Cult in the Connected Age (Updated x2)

by Sonny Bunch on December 1, 2012

Last night on Twitter, Dan McLaughlin asked:

It’s an interesting question, one that I’m not sure how to answer because it all kinda depends on how you define “cult.” Once upon a time, a “cult classic” was a film that few people had seen but those few who had seen it (and would see it multiple times) loved it intensely. Fans would gather at midnight screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Eraserhead and titter and feel a sense of community at being in on something.

In our modern, hyperconnected age, however, a key component of “cult” is lost. If you’ve heard of a film, you can see it. It’s on TV and if it’s not on TV it’s on a streaming service and if it’s not on a streaming service it’s on DVD and if it’s not on DVD you can probably torrent it. That element of discovery, of being in on something no one else is in on, is lost.

In many ways, the cult classic has been replaced by what I like to call the cable classic: There is a certain class of film that was lightly attended in theaters and derided by critics only to find a huge audience on cable and DVD. Zoolander is probably my favorite example of this phenomenon: Zoolander has gone on to find a huge audience in home viewings, is highly quotable (a key component to any “cable classic”), and is constantly the subject of sequel rumors.

But even Zoolander made $45M at the box office—not a huge sum, but not an embarrassing flop, either. The same goes for Cabin the Woods, suggested by Peter Suderman as a potential modern “cult classic.” It grossed $42MCan they really be considered “cult” after debuting on thousands of screens all over the nation? Wes Anderson’s highest-grossing film has only pulled in $52M; would you consider anything he’s done since Bottle Rocket to be cult?* I don’t really think so.

So what does count? Here are a few suggestions:

Requiem for a Dream (2000): Grossed less than $4M, currently tops a record number of “brilliant films I never want to see again” lists.

Pootie Tang (2001): So cult that a number of you probably haven’t even heard of it, Pootie Tang is due for a reappraisal if only because it was written and directed by Louis C.K. It also grossed less than $4M.

Black Dynamite (2009): Despite grossing less than $250,000, this blaxploiparody is well-beloved by a number of people in the smart set. Not really my cup of tea, but I think it fits the bill.

Hard Candy (2006): Ellen Page starred in this intense drama about an underage teen trying to find out if a man she has met is a pedophile. Grossed $1M, generally well-regarded. Though perhaps not popular enough to make this list?

Idiocracy (2006): Ted Frank recommended this on Twitter, and I think it’s a good call. Mike Judge has a habit of making films that are ever-so-slightly ahead of their time, and Idiocracy is no exception: Grossing less than half-a-million on release, it is now shorthand amongst the smart set for what America is slowly becoming.

Oldboy (2005): Perhaps a bit of a cheat since it’s a foreign film, but I think it’s worth putting on this list. Grossed less than a million, was passed around by fervent fans, now being remade by Spike Lee for some reason.

Update: The Room (2003): I totally spaced on this (though I mentioned it last night, so, you know, I have some immunity from being called a moron). But it actually perfectly fits into that Rocky Horror/Eraserhead mold of midnight screenings and the rest. Definitely should be on this list.

Update x2: A lot of people on Twitter and in the comments are suggesting Donnie Darko (2001). I’d pair that flick with Boondock Saints (2000)** as early examples of DVD helping a flick obtain cult status and kind of shattering what it meant to be “cult.” I kind of spaced on those flicks because they are so ubiquitous at this point as to not be considered “cult classics.” I don’t know anyone who hasn’t seen these films—they were objects of veneration in my college dorms and apartments, but they were also easily accessible via DVD. They were objects of cult affection, but none of the typical cult rituals were needed to obtain the experience of seeing them.

*The Life Aquatic might count; it has found a larger audience since being rejected by theatrical audiences. But hell, even that movie grossed more than Rushmore, and Rushmore isn’t cult. This is all very confusing, you see?

**Boondock Saints is one of those films the smart set likes to crap on, and I kind of get why. But the piling on in recent years strikes me as a bit unfair.

{ 38 comments… read them below or add one }

blighter December 1, 2012 at 11:35 am

Trick ‘r Treat — pretty decent horror film, held up for years & kept of theaters b/c of weird series of events, has found an audience among the horror set.

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John December 1, 2012 at 12:51 pm

My second thought was The Room, but I see you updated for that. My first thought isn’t on the list – 2001′s Donnie Darko. Budget of $4.5 million, grossed $1.2 million, but really found a place on home video.

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Frizzaldo December 1, 2012 at 1:40 pm

Be kind rewind, great film but not widely known

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Phil December 1, 2012 at 2:05 pm

Donnie Darko?

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Nedward December 2, 2012 at 8:31 pm

I saw Pootie Tang theatrically, accompanied by 10-year-old little brother. I’m now past the age when I can understand the phenomenon any more but I’d start by throwing out the “deliberate” cult films like Ghost World, which nobody ever digitally rents on a rainy weekend, as well as the slew of Japanese gangster or horror films remade into inferior N. American versions. Perhaps “City of God” makes the cut, so long as we’re talking imports. And Wes Anderson’s definitely got a cult, however much we dicker on the stringency of inclusion metrics… “Anchorman” doesn’t deserve big-money pseudo-cult status but has it (particularly among lowbrow sports pundits); the adaptation of “The Rules of Attraction” should but most likely never will be a cult fave. “Shaun of the Dead,” “The Prestige,” and “Superbad” were all hugely profitable so I’m at a loss here. There is just no precise ’00s equivalent of “The Big Lebowski,” while “Idiocracy” probably can’t attain the epochal perch of “Office Space”… BTW “Dodgeball” cleared $100+ million domestically (I checked)

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Nedward December 2, 2012 at 8:33 pm

I also saw Req. for a D. theatrically–not the best choice for a date movie

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SkinsFanPG December 3, 2012 at 8:30 am

Why not? couldn’t get your date to consider “ass-to-ass”?

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Sonny Bunch December 3, 2012 at 9:00 am

I feel like there are some people who will read these comments and not quite get that reference.

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KBear December 5, 2012 at 12:23 pm

I know a girl who had a “movie night” with her dad every month.
They went to see Requiem (both not knowing what they were getting into). I believe she was late highschool?
I think that ended movie night.
After the movie ended, they left the theater, went home and went to bed with no words exchanged….

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Seashanty December 5, 2012 at 1:02 pm

I had a similar experience with The Deep End, with Tilda Swinton. It’s about hs-aged suburban boy Jonathan Tucker is banging 30 yr old club owner Josh Lucas and the fall out when Jonathan’s Mom Tilda Swinton thinks he has murdered Lucas. It’s a great film, but I saw it at the theatre with my dad as a recently out 18 yr old guy. My dad had read the book the film was based on, except in the book it’s a hs-aged girl and he wanted to see the movie. There was a pretty hardcore and unexpected Lucas/Tucker sex scene. Total silence on the way home lol

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Mark December 3, 2012 at 3:11 pm

I’ve always thought of cult movies to be something that happens many years after a movie was released, so I think it may be a bit premature to declare some of these cult hits. If we notice that people are organizing viewing parties, MST3King the movie, wearing red hoodies, etc… then maybe Hard Candy could be considered cult. As of right now, I’d say it’s just a somewhat obscure indie movie. The other component of cult is that it inspires passionate discussion or participating. I don’t see that with Hard Candy. But The Room? With all the midnight showings? Definitely. Pootie Tang is definitely becoming something of a cult hit with a certain type of comedy nerd (not really my circle, so maybe I’m wrong about that). Black Dynamite has potential, but I think we’re also still a bit early on… time will tell. Again, maybe I’m missing something. Part of the appeal/mystique of the cult film is that it doesn’t look particularly engaging from the outside looking in… but to those on the inside, it’s a huge deal.

I wonder if TV shows have started to become more cult focused. Firefly certainly has a cult following, despite it’s short run. Arrested Development is perhaps borderline. Probably lots of others.

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Fake Herog December 3, 2012 at 6:19 pm

Great post.

I want the whole Korean movie thing to be considered cult, but I’m not sure it is at this point (yet). For example, in addition to Oldboy, which is amazing, there is also the fantastic monster movie The Host (which is getting a sequel soon), the spagetti western The Good, The Bad and The Weird, and other films I can’t think of at the moment but are just plain good.

Since they are Korean, no one really sees them right away in America, but for that reason they probably qualify more as indie films and unless the fanboys start obsessing over the films and renting /downloading them a lot, I guess these films will all remain in the indie category.

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Tom O'Reilly December 5, 2012 at 10:57 am

You may want to edit the synopsis for Hard Candy as it currently reads as Ellen Page playing a teenage boy trying to figure out if he’s sexually attracted to children. Always be careful with your pronouns!

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Sonny Bunch December 5, 2012 at 11:00 am

Good call. That was kind of a trainwreck of a sentence.

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N. Eugene December 5, 2012 at 10:59 am

I’m one of those who disliked Boondock Saints back in college when all my friends were telling me how great it was. It is not a good film, but not bad enough to be in the “so bad it’s actually kinda good” category. I think the reason people like me tend to pile on it is because it tends to get promoted as a “cult classic” type film alongside films that actually deserve that status.

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Miriam December 5, 2012 at 11:05 am

Two that come to mind.

1. Jurassic Park 3: less than half a mill, but more popular than JP2 which grossed way more (though both are vastly less popular than the original)

2. Machine Girl: foreign film, sure. One that was never theatrically released (as for as I know).

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N. Eugene December 5, 2012 at 11:06 am

Just to submit my own entry: I have no idea if this is a common one, but my friends and I watch Kung Pow: Enter the Fist at least once a year, and quote it all the time. There is some embarrassingly bad stuff in there (the Matrix cow fight) but it’s also strangely, genuinely hilarious.

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Mike December 5, 2012 at 11:21 am

“Equilibrium”: 1984-type dystopian action movie starring Christian Bale, Taye Diggs, Sean Bean, and others is another classic example of DVD-cult movies. It isn’t as widely watched by the general public, but nearly everyone in the military has seen it multiple times and loved it.

$20M budget, but very limited box office success due to violence-related limited release.

Fun trivia–Bale’s incredible stagefighting performance in Equlibrium was one of the major reasons Nolan cast him as Batman. In turn, he got the Equilibrium part because of how emotionally dead-inside he was able to play in American Psycho. So, Batman got to be Batman by being Bateman. (This makes the Dark Knight’s Batman-crushes-van homage to the chainsaw murder in American Psycho make much more sense)

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matt December 5, 2012 at 11:22 am

although late 90′s, Office Space and Dogma are definitely examples for my generation (I’m 25)

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Blueberry December 5, 2012 at 11:31 am

Does “Wet Hot American Summer” qualify?

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jarrod December 5, 2012 at 11:39 am

Paranoid Park (2007)

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Mark Muller December 5, 2012 at 11:44 am

How about “Primer”? IMDB lists its gross at under $500,000, and it is the kind of movie people who have seen talk about.

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Mike P. December 5, 2012 at 11:58 am

Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)

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Sonny Bunch December 5, 2012 at 12:05 pm

Lots of good suggestions here, keep them coming! I feel like “Office Space” falls into the “cable classic” category: I don’t know anyone who hasn’t seen “Office Space,” and if everyone’s seen a film is it really “cult”? “Primer’s” an interesting addition, kind of straddling that line between “well-regarded indie” and “cult classic.”

Which is more of a cult classic: “Dogma” or “Mallrats”? I feel like “Mallrats” better fits the bill.

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tgt December 5, 2012 at 1:02 pm

Mallrats over Dogma. Dogma grossed 30 million. Mallrats grossed 2 million. Both were 90s, though.

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Abe December 5, 2012 at 12:09 pm

Primer (2004).

Its fans make up in intensity what they may lack in numbers. And, being featured in an xkcd strip (http://xkcd.com/657) buys it further street cred.

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Noah Gittell December 5, 2012 at 12:19 pm

Most of the films you list are early works by actors or directors who would go on to become much more successful later on. The Wes Anderson example is a good one. I would argue that Rushmore in fact WAS a cult classic. But subsequent films by Wes Anderson made it more popular down the road. Basically, I agree with your thesis. DVD makes the term cult classic meaningless.

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Chris December 5, 2012 at 12:26 pm

Showgirls doesn’t fit the “2000 and beyond” release requirment but has to be considered a cult classic at this point.

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tgt December 5, 2012 at 1:04 pm

I second Wet Hot American Summer and add Grandma’s Boy into the mix.

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Mouse December 5, 2012 at 1:56 pm

Southland Tales, yo.

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FTSandy December 5, 2012 at 3:04 pm

I’ve long wondered why The Last Action Hero isn’t a cult classic. It’s got everything (stars, villains, chase scenes, explosions) and never slows down. And the scene with Maria Shriver (where Arnold talks about his restaurants) is stunning by itself.

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Sonny Bunch December 5, 2012 at 3:24 pm

I’ve long argued that Last Action Hero was a movie way, way ahead of its time. It was meta before being meta was cool.

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Phewd December 5, 2012 at 3:16 pm

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

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Phewd December 5, 2012 at 3:18 pm

…oh, and Amelie.

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JB December 5, 2012 at 3:55 pm

I vote for Windy City Heat.

Great parody/reality movie that will leave you in stitches.

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MM December 5, 2012 at 8:55 pm

Synechdoche, New York

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Chip Smith December 6, 2012 at 12:39 am

Idiocracy. No getting around that one. And it seems odd no one has mentioned The Human Centipede films.

In the cult category, I’m personally rooting for Frank Henenlotter’s “Bad Biology” — a smart and batshit insane movie that gets better with repeated viewings.

I predict that “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World” will enjoy a second life as a “cable classic.”

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Dr. Jonathan Crane December 6, 2012 at 5:09 am

“Pootie Tang is due for a reappraisal if only because it was written and directed by Louis C.K.”

You just blew my mind. How had I never heard this?

And yes, that movie is still terrible.

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