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May 6, 2009 12:48 PM   Subscribe

OK, so I want to do a content analysis of cult films. Help me operationally define what a cult film is.

From reading, a cult film seems to have the following characteristics:

a) was a commercial failure upon release
b) now has a small but devoted fan following

Logically, then, some time needs to elapse between the movie's release and its elevation to cult status. So two questions for the social scientists and their admiring hangers-on:

1. How much time must elapse after a film's release in order to say with some confidence that Film (x) has at least had a temporal opportunity to become a cult film? (justified reasoning gladly accepted)

2. How can I characterize / operationalize the existence of this "small but devoted fan following"?

Thank you!
posted by rachelpapers to Media & Arts (22 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I do not agree that a cult film necessarily needs to have failed commercially upon release. Even if you thought some kind of initial failure was a prerequisite (I do not), you would have to account for unreleased or straight-to-video films. I am not sure how you would account for movies like Showgirls - which, if it was a commercial failure, was relative to its budget and expected gross, not its revenues -- in a way that made sense with respect to its popularity.

To me, a cult film is one characterized by a devoted following not completely explained by a film's initial success. ("Small" may be overemphasized; it just usually happens to be the case.) This means that movies like Star Wars are disqualified because they have always been popular, and their continued fan base is not at all surprising.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 12:59 PM on May 6, 2009

1. I'd say after the film stopped being shown in theaters. Not counting things like Rocky Horror that are shown because they're cult films. This brings up another thing:

2. I don't know that small has anything to do with it. I don't think anyone would argue that Rocky Horror or Dawn of the Dead aren't cult films, but their following isn't what I'd call "small."

So, basically, I'd just define it as a film that met little success in the box office, but became popular later. But, then, what's the difference between a cult film and a sleeper hit?
posted by cmoj at 1:02 PM on May 6, 2009

Best answer: I don't have an answer for question 1, but here are my thoughts on question 2:

I would think people's opinions of a cult film are something like this: most people think the movie is okay or even bad, but some group of people think it's the greatest thing ever. So how can you quantify this? Well, lucky for you, IMDB has histograms of their movie ratings.

Check out this graph of the user ratings for the Rocky Horror Picture Show. There's an extremely sharp drop-off from the best rating, which 30% of users chose, to the next highest rating.

Now compare that to the histogram of ratings for, say, Witness: a pretty clear normal curve peaking at 8 stars.

My prediction is that whereas non-cult films will have standard normal curves to their ratings, cult films will have a histogram that looks like a normal curve EXCEPT there will be a disproportionately high number of extremely high ratings. I think you'd have to look at the statistics for a variety of obviously cult and obviously non-cult films in order to determine where the cut-offs are.
posted by pluckemin at 1:03 PM on May 6, 2009 [6 favorites]

I'm not sure there has to be much of a time lag, either. Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise and Down By Law, for example, were considered cult films pretty much immediately. And I don't know if "commercial failure" really applies to them, either; they were low-budget indie films that were never particuarly intended to be commercially successful in the mainstream sense.
posted by scody at 1:06 PM on May 6, 2009

Best answer: Wow, that's a toughie.

I think I'd just have to start with data and see what emerges. Get fifty cult films (The Rocky Horror Picture Show being the prototypical example, then on to others such as Liquid Sky). Get fifty films which are not cult films: blockbusters (Titanic, Terminator 2, Sleepless in Seattle) to lacklusters (Urban Legends 3, The Rules of Attraction).

That part is easy. Then find a group of films where you are not sure if they are cult or not. Sharpen your instincts on this set of data. Arbitrary boundaries will be drawn; be prepared to defend these.

For elapsed time: Box office opening is when, precisely? Screened at Cannes doesn't count. Nor does a limited release run. And while now films appear on DVD mere months after their last sticky showing in a dark room, it wasn't always the case. Fans, true fans, often wait years for a special release by Anchor Bay of a forgotten film. I don't know if home releases can be your sole factor.

Number of comments in the last year for a given film on IMDB could be at least one indicator. Screenings ten years later in small movie houses could be another. IMDB has a great deal of data you could mine. Perhaps a double-hump in the distribution of ratings could be one indicator.

At some point in graphing something versus time, cult movies would show a hump. Imagine, for contrast, Armageddon: a quick run up, it peaks, then a gentle slide down into obscurity. A cult movie would have an increase at some point post final showing, and that increase would also have to be not associated with DVD releases.

This is a fascinating idea.
posted by adipocere at 1:08 PM on May 6, 2009

So, basically, I'd just define it as a film that met little success in the box office, but became popular later.

The problem with that definition is that films that flopped but later became mainstream like It's A Wonderful Life would end up falling into the cult film category. The small but devoted following aspect is actually probably more important than the box office failure aspect. From a financial perspective, cult films like El Topo or Rocky Horror made a profit in their theatrical run compared to non-cult box office failures like Heaven's Gate.
posted by burnmp3s at 1:15 PM on May 6, 2009

Clyde Mnestra: "a devoted following not completely explained by a film's initial success"

I would go a step farther and add "not completely explained by the film's merits".

There is nothing about The Rocky Horror Picture Show that would warrant seeing it hundreds of times. There is nothing about The Big Lebowski that would warrant forming a "religion" based on it. But in each case, the cultists decided - for reasons that made sense to them - to lavish that kind of adoration on it. To the point where the adoration of the object became more important than the object itself.

This is most easily seen in the case of TRHPS - where people pay attention to the performers and audience members rather than the screen.
posted by Joe Beese at 1:15 PM on May 6, 2009

I'm going to keep thinking about this. In the meantime, whatever model you develop, I want you to plug a little film called Shock Treatment into it as a test. The creator of The Rocky Horror Picture Show tried to capture lightning in a bottle a second time and made this film, which did not succeed either commercially or as a cult film.

Still, because of its association, it should show up faintly as a radar echo of RHPS, a ghost image, whatever you might call it in your Cult-O-Meter.

Additional factor: out of print and has an extremely high resale value.
posted by adipocere at 1:22 PM on May 6, 2009

Okay, I'm back. I'm having fun looking these up.

Some films classified as "cult" by Wikipedia or by myself that follow the "disrupted bell curve" model I predicted:

Napoleon Dynamite
Blue Velvet
Wet Hot American Summer

Some films classified as "cult" by Wikipedia that don't or maybe don't:

The Big Lebowski
Harold and Maude
Welcome to the Dollhouse
Donnie Darko

(Actually, the only one of those I'd have thought of as "cult" is The Big Lebowski, for which the cult seems to be "all males between 18 and 30," which isn't exactly a fringe following. And it does look like the number of 10-star ratings is disproportionately high for that curve, but maybe an actual statistician can weigh on.)

Some films that are decidedly not "cult" (and all seem to be pretty bell-curvy):

Raiders of the Lost Ark
How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days
The Mask
Finding Nemo
posted by pluckemin at 1:25 PM on May 6, 2009

The examples from Cult Following: cult fims have gone farther than just achieving fame within a small group. I think that most of the following movies verge on being "cult classics."

Horror: Freaks, Little Shop of Horrors, Carnival of Souls, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, The Toxic Avenger, The Thing, and Evil Dead.

Other cult films: A Clockwork Orange, Shaun of the Dead, Edward Scissorhands, The Crow, The Matrix, Trainspotting, Point Break, Pulp Fiction, Blade Runner, Donnie Darko, Soylent Green, Boondock Saints, The Big Lebowski, Office Space, Fight Club, Clerks, Spaceballs, Kung Fu Hustle, The Ninth Gate, The Blair Witch Project, Blue Velvet, The Nightmare Before Christmas and Titan A.E.

As noted on that wiki page: Some cult movies have gone on to transcend their original cult status and have become recognized as classics, others are of the "so bad it's good" variety, and are destined to remain in obscurity. With this, you may want to separate the off-beat hits vs underground cult films. You could use IMDb as a primary source of information, looking at the sheer number of votes. For example, the original Carnival of Souls has 4,986 votes to date, while The Rocky Horror Picture Show has 36,088 votes, Office Space has 69,389 votes, and Fight Club has 314,259 votes. You could then consider none of these films to be truly underground, or maybe anything with less than 10,000 votes is obscure enough for you.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:26 PM on May 6, 2009

Response by poster: Thank you, everyone, for your excellent responses so far. It seems like defining the term is, as usual, going to turn out to be a non-trivial task.

I haven't done any literature searching yet, but if you just happen to run across anything germane, I'm certainly interested.
posted by rachelpapers at 1:27 PM on May 6, 2009

Interesting - Eraserhead, something which I'd consider pretty far from what most would call appealing for casual viewing, has 21,912 votes on IMDb to date.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:27 PM on May 6, 2009

others are of the "so bad it's good" variety

Exhibit A would be The Room from 2003, which still continues to generate articles (and even an extensive MeFi FPP) about its awfulness and popularity.
posted by kittyprecious at 1:54 PM on May 6, 2009

You should take a look at J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum's Midnight Movies. It covers Rocky Horror, Eraserhead, John Waters, Night of the Living Dead, Flaming Creatures, etc.
posted by Awkward Philip at 1:58 PM on May 6, 2009

Best answer: Interesting debate on the subect. Star Wars certainly must be a cult film (for some, not for all) - after all, an entire religion is based on it. And what about The Matrix? I do not think that profit is a determining factor of cult, but rather just one of many factors.

I very much like pluckemin's and adipocere's methodologies in determining what a cult film is, and I think that they are very close.

I think Joe Beese's "not completely explained by the film's merits" is more determinative than success vs. following. I would weigh a variety of factors for each film, including the following:

A) Poor box office
B) Poor critical reception
C) Definable group of followers
D) Appreciation of film beyond its merits

Something like Rocky Horror Picture Show weighs in well on all 4 factors. Star Wars weighs in very, very heavily on factors (C) and (D), perhaps enough to overshadow its good critical reception and great box office.

Then again, I may be making this more complicated by conflating the ideas of a "cult film" rather than a "film with cult aspects." So, perhaps a true cult film must have a poor box office.

Here is an intersting NPR take on cult status. Their definition leans more toward films that become more successful "in the afterlife," such as Blade Runner and Wizard of Oz.

I have a queer sense of cult movies - I believe that Hudson Hawk and Speed Racer are both cult films, but neither really compare to, say, Plan 9 from Outer Space.
posted by jabberjaw at 2:02 PM on May 6, 2009

(Also, consider that some movies that otherwise would've been hits come out at a bad time and tank until they're on video/DVD, when people realize they're pretty good and they get the "cult" title affixed: e.g., both Donnie Darko and Zoolander came out right after 9/11.)
posted by kittyprecious at 2:02 PM on May 6, 2009

Best answer: I think it is important to note that traditional cult films and modern cult films may be two completely different beasts. Traditionally, there is probably a very clear and specific definition that grows from the qualities you named - mainstream commercial failure coupled with a small fervent following; we could call that the "flop and flourish" model. When I stopped by my local movie store to check out the "cult movie" section tonight, the vast majority of its contents were what you might imagine: Grey Gardens, Barbarella, Valley of the Dolls, Rocky Horror, Mommie Dearest, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (it's kind of a gay store, so the offerings slant toward that specific cult)...and everything else that you might find in such a section.

But you'd be hard pressed to find anything as recent as, say, Clue, in that section. I think that modern cult classics have to account for changes in technology. Today, the cult develops so quickly and efficiently that the film languishes in obscurity for nearly no time before it is picked up and paraded around like the golden calf that it is destined to become to its new worshippers. Like Zoolander, mentioned above. These changes in technology have not only changed the timeline of a cult film, but have also broadened how popular a film can be while still being considered cult. You can go very few places and call yourself "really really ridiculously good looking" without someone understanding what you are referencing.
posted by greekphilosophy at 4:18 PM on May 6, 2009

Here's a test you can't conduct via the internet, but you can one-on-one. Find someone who thinks the movie is very good -- 4 stars, even. Then ask that person to quote the movie.

The higher number of quotes the fan of that movie can produce, the more likely that movie has achieved cult status.

Example: Here are some (I think) terrific movies I can't quote directly, at least not more than one line: Stagecoach, No Country For Old Men, Day for Night, The Adventures of Robin Hood (Erroll Flynn version), Wall-E.

Now, if I liked the following movies as much as I like the ones in the first list, I would undoubtedly be able to rattle off 10-15 quotes from them (and some of them I can): Gates of Heaven,The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, The Big Lebowski, Waiting for Guffman, Putney Swope, Office Space, Caddyshack.

So if you could somehow measure the ratio of memorized-quotes to ratings, you'd find a much higher ratio for cult films than for others.
posted by argybarg at 4:51 PM on May 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think that argybarg is onto something ...

Cult status is more about the *identity* of the fans than it is some quantifiable box office measure. Another way to judge the way that a movie affects someone is to ask about how often they "think about" a particular set of movies. Cult moves are movies that people identify themselves by -- they become part of their lives. You need to account for this in whatever analysis you're doing. For example, if there's a "festival" or "fan club" associated with the film, it's pretty much by definition a cult film.

Another interesting source of data is facebook profiles... Here's a stab at putting the same kind of analyses to the connection between average SAT score and music.
posted by zpousman at 4:45 AM on May 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

There's a feature over at the AV Club called The New Cult Canon, in which Scott Tobias discusses recent movies that have developed a cult following. In the introduction to the series, he describes cult movies as "obscurities kept alive by a small cadre of followers, popular movies with special replay value, flawed gems, or movies deliberately tailored to the obsessive weirdoes who love them". (Possibly quoting the Danny Peary book that inspired the feature?)

He usually includes some thoughts on why that movie developed a cult following. Some of his choices are movies I wouldn't consider cult movies, but I've discovered some great obscure movies from the list. Also, he does ramble on.

I can't remember where, but somewhere I read a list of favorite obscure horror movies. The listmaker said that, yeah, the movies are terrible, and often boring, but each contains striking/bizarre scenes that you would never see anywhere else. That inspired me to watch a few before I decided the list wasn't worth my time, but that one statement really stuck with me. That concept is probably part of the cult melange.
posted by agropyron at 11:34 AM on May 7, 2009

Note that "popular movies with special replay value" explains Star Wars and many others listed above.
posted by agropyron at 11:50 AM on May 7, 2009

Hello, darlings. I just popped into complain about the unforgiveable omission of Hedwig from this thread to date.

As for quantifying a film's cult-'success'.... score them vs the number of internet fan sites, midnight re-screenings, and actual real-world conventions.

Costumes provide an additional +100pts.
posted by rokusan at 1:17 PM on May 8, 2009

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