A cult film, also commonly referred to as a cult classic, is a film that has acquired a cult following with a specific group of fans. Often, cult films have failed to achieve fame outside small fanbases; however, there are exceptions that have managed to gain fame among mainstream audiences. Many cult films have gone on to transcend their original cult status and have become recognized as classics. Cult films often become the source of a thriving, obsessive, and elaborate subculture of fandom, hence the analogy to cults. However, not every film with a devoted fanbase is necessarily a cult film. Usually, cult films have limited but very special, noted appeal. Cult films are often known to be eccentric, often do not follow traditional standards of mainstream cinema and usually explore topics not considered in any way mainstream – yet there are examples that are relatively normal. Many are considered controversial because they step outside standard narrative and technical conventions.
A cult film is any film that has a cult following, although the term is not easily defined, and can be applied to a wide variety of films. The definition is occasionally expanded to exclude films that have been released by major studios or have big budgets, try specifically to become cult films, or become accepted by mainstream audiences and critics. Cult films are defined by audience reaction as much as they are content. This may take the form of elaborate and ritualized audience participation, film festivals, or cosplay. Increasing use of the term by mainstream publications has resulted in controversy, as cinephiles argue that the term has become meaningless or "elastic, a catchall for anything slightly maverick or strange".
In 2008, Cineaste asked a range of academics for their definition of a cult film. Several people defined cult films primarily in terms of their opposition to mainstream films and conformism, explicitly requiring a transgressive element. Most definitions also required a strong community aspect, with Mikel J. Koven taking a self-described hard-line stance, citing misuse of the term, that rejected definitions using any other criteria. Ernest Mathijs focused on the accidental nature of cult followings, arguing that cult film fans consider themselves too savvy to be marketed to, while Jonathan Rosenbaum rejected the continued existence of cult films, calling the term a marketing buzzword. Some noted the demographic appeal to white males, questioning the potential for transgression.
General overview 
Cult films have existed since the early days of cinema. Nosferatu (1922), for example, was an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula. Stoker's widow successfully sued the production company, driving it to bankruptcy and causing all known copies of the film to be destroyed. Nosferatu become an early cult film, kept alive by a cult following that circulated illegal bootlegs. On their original release, some highly-regarded classics from the Golden Age of Hollywood were originally ignored by critics and audiences, relegated to being cult films. The Night of the Hunter (1955), for example, failed to impress critics or audiences on its initial release, eventually being reassessed from cult film to masterpiece.
Modern cult films grew from 1960s counterculture and underground films, popular among those who rejected mainstream Hollywood films. Eventually, these underground film festivals led to the creation of midnight movies, which attracted cult followings. Midnight movies became more popular and mainstream, peaking with the release of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), which eventually found its audience several years after its release. Eventually, the rise of home video would marginalize midnight movies once again, with many directors joining the burgeoning "indie" scene or going back to the underground. Home video would give a second life to many films that had failed in their original theatrical run, with positive word-of-mouth or excessive replay on cable television leading these films to develop an appreciative audience, as well as obsessive replay and study. For example, The Beastmaster, despite being a flop, would eventually become one of the most played movies on American cable television and develop into a cult film.
Films that are influenced by unpopular styles or genres can also become cult films. For example, Jean Rollin worked within cinema fantastique, a very unpopular genre in France, in the 1960s. Influenced by American films and early French fantasists, his films were reviled by critics, though he retained a cult following. Although scandalous in France, his films are obscure in the USA, championed by genre magazines, such as Video Watchdog. Similarly, Jess Franco chafed under fascist censorship in Spain, becoming influential in Spain's horror boom of the 1960s. As late as the 1980s, Pedro Almodóvar's anti-macho iconoclasm was seen by critics to still be rebelling against fascist mores, growing from cult to mainstream. Conversely, Mad Max (1979) was an international hit – except in America, where it became an obscure, cult favorite, available for years only in a dubbed version. Foreign cinema can also put a different spin on popular genres. For example, Japanese horror was initially a cult favorite in America, eventually breaking through to the mainstream, with many popular remakes.
Releases from major studios – such as The Big Lebowski (1998), which was distributed by Universal Studios – can become cult films, when they fail at the box office and develop a cult following through reissues, such as midnight movies, festivals, and home video. Hollywood films, due to their nature, are more likely to attract this kind of attention, leading to a mainstreaming effect of cult culture. With major studios behind them, even financially unsuccessful films can be re-released multiple times, playing into a trend to capture audiences through repetitious reissues. The constant use of profanity and drugs in otherwise mainstream, Hollywood films, such as The Big Lebowski, can alienate critics and audiences, yet lead to a large cult following among somewhat more open-minded demographics, not often associated with cult films, such as Wall Street bankers and professional soldiers. Thus, even comparatively mainstream films can satisfy the traditional demands of a cult film, being perceived by fans as being transgressive, niche, and uncommercial.
The transgressive nature of cult films can lead to them being banned. The British Board of Film Classification banned many popular cult films, due to issues of sex, violence, and even fears that people might use shuriken, as seen in Enter the Dragon (1973), in crimes. Sometimes, cult films are also falsely claimed to have been banned, to increase their transgressive reputation and explain their lack of mainstream penetration. Academics David Church and Chuck Kleinhans noted an uncritical celebration of transgressive themes in cult films, including misogyny and racism. Feminist Joanne Hollows further identifies a gendered component to the celebration of transgressive themes in cult films, where male terms are used to describe films outside the mainstream, while female terms are used to describe mainstream, conformist cinema.
Mainstream popularity 
The University of Nottingham's Scope explained the rising popularity of cult films as an attempt by cinephiles and scholars to escape the oppressive conformity and mainstream appeal of even independent film. As far back as the 1970s, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (1978) was designed specifically be a cult film, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) was produced by 20th Century Fox, a major Hollywood studio, eventually becoming the seventh highest grossing R-rated film, when adjusted for inflation. Matt Singer has questioned whether Rocky Horror's popularity invalidates its cult status. Founded in 1974, Troma Entertainment, an independent studio, would become known for both its cult fans and its cult films. In the 1980s, Danny Peary's Cult Movies (1981) would go on to influence director Edgar Wright and film critic Scott Tobias, of The A.V. Club.
However, writer/director Quentin Tarantino would have the greatest success in taking influence from cult films and turning them mainstream. Tarantino later used his fame to champion little-known cult films that had inspired him, also setting up the short-lived Rolling Thunder Pictures, which distributed several of his favorite cult films. Tarantino's clout has lead Phil Hoad, of The Guardian, to call Tarantino the world's most influential director. With major Hollywood studios and audiences both becoming savvy to cult films, productions that once would have been relegated to cult status instead have become popular hits, and cult directors have become hot properties, making more mainstream and accessible films. The rising popularity of cult films would eventually bring some critics to proclaim the death of cult films, now that they have finally become successful and mainstream, too slick to attract a proper cult following, or too easily found online.
Despite being known for their big-budget blockbusters, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas have criticized the current Hollywood system of gambling everything on the opening weekend of these productions. Geoffrey Macnab of The Independent instead suggests that Hollywood look to capitalize on cult films, which have exploded in popularity on the Internet. The rise of social media has also been a boon to cult films. After a clip from one of his films went viral, director/producer Roger Corman made a distribution deal with YouTube. Films such as Birdemic (2008) and The Room (2003) gained quick, massive popularity, as prominent members of social networking sites discussed them. Their rise, as "instant cult classics", bypasses the years of obscurity that most cult films labor under.
In response, critics have attacked the use of viral marketing, accusing Hollywood studios of astroturfing and trying to manufacture cult films. Although Snakes on a Plane (2006) was proclaimed a cult film and major game-changer, before it was even released, it failed to win either mainstream audiences or maintain its cult following. In retrospect, critic Spencer Kornhaber would call it a serendipitous novelty and a footnote to a "more naive era of the Internet". However, it became influential in both marketing and titling. This trend of "instant cult classics" being hailed and failing to attain a true cult following was noted by Matt Singer, who complained that the phrase was an oxymoron.
Cult films and subcultures 
Cult films can be used to help define or even create groups, as a form of subcultural capital. Knowledge of cult films proves that one is "authentic" or "non-mainstream". They can also be used to provoke an outraged response from the mainstream, thus further defining the subculture, as only members could possibly tolerate such deviant entertainment. By referencing cult films, other media can identify its desired demographic, strengthen bonds with specific subcultures, and stand out among those who understand the intertextuality. Popular films from previous eras may be reclaimed by genre fans, long after they have been forgotten by the original audiences. This can be done for authenticity, such as horror fans seeking out now-obscure titles from the 1950s, as opposed to the modern, well-known remakes. In extreme cases, cult films can even lead to the creation of pseudo-religions.
A film can become the object of a cult following within a particular region or culture if it has unusual significance to that region or culture. An example is the cult status of British comedic actor Norman Wisdom's films in Albania. Wisdom's films, in which he usually played a family man worker who outsmarts his boss, were among the few Western films considered acceptable by the country's communist rulers; thus, Albanians grew familiar and attached to Wisdom. Similarly, the concept of the "cult blockbuster" involves cult followings inside larger, mainstream films. An example is the place of The Wizard of Oz (1939) in American and British gay culture, although it is a widely viewed and historically important film in greater American culture. Some gay men refer to themselves as "friends of Dorothy". Star Wars, with its large cult following in geek subculture, has also been cited occasionally as either a cult blockbuster or even a cult film.
The 1936 anti-marijuana propaganda film Reefer Madness has become a cult film within the stoner subculture due to its humorously sensationalized, outdated, and inaccurate descriptions of the effects of marijuana. The World War II-era Department of Agriculture film Hemp for Victory, encouraging the growing of hemp for war uses, has achieved a similar cult status. Entry-level IT workers and white-collar American workers alike have given Mike Judge's 1999 comedy film Office Space a cult following because of its heroic portrayal of ordinary office employees who become fed up with their jobs.
"So bad they're good" cult films and camp classics 
Writer Ernest Mathijs has suggested that cult films help to understand ambiguity and incompleteness in life, given the difficulty in even defining the term. That cult films can have opposing qualities – such as good and bad, failure and success, innovative and retro – helps to illustrate that art is subjective and never self-evident. This kind of dichotomy can lead critics to pronounce beloved cult films to be "so bad it's good" or for audiences to be split between fans of experimental films and those who find them inexplicable. The rise of the Internet and on-demand films has lead critics to question whether "so bad it's good" films have a future, now that people have such wide options in both availability and catalog.
The critic Michael Medved characterized examples of the "so bad it's good" class of low-budget cult film through books such as The Golden Turkey Awards. These films include financially fruitless and critically scorned films, which have become inadvertent comedies to film buffs, such as Plan 9 from Outer Space (1958) or The Room (2003). Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls (1995) bombed in theaters but developed a cult following on video. Catching on, MGM capitalized on the film's ironic appeal, marketing it as a cult film. Taking a contrarian view, Jonathan Rosenbaum argues that Showgirls has been widely misinterpreted and misunderstood by its ironic fans, citing filmmakers Jim Jarmusch and Jacques Rivette as fellow defenders of the film as a brilliant satire of Hollywood and selling out. This makes Showgirls the rare recipient of both an ironic, mainstream cult following and an earnest, niche cult following.
Although there's no way to tell which films will catch the attention of cult film fans, high aspirations and perplexing themes help. In extreme cases, enthusiastic directors attempting to promote their films have misspelled the title. These sorts of things lead bad films to have a goofy charm, according to Joel Hodgson, creator of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Steve Rose, of The Guardian, also identified a need for "vision, drive, luck and obsessive vanity." Audiences can even ironically latch on to offensive themes, such as misogyny. In other cases, little-known or forgotten films from the past are revived as cult films, largely because they may be considered goofy and senseless by modern standards, with laughable special effects and corny plotlines. However, this process of recontextualization has been criticized as cultural commodification. Alamo Drafthouse programmer Zack Carlson has further argued that any film which succeeds in entertaining an audience is good, regardless of whether irony is involved.
These films should not be confused with intentional camp, which purposely utilizes elements from films "so bad they're good" for comedic effect. David Church argues that camp, a common element of cult films in gay culture, has lost its subversive element, now that straight audiences have embraced it. Camp, kitsch, and frivolity are often mixed up with each other, with cult films originally dismissed as vacuous reassessed as campy. The existence of camp inside paracinema frequently fuels further dismissal by critics, causing these films to find even greater acceptance among cult film fans, though they may reject these labels (cult, camp, and paracinema). Russ Meyer's films skirted the line of camp, kitsch, and sexploitation, attracting a diverse cult following, including feminists and gays.
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