions, and as any actor, comedian or burlesque dancer will tell you, an audience that's had a beer before the show is that much more willing to let themselves get caught up in the fun. The Alamo Drafthouse - an indie movie theatre in Austin (whose ad playing the irate voicemail message from an audience member ejected for using her cell phone went viral recently) serves alcohol in the state where it's still illegal to own a dildo. "If Texas is more advanced than us on liquor," says Lea, "we've got some evolving to do."


Lea plans to skew the Rio's programming toward 40% live events, rather than the 10% it has now. But they'll continue to present special screenings along with blockbusters, and show cult movies till 4 AM. There's a consistent and growing audience for this kind of thing. Their midnight screenings vary in attendance, but there's a core number of people who attend every one. "I get strangers coming up to me in the middle of the street saying thanks for doing what you do at the Rio, and telling me how much they love it." says Lea. "I think it's a good thing to have live events happening in your own community."


pillow fight from The RoomAs digital technology and niche marketing conspire to keep people increasingly isolated and atomized, a counter-response grows, prompting people to come together as a unit, especially for things like The Room, that are best experienced as a group. And the enthusiastic attendance of screenings of The Room, in this case, has made it worthwhile to bring the movie's creator to town and significantly up the ante on the specialness and interactivity of that particular night at the theatre. So the difference between a movie downloaded and watched in isolation, or watched at a soulless suburban megaplex, comes into even sharper contrast to that of the shared feelings and unique opportunities possible at a local community event.


If you live in the Vancouver area, check out the Rio's website for more listings of past and future screenings and live events. To sign the petition to help the Rio get their liquor license, click here


Be sure to support the local indie entertainment options wherever you live. If there's a venue in your city that puts on original, interesting events, let us know in the comments. 


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