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Cultivating a Classic

Followers of cult classic films are often attracted to the genre’s indie appeal and lack of star power.

Amber Roth, a sophomore theatre education major at Ball State University, was a freshman in high school the first time she watched a cult classic film. She was in the theater’s dressing room preparing for the school’s production of Snow White.

The student playing the lead in the musical brought her DVD copy of Rocky Horror Picture Show to watch as performers got their hair and makeup done before curtain call. As Amber was in the makeup chair getting her hair curled, she caught a glimpse of the cult film from the corner of her eye.

She was instantly drawn to the film because of how believable the acting was. It made her want to invest her time in the actors and their lives and what they were struggling with. Amber didn’t just sympathize with the film, she empathized with it—she says she related to the characters’ feelings and their struggles.

Amber has been hooked on the genre since then.

Now, five years after seeing Rocky Horror, Amber typically enjoys watching a cult classic film once or twice every other week. Some of her favorites include Pretty in Pink, The Breakfast Club, and Sixteen Candles. However, her absolute favorite is still the one that sparked her interest in the genre: the quintessential classic, Rocky Horror. Amber’s love for the genre inspired her to major in theatre education and to participate in a campus Rocky Horror shadow show—a production in which individuals act along with the film playing in the background.

To her, the poor quality of cult films doesn’t matter. She says it’s about the theatrical aspect and bigger message of the stories.  

Definitions of “cult classic” vary widely. Syfy Wire, a feature news outlet for all things science fiction, fantasy, and supernatural, defines cult classic films as movies that didn’t have a large audience when they were first released. Later on, however, they develop a large fan following and become pop culture phenomena.

Cult films are typically produced with a relatively low budget but garner huge audiences. The quality of these films is typically poor as well. The genre is a movie that isn’t necessarily a mainstream production but is talked about by the audience as if it were.

According to Seth Friedman, an associate professor for the Department of Communication and Theatre and director of the film studies program at DePauw University, cult films are movies that are first considered alternative. This means the film isn’t seen as cool or popular.

Cult classics cast actors or actresses before their breakout roles. He explains that this often correlates with the indie aspect of films; people are drawn to the underdog or lesser-known actors because they are not mainstream. Viewers like and enjoy the fresh perspectives of cult classic films.

When Rocky Horror was first released in theaters in 1975, the box office brought in only $21,245 during its opening weekend. In comparison, Jaws grossed $7 million during its opening weekend in 1975, and Grease made $8.9 million during its opening weekend in 1978.

Rocky Horror isn’t the only film to fail to draw in audiences during its opening weekend. The Room was released in 2003 and grossed $1,800 during its opening weekend, after being produced with a $6 million budget. Today, it also has a large following and is considered a beloved cult film and midnight movie—a film that is played at a cinema at midnight. So much so that James Franco produced his own adaptation of the making of The Room in 2017, titled The Disaster Artist. It was a major box office hit, grossing $1.2 million during its opening weekend.

Rocky Horror was well received in Los Angeles, where the film premiered, but it failed to draw audiences almost everywhere else. Many cities halted screenings due to how poorly the film was received in its early days after premiering.

By 1976, all of that changed. After seeing how well Rocky Horror was received by audiences in Los Angeles, and how many of the same people were coming back to see the film repeatedly, it was relaunched as a midnight movie. This time, Rocky Horror saw more people in box offices all over the country. Traditions began to develop, such as throwing toast at the screen during the scene in which Dr. Frank-N-Furter proposes a toast, or rice during the opening wedding scene.

Nearly 43 years after Rocky Horror premiered in the U.S., the film is thriving. The movie has grossed $112.8 million since its release, and shadow shows are often done in cities around the U.S. Even though the film was produced with a very low budget, viewers are drawn to it year after year.  

According to Jeff Spott, a senior telecommunications major with a concentration in video production at Ball State, viewers are drawn to cult classics because of the community vibe they give off. Spott is a colorist, meaning he matches the tones of movie scenes, and has extensively studied film over the course of four years. He explains that people want to be a part of something that others are talking about. They want something in common to bond over. Spott says cult classics are very different types of movies, but draw audiences together through strange and hilarious traditions.

Longtime Rocky Horror fan Madison Martin is the producer, coordinator, and founder of Transylvanian Lip Treatment (TLT). TLT is a midnight shadow cast based in Indianapolis that actively promotes cult classic cinema. Madison uses TLT to produce Rocky Horror shadow shows for audiences across the state. As a longtime fan, she has grown up around the cult film community her entire life.

Madison’s mother played Janet in productions, and showed her the film when she was just four years old. However, it wasn’t until she was 12 when her uncle took her to a shadow show that she began to show a deeper interest in the cult phenomenon that is Rocky Horror.

As a 12-year-old girl, Madison says the shadow show and film community resonated with her. Rocky Horror helped her find herself as a performer and get out of her shell. As an isolated kid, she found her niche.

Madison says that she found a community in the cult film after seeing the Rocky Horror shadow show. Her initial reaction to the show was noticing that everyone around her was dressed differently. She saw a lot of colorful individuals of all ages, groups, and subcultures—and no one was shunned. Everyone there was supported by the community gathering at the shadow show.

The future of cult classic films is only positive, according to Friedman. He explains that the film genre is only going to become more prominent as new modes of exhibition become more popular. This genre is more likely to get streamed and discussed and debated in online forums as these modes advance and gain more popularity for years to come.

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