What Makes a Movie a “Cult Film”?
Asking what makes a movie (or any media for that matter) a “cult film” can open up a fairly long rabbit hole of discussion; one so deep even academics have debated about it. Which means yes, real-life professors have sat down and talked about The Room.
Simply put, cult media requires a cult-like following. This means the movie or show needs a highly dedicated fan base, often small and for a niche market. Cult followings tend to have a heavy emotional attachment to the property as well.
Formal definitions of a cult film can vary in specificity. Some exclude big-budget films, and others exclude anything published by large production studios. A film that tries to be a cult film often immediately disqualifies itself, as does anything quickly accepted by critics or mainstream culture. Depending on whom you ask, all of these stipulations may apply at once.
As time has gone on, the definition of a cult film has grown ever more vague and inclusive. So inclusive, that some have made claims the term is now meaningless.
Common Themes Among Cult Films
Despite its increasing inclusiveness, there are still a handful of common threads that define a cult film.
Cult films, and cult media, are usually transgressive in nature. They often go against critical or moral norms (and sometimes both), rejecting what people at the time thought was good or right. So a film might subvert what you traditionally think is a “good” movie, intentionally or unintentionally (ala The Room). Or it might go against what you think is right. For example, films steeped in sexuality would be transgressive in America, where citizens tend to have more conservative views around sex.
Cult films are also often critically panned, or are financial failures. But it’s because of their box-office failures that these films tend to develop cult followings with such strong emotional attachments. If there is not a lot of something for people to love, they’ll love what they do have a whole lot more. Added to that is the fact that cult films tend to be unique. They resonate with small pockets of viewers who can often relate to the transgressive elements of the film.
Most academics would tell you that cult media has to go against the mainstream and establish its own counter-culture.
Exceptions to the Rule
Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. Films like The Big Lebowski and Mad Max are both considered cult films now, but under the definitions we’ve laid out, this would seem wrong. The Big Lebowski was distributed by Universal, a big name in film production. The latter, Mad Max, was very successful internationally (pretty much everywhere except America). Interestingly, international film is often considered a cult genre, even if a film was wildly successful in its home country. What this says about the control America exerts over the global film market, we’ll leave to you.
So why were the two films we just listed considered cult films? Well, for Mad Max it’s pretty simple – the film didn’t do well in America, and gradually developed a cult following in the US. The Big Lebowski was originally a commercial failure, but re-releases allowed it to penetrate mainstream culture over time, leading to an odd “mainstream cult” following. That in itself seems counter to the definition of a cult following, which is why some argue that the term is just meaningless now.
International films (like The Grudge or The Ring before they were remade) are often considered cult films because they simply weren’t available to widespread audiences in America. With limited availability and demand, these films tend to fly under the radar of critics, and gradually develop their own cult followings. International films also aren’t beholden to what Americans consider “good movies”. This is why a movie can be mainstream in its home country, but still classified as a cult film in the US.
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