What Makes a Movie a “Cult” Film?
Films like “Gone with the Wind” and “The Godfather” are hailed as masterpieces from almost the moment the first audiences see them, and their critical and box office success reflect that. But there are other movies that manage to win crowds over a longer period of time, slowly gaining fans and admiration via word-of-mouth spread by those who feel passionate about the movie.
The term “cult film” (and later “cult classic” as the film ages) is used to describe a movie that has developed a small, but significant and thoroughly dedicated, fanbase that grows over time. While hugely successful blockbuster franchises like “Star Wars” and “Harry Potter” have such enthusiastic fans that the movies seem to have cult-like influence, the term “cult film” specifically refers to movies that despite being much less successful financially nonetheless have passionate fans.
While there are movies that bomb or underperform at the box office nearly every weekend that still manage to win over a few fans, few movies inspire such deep devotion that they develop a dedicated following. The “cults” devoted to these particular films grow as those passionate fans spread the word about this little-known, but (in their opinion) must-see film.
The History of Cult Films
In the era of classic Hollywood, few films had the opportunity to develop cult followings due to regular turnover at theaters and the lack of subsequent distribution on media like television or home video that would allow audiences to see movies outside of their initial theatrical runs. Nonetheless, a few non-mainstream films attained notoriety in late-night screenings, such as the controversial 1932 MGM horror movie “Freaks.”
Years later, television would follow the lead. Seeking cheap programming, many television markets would play obscure horror, thriller, or just completely weird movies during late hours or as “midnight movies.” Some of this programming would incorporate a ghoulish host, such as Los Angeles’ Vampira and Philadelphia’s Zacherley, whose popular personas would help the programs develop regular viewership.
By the early 1970s, theaters in several big cities began playing “underground” films as “midnight movies,” often for months-long or years-long runs if tickets kept selling. For example, “El Topo” (1970), “Pink Flamingos” (1972), and “The Harder They Come” (1972), which all had lengthy runs at theaters like New York City’s famed Elgin Theater. In fact, the most famous midnight movie of all time, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” has been in continuous limited release since 1976. Regular attendees recite dialogue along with the movie, dress as their favorite characters, and throw objects at the screen (much to the irritation of theater owners and cleaning staffs).
While the popularity of midnight movies diminished with the introduction of home media, that did not change the enthusiasm audiences had for cult movies. In fact, VHS helped spread the popularity of an uncountable number of cult movies, which gave many underappreciated movies new life.
While cult films range from campy science fiction to highly graphic horror movies and just about everything in between, there are a few characteristics that most cult films share:
Outside the Mainstream
The one criteria that all cult movies have in common is that they are not popular with general audiences or at the box office… at least not initially. After all, the very definition of “cult” means that these movies have small but devoted followings.
In many cases, cult movies begin as low-budget movies in limited release. In others, they are big-budget studio releases that fail to sell tickets during their theatrical run. In both cases, the audiences that do have the opportunity to see these movies spread the word about what they’ve seen. Soon, the movie’s popularity grows in unexpected and unintended ways, even sometimes among audiences who overlooked the movie in the first place.
So Bad They’re Good
While many cult movies inspire fan support by being underappreciated by general audiences, others become cult hits for the opposite reason: because they are awful movies.
“Reefer Madness” (1936), “Plan 9 from Outer Space” (1959) and “The Room” (2003) are generally considered to be three of the worst movies ever made, but that is precisely why some fans find them so entertaining. These three movies are just a few examples of hilariously bad movies that are popular midnight movies.
Other cult movies are popular in spite of their low budgets and otherwise poor production quality. Troma Entertainment has released dozens of films that are widely regarded as cult classics even though many of the films had extremely low budgets. Troma’s most famous movie, 1984’s “The Toxic Avenger,” was so successful that the independent studio shifted focus from sex comedies to horror movies (both scary and comical) after its release in an attempt to recreate its success.
On the other hand, cult movies like “Night of the Living Dead” (1968) and “The Evil Dead” (1981) became fan favorites for being great movies that didn’t receive the recognition they deserved when they were originally released. In fact, it’s arguable that both of these films have since outgrown their cult status as the recognition of their quality is now widespread.
Go to Extremes
Many cult films become popular because of their controversial or “underground” nature. Films like “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” (1975) broke sexual taboos, while “The Boondock Saints” (1999) became a huge success on DVD after an unsuccessful release in just five theaters for its violent content. While mainstream audiences and critics might find such content distasteful or even downright disturbing, others embrace these movies for offering audiences something different.
For example, prior to digital distribution, horror films from filmmakers working in countries like Japan, Spain, and Italy were traded on VHS and DVDs by American fans of the genre, including movies that never saw an official theatrical release in the United States. Among film fans, being “in the know” about rare and little-known movies has become a badge of pride in itself.
While many mainstream films fade from the public eye after the completion of their initial theatrical runs, the popularity of cult films continue to grow. Though the popularity of cult films used to spread through midnight screenings in cities and often-borrowed VHS or DVD copies, the internet and digital streaming has increased the admiration of certain cult films exponentially.
Fans of these films worldwide can share their enthusiasm. For example, “The Big Lebowski” (1998) had disappointing box office grosses in its initial release, but its enduring popularity has since inspired an annual “Lebowski Fest” that celebrates every aspect of the film and even a religion called “Dudeism” after the nickname of the main character.
Few films can have that type of effect on audiences and inspire such dedication from their fans, which makes cult movies perhaps the best type of movies — endless fun for their most devoted fans!