Compared to Sundance and Cannes, the SXSW Film Festival is not typically viewed as a major sales market. That wasn’t the case on the third night of the 2017 edition, when multiple buyers surfaced at the rapturous first screening of the James Franco-directed “The Disaster Artist” at Austin’s Paramount Theatre, even though the movie was produced by Warner Bros. and New Line.
Billing it as a “work-in-progress” screening rather than a world premiere, the studio has reportedly struggled to figure out how they might market the film. Its confusion is understandable: Warners topped the box office this weekend with “Kong: Skull Island,” and “The Disaster Artist” is a biopic starring Franco as Tommy Wiseau, the Ed Wood-like director of the craptastic midnight movie phenomenon “The Room.”
Last week, the film’s UTA sales agents decided to invite buyers to the SXSW screening, and more distributors will watch the film this week in New York and Los Angeles. That said, a New Line rep denied it was actively trying to sell the movie and said that it was keeping its options open, especially in the immediate aftermath of the screening’s positive reaction.
“No decisions on our plans for the film have been made at this time,” the rep said. “Tonight’s audience reaction provides some very good information for us.”
They certainly had good reason to be optimistic: The movie is a genuine crowdpleaser about Wiseau’s unlikely saga from Hollywood outcast to cult hero. Carried by Franco’s committed performance and enjoyable supporting roles by the film’s producer Seth Rogen and others, “The Disaster Artist” played through the roof — kickstarting immediate conversations about whether that enthusiasm might translate beyond the insular SXSW crowd. Buyers from A24, Sony Worldwide, and newcomer Neon were among those spotted in the packed house.
Adapted from Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell’s book chronicling the outrageous production history of “The Room,” “The Disaster Artist” stars Franco and his brother Dave Franco as Sestero (Dave). It includes reenactments of the movie’s key scenes, but it’s also an endearing buddy movie. As the story begins, aspiring actor Sestero is initially charmed by the energetic Wiseau, who wears sunglasses even after dark, tosses around a floppy metalhead haircut, and adopts an ambiguous European accent. The pair become roommates over the course of the shoot, as Sestero grows skeptical of Wiseau’s artistic credentials and his strange wealth, which he uses to finance the multi-million dollar production.
“The Room,” which screened in the Paramount after “The Disaster Artist” ended, has a diehard fan base that delights at many of Wiseau’s bizarre creative decisions for his cheesy soap-operatic plot, including his trademark line, “You’re tearing me apart, Lisa!” When those moments cropped up in “The Disaster Artist,” the audience cheered so loudly it often drowned out the dialogue. During the Q&A, an audience member told James Franco he deserved an awards campaign for his performance, while his brother pointed out that the director stayed in character as Wiseau throughout the shoot. It was the first feature the Franco brothers have shot together, and unquestionably the most accessible filmmaking of Franco’s prolific career to date.
Nevertheless, it’s an idiosyncratic subject that will require careful management of its fan base to maximize its visibility. That’s not something Warner Bros. necessarily has the bandwidth to do. “They don’t know how to market something like this,” said one source close to the production.
Franco said he was a latecomer to “The Room” phenomenon, encountering the story first through the book. “I just thought it was incredible, the humanity of it,” he said. “I love Hollywood stories, and here was a Hollywood story about outsiders trying to get in. I just thought, ‘This is the movie I want to make.'” He first brought the idea to Rogen when the pair were acting together in “The Interview.” (Rogen, alluding to the movie’s role in the historic hack of Sony in the weeks leading up to the film’s release, joked, “‘This is the good thing that came out of ‘The Interview.'”)
Franco first spoke to Wiseau and Sestero by phone about the project three and a half years ago, expressing his interest in directing the movie but holding back on suggesting that he play the eccentric director. “I was a little scared to put the idea forward, because we didn’t have the deal yet,” Franco said. “Greg suggested it, and maybe I’m wrong, but after Johnny Depp I guess I was the second choice. Fortunately for us, it worked out.”
Franco also acknowledged that his multifaceted career as a writer-director-actor-performance artist meant that he shared a certain kinship with Wiseau’s creative ambitions. “The more I think about it, I am Tommy Wiseau,” Franco said. “I relate to him in so many ways I won’t admit.”
Franco then acknowledged Wiseau in the audience, who was watching the movie for the first time. At the end of the Q&A, the real-life leather-clad character — who has a bizarre post-credits cameo opposite Franco — joined the cast on the stage to pose for photos, but didn’t address the audience. However, IndieWire was able to confirm from the production team that he later admitted that he loved the movie.