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What defines a ‘cult classic’? The term has been bandied about since the 1970s and applied to a wide range of media. Some of these fell outside the mainstream and therefore found niche audiences throughout various subcultures. Others went unappreciated in their time, underperforming at both the box office and with critics, only to later be praised as important pillars of film canon. Still even more went in the opposite direction, forming an entirely new third category – the movies that are so bad, they’re good. These films all vary greatly in subject matter, from the proud showcasing of sexuality in ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ to the now critically acclaimed ‘Night of the Living Dead’, to what has become known as ‘the Citizen Kane of bad movies’ – Tommy Wiseau’s ‘The Room’. But all of these have one thing in common; a dedicated, passionate fanbase. Or in other words – a cult following.

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Where Did Cult Films Come From?

What criteria have to be met for a film to be rewarded the coveted title of ‘cult classic’? The term originated in the 1970s to describe the growing culture surrounding underground and ‘midnight’ films (the latter of these were played at midnight or during late-night TV to fill airtime). This added a mystique to the strange, often horror-based films that could only be viewed once the sun went down. Many underground films contained subjects that were viewed as taboo at the time; including sex, violence, and anarchy. It was the era of punk, after all.

Many cult films of the time also represented niche groups that were denied access to the mainstream, particularly LGBTQIA+ groups, and those that wished to explore sexuality and gender beyond heteronormative standards. While representation for queer groups is steadily improving (with still some way to go in that arena), at the time the flagrant displays of queer pride were open acts of mutiny. As Orwell put it; “the sexual act, successfully performed, was rebellion.” Other films gained notoriety for being famously bad, often inciting audience laughter for all the wrong reasons. There were still more that were misunderstood in their time, but have since been labeled as essential stepping stones in film theory and canon.

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“Don’t dream, be it!”

There are too many beloved cult films to name in this article, but let’s delve into some of the most famous. ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ made its film debut in 1975, and immediately flopped in the mainstream. However, the musical found an audience regardless, as the movie began midnight screenings at the Waverly Theatre in New York throughout 1976. Gay rights were beginning to gain momentum in the Big Apple, sparked by the historic Stonewall riots in 1969. So it was hardly a surprise that a film where the conservative straight, virginal Brad and Janet were the freaks in a sea of gender fluidity and that the sexual celebration found an adoring patronage.

Two and half decades later, another musical gem would steal the heart of the queer community, as John Cameron Mitchell’s ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch’ hit theatres. This comedy-drama (which began as an off-broadway musical in the 90s) featured a genderqueer punk rock singer and became, like ‘Rocky Horror’, an initiatory film for many young people coming to terms with their sexual and/or gender identity (and was a perfect choice for the show ‘Sex Education’ to pay tribute to in their first season.) Both have ongoing live screenings where members of the queer community and allies alike can meet, dress up, and be unashamedly themselves in like company.

Tapping into subcultures isn’t the only way to produce a classic, however. In 2003, Tommy Wiseau’s “masterpiece” ‘The Room’ premiered, gaining notoriety throughout the globe (although not in the way Wiseau intended.) Commonly hailed as the worst movie ever made, flocks of dedicated fans group at cinemas every month (or at least they did in the pre-COVID days) to watch this baffling, melodramatic, and nonetheless entertaining trainwreck of a film. The popularity of the film was enough that it inspired the biopic, ‘The Disaster Artist’, based on Tom Bissell’s autobiography both directed by and starring James Franco. It’s in good company, with other disastrous ventures such as ‘Plan 9 from Outer Space’, ‘Troll 2’ and ‘Birdemic: Shock and Terror’ inviting cinephiles and casual filmgoers alike to laugh at the incompetence (or unwitting genius?) behind each of these enduring classics.

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The third qualifier for a cult classic is the most contentious; that the media was ‘unappreciated in its time’. These were films that were often box office bombs, only to find their way into critics’ hearts in a later time when the artists’ intentions or context were better understood. Whether such films are true ‘cult classics’ remains debatable, because when we admit they have an important place within film canon we also enter them into the mainstream (or at least into “must watch” status for cinephiles).

Can You Still Have Cult Classics in the 21st Century?

This brings us to the question: can you still have cult films in the 21st century? The term, like most things, has been turned into a marketing tactic with “an instant cult classic” gracing many a film poster. That’s not how it works – you can’t market something to be a cult classic. It has to be something of an accidental phenomenon; something that stumbles across an audience who feel like they are breaking taboos, secretly ‘in the know’ in recognising their love of a film that the mainstream so easily dismissed.

And what defines the taboo now? As representation in mainstream film grows, finding a film with queer characters is as simple as typing ‘lesbian rom-com’ into Netflix’s search bar. It’s lacking the wild and unashamed rebellion captured in ‘Rocky Horror’ or ‘Hedwig’. Just look at the respective reenactments in ‘Glee’ and ‘Riverdale’; neither musical production gets close to the energy or purpose of the original. Cult films traditionally served underrepresented niches who felt the need to see themselves in media; but now, when there is more content than ever, everything is niche. Every type of horror is just a mouse click away and, with so many streaming services (both legal and not), anything can be found in the bright light of day. Anything sexually or otherwise transgressive is now slotted under ‘indie’ or ‘arthouse’, and few films have the widespread impact of their predecessors which were released in more conservative times.

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As for ‘so bad it’s good’ films, these continue to be a phenomenon of unexpected entertainment, but now they are either made on purpose (do we really need six ‘Sharknado’ movies?) or they are capitalized on. Perhaps the most famous in recent years has been Netflix’s ‘A Christmas Prince’, which gained a following despite its lackluster reviews and has since spawned two follow-up films. As for ‘unappreciated in its time’ outings, with the number of movies released nowadays, the term ‘sleeper-hit’ is applied to those who don’t always perform during their theatrical run. So what does that leave us with? Are we all doomed to take what the powers-that-be package for us?

Not quite. There are still properties that garner cult followings, even if they aren’t strictly films. For example, the fiction podcastWelcome to Night Vale’, created by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor. This strange, gothic, comedic, existential community radio show set in a town where every conspiracy is true has amassed a dedicated following during the past eight years. The weird but oddly soothing approach to fear, death, and all things beyond our understanding has been a hit for many who are dealing with depression, anxiety, and grief. Fans flock to the live shows in carefully crafted outfits of characters the show never physically describes (yes, you did read that right), all speaking the lingo of in-jokes and references that really do sound cult-like to anyone not in the know (All Hail the Glow Cloud. All Hail.)

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But content doesn’t need to fall into the strange and bizarre to be labeled a modern cult classic. You’ve most likely heard of ‘Tangled’, Disney’s 2010 release starring Mandy Moore and Zachary Levi. You might have even heard of ‘Rapunzel’s Tangled Adventure’, the TV show sequel to the film. But have you heard of ‘Varian And The Seven Kingdoms’? This proposed spin-off featuring fan-favorite character Varian was later passed on by Disney, which led to storyboard artist Kaitlyn Ritter uploading her designs to Tumblr. The concept and new characters took off and have inspired fan theories, art, and fanfiction – all-around a show that never actually existed.

So, what ultimately makes up a cult classic, and can we still generate new ones in a media-saturated market?

I’d argue – yes. If we had to boil it down, a cult classic is a piece of art that captures something in the zeitgeist that the mainstream is too oblivious or wide-reaching to grant us. Whether it’s the representation of marginalized groups on screen, inexperienced ‘auteurs’ trying to make masterpieces, or absurdist discussions of death and orange juice, sometimes lightning in a bottle is just that – one strike that cannot be replicated. No one can set out to make a cult classic; they happen when art fills a hole in society we may not have even noticed was there.

By Cat Sole

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Author

  • Cat Sole is a Kiwi screenwriter and script consultant based in Sydney. In a culture that is often more interested in tearing down content in searching for every minute flaw, Cat's goals are in line with the Hollywood Insider's to examine why quality content works and how both filmmakers and critics alike can learn from the best the industry has to offer. This philosophy is reflected in all of Cat's endeavors.

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