Building Cult Status

I'm not giving anything away about next year's top pick...

The idea of a cult classic film or television series has been bothering me lately. If one really thinks about it, it’s more of a marketing term than anything else. According to Wikipedia, a cult film is one that ” that has acquired a highly devoted but specific group of fans.” By that definition alone, almost any film (or piece of art) can technically acquire cult status so long as two people really like it. The article goes on to say that not everything goes on to acquire cult status for a multitude of reasons. To this I have to ask Why? Why are lesser known films that a handful of people like not automatically cult classics? The answer is recognition.

My fiancee and I watched Blade Runner: The Final Cut the other night. It was her first time seeing the film, but she knew she had to watch it sooner or later because the general consensus among science fiction circles is that it is a cult classic. Meanwhile, I’ve seen the film several times and have read Philip K. Dick’s profound Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? As far as I’m concerned, Blade Runner is a classic – and I have to add that on all levels it is a movie that stands up to this very day. Put it into a modern theatre and only the hair on the characters will give away its decade of release. But how did this flop of a film become the renown cult classic it is today?

Aside from the fact that it looks amazing and flat out deserves the recognition...

I only own the two-disc set for the film, but the bonus disc has a nice and lengthy feature about the production, release, and subsequent legacy of Blade Runner. My focus was on its legacy. Like I said, the film was a complete flop in theatres because it was a difficult movie to grasp, and what probably made it worse were the changes imposed on it by the movie studio. For years the film survived on home video, and it seemed to make quite a bit of money at movie rental stores. A work print of director Ridley Scott’s original cut of the film was leaked, and it became a hit with the cult that the film had already gathered. Somehow, despite its recognition by fans and such, it didn’t quite become a cult film until the studios realized they could release a variant of the work print in theatres, on VHS, and later DVD with the subtle mention that the cult classic is being released in the director’s intended form. (By the way, this was technically inaccurate. Scott provided notes and gave his approval, but he was not involved in cutting this version of the film.) Blade Runner already had quite a strong following, but it wasn’t a cult classic until the marketing arm saw they could make money off of it.

The recognition of cult status is not bestowed upon films based simply on fan recognition. Like I said, then everything would have cult status. The studios need to first recognize that there is money in this following, not to mention if they can help increase the following. Look at The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It had a cult following thanks to midnight showings, tours, etc., but it wasn’t a classic until it was re-released on home video and aired several times on television. The Evil Dead films were popular for a time before home video re-releases when the studios realized that there was a market for zany thrillers – not to mention that the low budget nature of the films meant that the re-releases were basically printing money. That’s how it works.

As someone who grew up about 10 minutes from Sam Raimi's and Bruce Campbell's home town, I am obligated to reference their work whenever appropriate.

But I live in the age of digital networking, where content is democratized and therefore, supposedly, everyone has a voice. I don’t want the people who stand to profit off of media deciding what gets a cultural resurgence. They took the idea of that and ran with it. They even presumed that they could make films into instant cult classics, but how memorable are Mirror Mask and Snakes on a Plane anyway? The latter is definitely being forgotten as time goes on, probably because the studio did so much to pander to the fans. Sorry, but I believe cult status is that which is defined by the fans of media. Anything can be a cult classic; we just need to remember that it’s up to us to make it so.

Here’s the question: What books/films/television series/albums/etc. from the past (let’s say 5 or more years) do you think deserve a resurgence by fans and further appreciation? You do not have to tell my why, but you can share your reasoning anyway.

Limiting my personal scope to just films released in 2006 proved difficult, but I came out with a list of films that people know but people really do not mention:

  • Grandma’s Boy
  • Idiocracy (I had a hard time including this film because Mike Judge is his own personal cult branding, but it hides deeply in the shadows of Office Space, Beavis and Butt-head, and King of the Hill)
  • A Scanner Darkly (again, a hard choice because of the cult popularity of Philip K. Dick, but who talks about this as much as Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, and The Adjustment Bureau?)
  • Silent Hill
  • Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles

I admit, the most obscure choice on the list is the last. It’s really difficult to pull out these things because they have fallen so far from our conversations. The first few months we may say, “Hey, did you see such-and-such?” After that you’ve mentioned it everyone, and the cult classic in the making is even lost to you. I want you to think deeply about it and get back to me. After all, these will become our cult classics.

And this is not a one-off article. I will return to this idea every now and again because it is important to me. We’re in charge of the cultural dialogue here. Let’s make sure it reflects our interests.

[Caveat: I understand full and well that there are some bona fide cult classics that are universally recognized but not marketed for one reason or another. The 1960’s Batman series for a number of reasons cannot be sold on home media, save for the TV movie. On the Air has its fans due to its being a David Lynch work, but the only copies I’ve ever found were VHS recordings of television episodes. Heck, even Freddy Got Fingered has a noted following despite no one’s wanting to market that movie ever. I can’t claim to own the definition of “cult classic”, but I can only share my observations.]

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About Gospel X

I am a major mediaphile as well as a social researcher. My ultimate belief is that the media can be used to teach children prosocial behaviors and teach adults how to access paradigms. And I think that Mega Man is an amazing example of proteanism. Add me on Google : https://plus.google.com/u/0/113795848855477334599

Posted on May 17, 2011, in advertising, arts, business, cult classics, movies, real life, television and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Melanie Carbine

    Waking Life. Maybe Dancer in the Dark.

    I have a copy of Scanner Darkly but I haven’t watched it yet. Now that I know it’s probably science fiction and not super scary, I’ll watch it.

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