By Molly Freeman & Timothy Dillon
Cult movies, and more over the definition of a cult film, is a difficult nut to crack. Once reserved for campy B-movies and grindhouse pictures, this genre (if you can even call it that) is more about public reception, rather than critical acclaim. Though the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
Already, that sounds pretty contradictory. Confused? So are we.
A cult film doesn’t have to enjoy box office success. Like Fight Club, the international box office and DVD revenues was enough to make up for the domestic financial flop and ensure its place in college dorm rooms from 2000 onward. Selling 6 million copies and still being able to release a Blu Ray edition it a perfect example of fans willing to financially support a movie, but this is just one way to cultivate your own cult.
Yet financial success in DVD sales is no more an indicator than quality, all of them in varying degree. From Super Troopers to Rian Johnson’s high school noir art piece Brick, an aesthetic is difficult to assign the class of film we know as cult cinema. Between those parameters, arguably, one could even call The Human Centipede a cult movie. Even though few can tolerate its repulsive subject matter, it was successful enough to make a cultural impact, one South Park was totally willing to satirize.
While DVDs have made it easy to spot cult moves, like Donnie Darko or The Big Lebowski, there are also those that are resurrected by DVD. The Warriors, a ’70s gem of gang warfare, is one such cult classic brought back by DVD in 2005.
Artistically, aesthetically, there is no common ground for these films. What makes a cult film, and what is perhaps the most apt definition, is people loving the film more than the status quo. That love can be represented financially or culturally. It can receive accolades like an academy award, or be panned like the 2003 drama, The Room. What matters is the following, not any one specific indicator.
As we transition out of the age of discs and physical media, and DVD sales fall to Netflix Instant Streaming or On Demand movie rentals, cult movies have begun to amass their followings somewhere new: the internet, specifically social media.
Movies achieving their cult status through the internet and social media is a fairly recent phenomenon, which arguably, Snakes on a Plane spearheaded as its creators used viral marketing to create a small following for the film before it even premiered. Armed with only the title, fans created homemade t-shirts, fan sites, as well as fake movie posters and trailers that they shared online.
Since then, movies such as Birdemic: Shock and Terror, The Room, and The Human Centipede have gained cult-like followings through social media sites like Twitter. Social media has become the worldwide word-of-mouth network where fans of B-movies can share what they like about these films with thousands, even millions of people.
Evan Husney of Severin Films, the film production and distribution company that picked up Birdemic, said in 2010 that Twitter, especially celebrities on Twitter, helped promote the film.
“Rainn Wilson has 1.9 million followers,” Husney said. “That’s an instantaneous blast e-mail to 1.9 million people who are into this guy and are going to want to see what he recommends.” Now, Wilson has nearly twice the amount of followers: 3.6 million.
Most recently, we’ve seen how Twitter can help build a cult following with SyFy’s original monster-movie phenomenon, Sharknado. It’s safe to say Sharknado’s recent success is unlike anything Hollywood has ever seen before. Despite lengthy research, we were unable to find any other instance where an original, standalone movie was made for television and then moved to the big-screen.
Almost needless to say, Sharknado’s entire success can be attributed to social media. Although the movie only had 1.37 million viewers on the night it premiered (slightly below SyFy’s average audience for an original movie,) it generated 5,000 tweets per minute.
Additionally, when the network screened the movie again a week later, the viewership went up by 38 percent to 1.9 million.
While in the past it might have taken movies years — decades even — to build up the kind of cult following that surrounds Fight Club or Donnie Darko, the internet has changed that. It has increased the pace with which we consume content and has also shortened the length of time it takes a film to grow a cult following. Even though Sharknado was only released a month ago, thanks to social media it has become one very popular cult movie; it even sold out theaters last weekend.