The Journey of Cult Films
Cult movies are absolutely fascinating. One of the main reasons for this is that they exist in a sort of intellectual paradox where almost everyone has a sense of what they are while almost no one, academics included, can truly define what they are. Some claim that a film’s “cult status” lies in ritualistic consumption practices like those seen at screenings of “The Room” or “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” some define them as low budget films that gain notoriety, and others claim that it is a qualifier of a film’s transgressive nature. The problem with these definitions is that a cursory Google search for “list of cult films” inevitably bring up numerous exceptions to their rules. Not all cult films have ritualistic screening practices, some cult films are produced and promoted by big studios, and not every cult film necessarily transgresses any more than would be seen in a mainstream movie.
So how do we define “cult film” for the purposes of this article? In an effort to include most forms of the cult movie, our definition will be based around two broad elements present in almost every definition: 1) that the film have a long-term, on-going, and dedicated fandom and 2) that this fandom be largely acquired after initial release (after either a “flop” or under-performance). The first element is needed because without it these are just films that were not and are not popular and as such are simply forgotten cultural artifacts. The second element is needed to make the important distinction between regular film popularity and cult film popularity. For example, the “Star Wars” franchise has one of the most dedicated and long-standing fandoms of all-time, even creating a pseudo religion in Jediism, but we tend not to think of it as a series of “cult films” because of its massive popularity upon initial release. Popular movies are loved immediately, the cult movie is loved over time.
Given this definition of cult film, we can now ask ourselves why some movies exist in this odd middle-ground between hit and flop? Why do some films take time to find their audience to appreciate them and keep appreciating them in perpetuity? As you may suspect with a shape-shifting concept like cult film, there is no singular answer. Rather, this article will attempt to outline 3 main models that most cult films fall into. Before we begin, it should be noted that these models are neither complete or discrete. Some films will apply to multiple models while others may evade them completely. The purpose of this article is to outline the most common journeys of cult movies and to shed light on how these types of films come to be.
So Bad It’s Good
The first and likely most well-known of these models is the “so bad it’s good” movie, also known as “badfilm” in academic circles. In a broad sense, films that fall into this category are enjoyed because of, rather than in spite of, their poor quality. These include films like “The Room,” “Reefer Madness,” or “Plan 9 From Outer Space.” If you want to learn more about the specifics on the appeal of badfilm, there are plenty of in-depth articles and videos that go into great detail. However, broadly, the appeal of “so bad it’s good” filmmaking tends to be generated by humor derived from the ineptitude and/or a lack of awareness on display, basking in the sheer strangeness of the filmmaker’s decisions, and the social interactions that can occur between fans as they one-up or share their bad movie experiences and crack jokes or “riffs” at the film’s expense (in much the same manner as the crew from “Mystery Science Theatre 3000”). In terms of cultivating an on-going fandom, the humour and oddity aspects give viewers enjoyment while the social aspects ensure that the film spreads and garners repeat viewings.
Now that we know why these films gain popularity, we now need to investigate the multitude of reasons why these film’s gain their popularity over a long period of time rather than immediately following release. First and foremost, the sheer number of badfilm fans typically is not enough to garner a big opening weekend. For instance, consider the 2019 film “Cats.” The initial trailers for “Cats” were universally panned and, in combination with near apocalyptic pre-release reviews, all but guaranteed that much, if not most, of the theatrical audience would be there to enjoy the movie as badfilm. However, despite the wide reach of its marketing and distribution as well as the enthusiasm of badfilm fans, “Cats” still did not make back its budget during its initial run. Put simply, the majority of mainstream audiences do not want to watch a bad movie and badfilm fans, while loyal enough to maintain interest in a film, are not numerous enough to make a film a hit during its initial release.
Badfilms can also struggle during initial release due to a conflict between theatre etiquette and the common consumption of these types of movies. Badfilms thrive in rowdy environments like home viewings or midnight screenings where things like open mocking, audience participation, and vocal reactions can take place, things that would be frowned upon or even lead to a person getting kicked-out of a normal theatre setting. Therefore, it makes sense for many badfilm fans to not breach this etiquette (and potentially ruining the experiences of those watching the film unironically) and avoid participating in an initial release.
Furthermore, many if not most badfilms have incredibly low budgets that limit the reach and duration of their initial distribution. With these movies, awareness of the film happens slowly and passes person to person or through online communities. For instance, “The Room” was first picked up and disseminated by a small group of film students in the Los Angeles area in 2003 and took years to develop into an international cult hit. While this gives promotion and appreciation to films that otherwise wouldn’t have it, it acts slowly and more often than not has little effect on the success of the initial release. However, once a good badfilm makes its way through these areas and finds its audience, it can enjoy ongoing success year after year.
Good Films, Bad Advertising
The next cult movie model is the product of when a great film receives poor advertising. In this model, the appeal of the film and its ongoing fandom is generated by its quality. Films like these include “Fight Club,” “The Big Lebowski,” and “Eraserhead.” These films, apart from their appeal to audiences, often find their way into film canon, act as building blocks for future films, and often influence the direction of the mainstream.
So how can advertising sandbag the initial releases of these landmark movies? Most often, advertising problems tend to fall into an issue of a lack of advertising or incongruous advertising. Of the two, a lack of advertising is the simplest to understand in terms of how it can affect initial release interest. Put simply, if you don’t know a film exists, you can’t see it. The reasons for this can be somewhat varied be it a simple lack of advertising budget, interference by censorship groups, or by being choked out by a crowded market like John Carpenter’s “The Thing” that premiered during the same weekend that “E.T.,” “Poltergiest,” “Rocky III,” “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” “Annie,” “Firefox,” “Conan the Barbarian,” “Porky’s,” and fellow cult movie “Blade Runner” were playing.
Incongruent advertising occurs when a film’s marketing fails to match up to the actual content of the film. One of the more prominent instances of this occurred with the release of “Fight Club.” Famously, the advertising campaign (p. 253-273) portrayed it as an action movie which largely missed the tone and qualities of the film which tends much closer to dark comedy and psychological thriller. This type of incongruity negatively affects initial releases and response in two major ways. First, it fails to highlight the strengths of the film and in doing so makes the film appear to be worse than it actually is thereby scarring off potential audiences. Second, it curates the wrong kind of audience and sets the wrong kinds of expectations which leads to poor audience and critical response thereby preventing the film from gaining momentum during its initial run. This can occur because the audience feels duped by the advertising (and takes their frustration out on the film), their method of consuming the film and determining its quality does not match the film’s content (ie. we value the quality of action movies largely by action sequences, stunt work, and visual effects while the quality of dramas more so through dialogue, acting, and subtle direction choices), or they are simply in the mood for a different genre.
The reasons for incongruity in film advertising are numerous and include, but are not limited to, attempting to capitalize on an emerging market or avoid a failing market (p. 253-273), advertisers not understanding a film, or a film still being a work in progress prior to an advertising campaign. Whatever the case may be, incongruous advertising and a lack of advertising can deal a significant blow to the initial interest of a film. That said, if these types of cult films illustrate anything, it’s that great film making does not go unnoticed forever.
The third cult film model deals with sub-cultural representation in mainstream film. Put simply, not every culture or sub-set of culture is catered to equally or thoroughly in the mainstream. In fact, mainstream films tend to make at least some concessions to appeal to as wide and non-specific an audience as possible as a means of increasing profits. As a result, many of these films fail to mark themselves as landmark works of a specific sub-culture which can include ethnic-cultures, national-cultures, generic-cultures, and almost anything that can contribute to a potential viewers identity or interests.
It is this failure that allows the sub-cultural cult movie to flourish. Sub-cultural cult movies, intentionally or not, make direct appeals to specific sub-cultures in their content and in doing so can create long lasting success for a few reasons. The first is that by getting sub-culturally specific, the film inherently lowers the amount of competition it has in becoming a milestone movie. For instance, the list of films culturally competing for the label of best rock-climbing movie is far shorter and easier to penetrate than films competing for the label of best heist movie. Second, the scarcity of films within a given sub-culture often give it inherent value to that sub-culture’s members. Using the example from earlier, if you are interested in rock climbing, you are likely going to be a) interested in a rock-climbing movie and b) more willing to overlook its flaws and/or promote strengths because of the limited number of rock-climbing movies available to enjoy. Third, if the film breaks through and becomes a sub-cultural milestone, sub-cultures tend to ownership of it and ensure that it will be re-watched and shared year after year. An example of this can be seen with the film “Slap-Shot.” “Slap-Shot,” by being adopted as one of if not the best hockey movie of all-time, keeps its popularity alive as hockey fans took ownership it and continue to watch and share the movie with other hockey fans to this day.
Put simply, once a movie becomes a sub-culture’s “baby” it can stick around forever. We can see this connection with several other cult classics with other sub-cultures: “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” appeals to the musical theatre sub-culture, “Bon Cop, Bad Cop” appeals to the Canadian sub-culture, “Cannibal Holocaust” appeals to the grind-house sub-culture, etc.. In some instances, these films can even appeal to sub-cultures within a sub-culture. For instance, “Repo: The Genetic Opera,” through its odd combination of genre and style, appeals to a cross-culture of body-horror/slasher, industrial metal music, and musical theatre fans.
However, despite how beloved these films are and how they eventually gain long-term success, they miss out on initial success for a couple of reasons. The most prominent of these reasons is that, much like badfilm fans, sub-culturally specific audiences are loyal but tend not to be numerous enough to generate large opening releases (p. 189) (hence why mainstream films make concessions). Additionally, sub-culturally specific movies can often receive mediocre to poor reception from critics and general audiences. This is due to the fact that, in a way, sub-culturally specific films are telling a joke and only people outside of that sub-culture are not totally going to get it. This is also compounded by the fact that people within a sub-culture will tend to “grade on a curve” and give the benefit of the doubt when it comes to films that speak to their specific sub-culture. Sub-culturally specific films are also negatively affected by the fact that cultural and sub-cultural movement is slow, meaning that by the time a film is known and recommended by members of a sub-culture, the initial release period is over. In short, sub-cultural fame is slow-acting but can lead to significant long term success.
The “so bad its good,” good film with bad advertising, and sub-cultural significance models illustrate how a good deal of cult films come to gain appreciation after a poor or underwhelming initial release. Cult movies have been a key element of culture and should continue to well in to the future. Indeed, the emergence and proliferation of online film/culture forums/social media and increased access to films through online ordering and streaming may even expand the number of films accepted into the cult film canon. So explore the wide world of film, find a hidden gem, spread the word, and be the leader of the next cult film.
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