Cult film

Film poster for Plan 9 from Outer Space
Plan 9 from Outer Space is an example of a cult film.[1]

A cult film or cult movie, also commonly referred to as a cult classic, is a film that has acquired a cult following. Cult films are known for their dedicated, passionate fanbase, an elaborate subculture that engage in repeated viewings, quoting dialogue, and audience participation. Inclusive definitions allow for major studio productions, especially box office bombs, while exclusive definitions focus more on obscure, transgressive films shunned by the mainstream. The difficulty in defining the term and subjectivity of what qualifies as a cult film mirror classificatory disputes about art. The term cult film itself was first used in the 1970s to describe the culture that surrounded underground films and midnight movies, though cult was in common use in film analysis for decades prior to that.

Cult films trace their origin back to controversial and suppressed films kept alive by dedicated fans. In some cases, reclaimed or rediscovered films have acquired cult followings decades after their original release, occasionally for their camp value. Other cult films have since become well-respected or reassessed as classics; there is debate as to whether these popular and accepted films are still cult films. After failing in the cinema, some cult films have become regular fixtures on cable television or profitable sellers on home video. Others have inspired their own film festivals. Cult films can both appeal to specific subcultures and form their own subcultures. Other media that reference cult films can easily identify which demographics they desire to attract and offer savvy fans an opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge.

Cult films frequently break cultural taboos, and many feature excessive displays of violence, gore, sexuality, profanity, or combinations thereof. This can lead to controversy, censorship, and outright bans; less transgressive films may attract similar amounts of controversy when critics call them frivolous or incompetent. Films that fail to attract requisite amounts of controversy may face resistance when labeled as cult films. Mainstream films and big budget blockbusters have attracted cult followings similar to more underground and lesser known films; fans of these films often emphasize the films' niche appeal and reject the more popular aspects. Fans who like the films for the wrong reasons, such as perceived elements that represent mainstream appeal and marketing, will often be ostracized or ridiculed. Likewise, fans who stray from accepted subcultural scripts may experience similar rejection.

Since the late 1970s, cult films have become increasingly popular. Films that once would have been limited to obscure cult followings are now capable of breaking into the mainstream, and showings of cult films have proved to be a profitable business venture. Overbroad usage of the term has resulted in controversy, as purists state it has become a meaningless descriptor applied to any film that is the slightest bit weird or unconventional; others accuse Hollywood studios of trying to artificially create cult films or use the term as a marketing tactic. Films are frequently stated to be an "instant cult classic" now, occasionally before they are released. Fickle fans on the Internet have latched on to unreleased films only to abandon them later on release. At the same time, other films have acquired massive, quick cult followings, owing to spreading virally through social media. Easy access to cult films via video on demand and peer-to-peer file sharing has led some critics to pronounce the death of cult films.


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.[2] Some definitions exclude films that have been released by major studios or have big budgets,[3] that try specifically to become cult films,[4] or become accepted by mainstream audiences and critics.[5] Cult films are defined by audience reaction as much as by their content.[6] This may take the form of elaborate and ritualized audience participation, film festivals, or cosplay.[2] Over time, the definition has become more vague and inclusive as it drifts away from earlier, stricter views.[7] Increasing use of the term by mainstream publications has resulted in controversy, as cinephiles argue that the term has become meaningless[8] or "elastic, a catchall for anything slightly maverick or strange".[9] Academic Mark Shiel has criticized the term itself as being a weak concept, reliant on subjectivity; different groups can interpret films in their own terms.[10] According to feminist scholar Joanne Hollows, this subjectivity causes films with large female cult followings to be perceived as too mainstream and not transgressive enough to qualify as a cult film.[11]:38 Academic Mike Chopra‑Gant says that cult films become decontextualized when studied as a group,[12] and Shiel criticizes this recontextualization as cultural commodification.[10]

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, though others disputed the transgressive potential, given the demographic appeal to conventional moviegoers and mainstreaming of cult films. Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock instead called them mainstream films with transgressive elements. Most definitions also required a strong community aspect, such as obsessed fans or ritualistic behavior. Citing misuse of the term, Mikel J. Koven took a self-described hard-line stance that rejected definitions that use any other criteria. Matt Hills instead stressed the need for an open-ended definition rooted in structuration, where the film and the audience reaction are interrelated and neither is prioritized. 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 and called the term a marketing buzzword. Mathijs suggests 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.[13] This ambiguity leads critics of postmodernism to accuse cult films of being beyond criticism, as the emphasis is now on personal interpretation rather than critical analysis or metanarratives.[10] These inherent dichotomies can lead audiences to be split between ironic and earnest fans.[14]

Writing in Defining Cult Movies, Jancovich et al. quote academic Jeffrey Sconce, who defines cult films in terms of paracinema, marginal films that exist outside critical and cultural acceptance: everything from exploitation to beach party musicals to softcore pornography. However, they reject cult films as having a single unifying feature; instead, they state that cult films are united in their "subcultural ideology" and opposition to mainstream tastes, itself a vague and undefinable term. Cult followings themselves can range from adoration to contempt, and they have little in common except for their celebration of nonconformity – even the bad films ridiculed by fans are artistically nonconformist, albeit unintentionally. At the same time, they state that bourgeois, masculine tastes are frequently reinforced, which makes cult films more of an internal conflict within the bourgeoisie, rather than a rebellion against it. This results in an anti-academic bias despite the use of formal methodologies, such as defamiliarization.[15] This contradiction exists in many subcultures, especially those dependent on defining themselves in terms of opposition to the mainstream. This nonconformity is eventually co-opted by the dominant forces, such as Hollywood, and marketed to the mainstream.[16] Academic Xavier Mendik also defines cult films as opposing the mainstream and further proposes that films can become cult by virtue of their genre or content, especially if it is transgressive. Due to their rejection of mainstream appeal, Mendik says cult films can be more creative and political; times of relative political instability produce more interesting films.[17]

Other Languages
Afrikaans: Kultusrolprent
беларуская: Культавы фільм
български: Култов филм
čeština: Kultovní film
dansk: Kultfilm
Deutsch: Kultfilm
eesti: Kultusfilm
Ελληνικά: Καλτ ταινία
Esperanto: Kulta filmo
فارسی: فیلم کالت
français: Film culte
Frysk: Kultfilm
한국어: 컬트 영화
italiano: Film di culto
עברית: סרט פולחן
latviešu: Kulta filma
lietuvių: Kultinis filmas
Nederlands: Cultfilm
日本語: カルト映画
norsk: Kultfilm
Piemontèis: Film venerà
polski: Film kultowy
português: Filme cult
română: Film idol
slovenčina: Kultový film
slovenščina: Kultni film
srpskohrvatski / српскохрватски: Kultni film
svenska: Kultfilm
Türkçe: Kült film
українська: Культовий фільм
中文: 邪典电影