Most movies considered "cult films" failed to achieve mainstream success upon original theatrical release, often grossing more money in video rentals and sales than in theater tickets. In most cases (but by no means all), the film hardly makes an impression with the general public and critics are often apathetic as well. However, a small, devoted group of viewers, often "film buffs" or film students, show an extreme appreciation of the film.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
The Rocky Horror Picture Show is often considered the first "cult film." The movie combines the conventions from science fiction and horror films and included elements of transvestitism, incest and homosexuality — all within the context of a musical. The film received little attention when first released in 1975 but, a few years later, fans showed up at midnight screenings at repertoire theaters, dressed in costume and "participating" in the film (e.g. throwing rice at the wedding scene).
The Rocky Horror Picture Show is one of many cult films to survive initial box office failure by finding success in other outlets. Like Rocky Horror, Night of the Living Dead, Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, The Hills Have Eyes and Eraserhead achieved cult status through repeat screenings at independent repertory cinemas, most usually during late night "midnight movie" screenings. Such films were cheaper for theaters to hire than current releases and thus were more sensible to screen during late night when attendance was lower. Night of the Living Dead, in particular, was free to screen since it had acidentally fallen into the public domain. In the early 1990s many repertory cinemas went out of business due to changes in cinema ownership and distribution.
Network television, cable television and pay-per-view stations have also helped raise the stature of cult films. Despite failing to meet box office expectations, Blade Runner was a favorite of early pay-per-view and HBO. When Steven Spielberg's 1979 comedy 1941 (after its near-failure at the box office) aired on ABC in an expanded version, it became one of the most asked-for home video reissues, and thereby giving the movie the popularity it did not receive at the box office. Repeated showings on Comedy Central helped popularize Office Space and Half Baked.
Blade Runner (1982)
In most cases, these films tend to enjoy long runs on video, thus being issued in more video "runs" with more copies than other movies. The box office bomb Office Space managed to financially redeem itself when word-of-mouth made it a popular video rental and Fight Club and Mulholland Drive have earned considerably more in DVD sales than they did in movie theatres. Also, cult movies are more likely to be issued on newer video technology in the technology's early days than other films.
Although films of all types of genres and plot conventions become cult films, the horror and science fiction genres produce a large number of cult films, perhaps due to the devoted nature of these genres' fan bases. Also films that have unconventional plotlines, strange senses of humor and which generally deviate from current trends in film are more likely to become cult films.
Many significant cult films are independently made and were not expected by their creators to have much mainstream success. These include Night of the Living Dead, Easy Rider, Pink Flamingos, Eraserhead and Slacker. Other cult films have the backing of major studios but did not initially meet with the financial success these studios typically enjoy. These include the aforementioned Blade Runner, Fight Club, and 1941, as well as such films as Legend, and Dune. In rare cases, a film is both a huge, major studio release and a cult film, because a small, devoted following exists within the film’s larger audience (i.e. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Taxi Driver and the Star Wars franchise.)
Cult films within a particular culture
Occasionally, a film can become the object of a cult following within a particular region or culture if it has some unusual signifigance 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 some of the few Western films considered acceptable by the country’s communist rulers, thus Albanians grew familiar and attached to Wisdom. Curiously, he and his films are now acquiring nostalgic cult status in Britain. Similarly, the American film It's a Wonderful Life, which features an exploitative capitalist as its villain, was allowed in the USSR, giving it a cult status in Russia.
Another example is the place of The Wizard of Oz in American gay culture. Although a widely viewed and historically important film in greater American culture, it has gained a special meaning to many gay men who see probably unintended gay themes in the film. Gay men sometimes refer to themselves as "friends of Dorothy".
The 2004 DVD edition of Reefer Madness, which makes obvious reference to its cult status
The 1936 anti-marijuana propaganda film Reefer Madness has become a cult film within stoner culture due to its humorously sensationalized, outdated and inaccurate descriptions of the effects of marijuana. 20th Century Fox and Legend Films released the film on DVD on April 20, 2004, an obvious reference to its ironic appeal (see 420 (cannabis culture)). 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.
British comedies have enjoyed a cult status in America. These films include the Black Adder and Monty Python series, most notably Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Because British humor differs distinctly from that found in American films, British films only appeal to a minority (or cult audience) in the US.
Also Japanese anime and tokusatsu films, featuring one culture's distinct take on the action/science fiction genre, have become very popular among a small faction of people in the Western Hemisphere.
So-bad-they’re-good cult films
Many films enjoy cult status because they are seen as ridiculously awful. 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 such financially fruitless and critically scorned films as Mommie Dearest, Cool as Ice, Boxing Helena, Showgirls, and Freddy Got Fingered, which have become inadvertent comedies to film buffs.
In other cases, little known or forgotten films from the Past, usually from the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, are revived as cult films, largely because they are considered goofy and senseless by modern standards, with laughable special effects and corny plotlines. These include Eegah, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, The Creeping Terror, The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies, Attack of the 50ft. Woman and the films made by Ed Wood, Jr., who has been reconized as the king of the "Bad Cult Classic films" genre and whose movies have been mentioned in the documentary The 50 Worst Movies Ever Made.
These films should not be confused with comedic cult movies like The Toxic Avenger, Bad Taste, Army of Darkness, and the films of John Waters, all of which purposely utilize elements from films “so bad they’re good” for comedic effect. For further explanation on both types of film, see camp (style).
Cult film figures
Some actors and directors are primarily known for their work in cult films and often become cult figures because of that work. Some, such as Ridley Scott and Sam Raimi, eventually make widely successful, mainstream films while others continue to be known only to a small group of fans.