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Is There Such Thing As a Cult Movie in the Streaming Era?

As the internet hastens discovery and encourages the building of niche communities, the murky definition of what is “cult” is growing even murkier

Liam Eisenberg

This week on The Ringer, we celebrate those movies that from humble or overlooked beginnings rose to prominence through the support of their obsessive fan bases. The movies that were too heady for mainstream audiences; the comedies that were before their time; the small indies that changed the direction of Hollywood. Welcome to Cult Movie Week.

Perhaps the only thing all cinephiles can agree on about cult movies is that it’s hard to come up with a clear definition for them. The prerequisites for what makes a movie a cult movie, and just how many boxes need to be checked off—bad initial reviews, a poor showing at the box office, greatness that’s misunderstood by the masses, ironically enjoying the oeuvre of Tommy Wiseau, etc.—is a fluid exercise that has as much to do with individual sensibilities as anything else. (I’ve never been a fan of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which feels far too ubiquitous to still be considered a cult hit, but I’ll follow Event Horizon to the gates of hell.) But if there’s one factor that unifies cult films, it’s that thing Christopher Nolan is so obsessed with: the passage of time.

Traditionally, there’s been distance between a movie’s rejection by the mainstream and its reclamation as a cult classic. Through some combination of enthusiastic word-of-mouth, rowdy midnight screenings, accessibility via the quirkiest (or seediest) sections of local video stores, and so forth, cult films in waiting had avenues to slowly grow an obsessive following that wasn’t necessarily afforded to them when they were first released. Of course, the mention of local video stores is a dead giveaway that the ways that cults typically formed around movies has largely given way to something as amorphous as it is inescapable.

In many respects, the internet—and just as important, the streaming services that offer an unfathomable amount of programming with the click of a cursor—has been a boon for lesser-known films achieving their cult potential. But the internet has also almost completely shrunk the window of time between a film’s relative obscurity and the growth of a film’s passionate following. With a handful of exceptions—Under the Silver Lake and A Cure for Wellness come to mind—the internet has changed the traditional cult life cycle. Nowadays, word of mouth can mean instantly reaching thousands of people in a subreddit, on social media, or on film-centric platforms like Letterboxd. This shift allows for plenty of smaller, niche communities to thrive. But with so many entertainment options available as long as you have semi-decent WiFi—and a lack of rules as to how and when to watch something—fandoms are increasingly splintered outside of mammoth franchises like Star Wars and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Mainstream viewing in the traditional sense hardly exists anymore. And so now, there’s a new way to think about cult movies in the 21st century. If most everything is outside of the monoculture, and thus feels cult-like in nature, then the term becomes so broad that it loses all meaning.

Of course, the upside of accelerating discussions about films that initially had polarizing receptions or bombed at the box office is that it’s easy to find like-minded individuals going against the grain. That’s the impetus behind Rotten Tomatoes Is Wrong, a podcast series from the namesake review-aggregation website in which cohosts Jacqueline Coley and Mark Ellis bring on a guest and debate whether a film’s “rotten” or “fresh” score is justified. In doing so, the hosts look to explore the in-between period of a film’s release and its potential relitigation as a cult classic, as well as how a movie’s afterlife (and its inevitable internet discourse) impacts the film.

While some of the films covered on the podcast are among the biggest blockbusters of the past decade, Coley and Ellis have also dug into once-dismissed titles like Hocus Pocus, Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit, and The Beach. And the ways in which the conversations around these older films have evolved is in part because the internet has elevated a diversity of opinion. “There’s all of these forums that everyone has access to at their fingertips to disseminate a movie, so I think we’re actually into a golden age of film criticism,” Ellis tells me. “You have all these respected voices that are weighing in on something and very rarely is the addition of more voices going to lead to a full consensus.”

A wider scope of voices offers films the platforms that they weren’t always afforded. “Let’s be honest, a lot of critics in the early ’90s were white guys,” Ellis says. “They may just think [Sister Act 2] is a retread of the first Sister Act—which there’s certainly those elements, but it also really has a lot to offer and a lot to say. Maybe that message wasn’t as well received as it would have been if there was a more diverse representation amongst critics back then.”

The quick turnaround for a film to be reappraised and elevated to possible cult status is also aided by accessibility: If a movie has a platform to reach a wider audience on a streamer, for instance, they can find more potential converts. Whereas a conversation around a film could once take years or decades to shift, that can now happen in a matter of months or even weeks. “Back in the day, a lot of these movies we’re talking about just would not have the oxygen to breathe because there was no information superhighway to find other people who cared about this stuff,” Ellis says. “There was no hashtag that people could just go to see if anybody else was talking about this crazy Nicolas Cage movie Mandy.” (Side note: Mandy does, in fact, absolutely rip.)

This trend isn’t just exclusive to indie titles—streaming and on-demand digital viewing also has the power to elevate major studio releases that weren’t initially embraced by the masses. The fractured rollout of Tenet—and the fact that Nolan’s latest blockbuster might be his most inscrutable work to date—makes it a prime candidate to become a cult movie, and the internet is already starting to do its work there. Doctor Sleep, the Mike Flanagan–directed sequel to The Shining, had a tepid showing at the box office in 2019, but has already seen renewed interest after hitting HBO and HBO Max in the summer of 2020. Hopefully, one day more moviegoers will be on my wavelength when it comes to Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, an epic, kaleidoscopic, and supremely weird space opera in which Rihanna plays a shape-shifting alien stripper and Ethan Hawke is her seedy pimp who goes by “Jolly.” Though it certainly doesn’t help that, as of this writing, Valerian isn’t available on streaming.

On the whole, the entertainment landscape continues to evolve in a manner that defies easy categorization. We’ve reached a point where the lines between television and film barely exist—shoutout to Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return for setting off countless (read: mostly pointless) debates on the matter. In that spirit, then, perhaps it’s prudent to rethink the way that we approach cult movies. On the one hand, the formation of cult movies doesn’t really exist in the way we’ve come to understand them through decades of film history. (You’d be hard-pressed to repeat the slow drip of Eraserhead becoming a cult classic in 2021.) But the fact that initially ignored movies have the opportunity to build passionate fan bases in months when it used to take years isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Whether the idea of cult movies is obsolete or just needs redefining feels like the kind of hot-button issue that’s as prickly as trying to define what exactly a cult movie is in the first place. (To each their own, don’t shoot the messenger!) But having greater accessibility to a wider range of obscure titles, along with more voices to support them, is a net positive for film communities moving forward. “Nowadays, you can probably hit a couple of buttons and find any cult movie you’ve ever wanted to watch,” Ellis says. “As long as there’s people championing these movies, then cult films are going to continue to have a place in the market, and hopefully continue to surprise, if they’re good enough to live up to it.”