George Mason Law School

Making classics out of flops and failures

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March 25, 2008

5:29 AM

Ask any student on campus what his or her favorite movie is and you’re likely to be surprised by the response. Though entertainment magazines and box-office records suggest a handful of blockbusters each year to add to a person’s favorite movies, box-office bombs that are virtually ignored by the mainstream often populate the lists of college-aged couch potatoes. These cult classics are not a new phenomenon by any stretch, but their numbers have grown exponentially over the past decade. Now, more than ever, young people are latching onto unnoticed films and television series, creating a culture of their own.

p. A brief glance at Facebook’s top-ten lists for the College shows “Fight Club” to be the most popular flick among the student body. The others on the list are the expected assortment of new classics — except “The Boondock Saints,” ranked ninth. Both of these films were released in theaters nine years ago; both were flops. They failed to meet their own budgets and were eventually released on DVD without any fanfare or special features added to their running time. They were, however, great successes on DVD, often outselling big-ticket smashes. These films became cult classics.

p. There’s probably no definitive reason why any of these films deserve such status. But based on my expeience at the College, I think I have an idea as to how certain flicks become favorites among students.

p. When I was a freshman back in ’05, only a handful of my hallmates were familiar with any of what could be considered must-see movies like “Donnie Darko” and “The Big Lebowski.” (I didn’t know most of them even existed as a wee freshman.) Yet by the end of my first semester it seemed that everyone I encountered had seen and loved them.

p. Most critics consider cult popularity an unexplainable phenomenon, but its surge in the student population isn’t so mysterious. When entering college, the average student has seen most of the major films that fit his or her interests. Thrust into a situation with total strangers, a movie that carries no previous associations makes for a good icebreaker. Watching something new and unique brings about genuine laughs and discussion that people share for the first time with their new peers. Films can be tools for fast-tracking inside jokes and creating common ground where there may have been none only hours before.

p. Obviously, the movies have to be discovered in order to reach cult status. Our generation is the first to have its culture influenced heavily by the internet. Word-of-mouth is no longer the foremost form of advertising; more than ever, underappreciated films are saved from being forgotten.

p. Another factor affecting cult classic popularity is the DVD. As the discs become cheaper, flicks grow more accessible.
DVDs also allow students to access shows previously ignored or unheard of, like “Arrested Development,” “Firefly” or “Family Guy.” It’s much easier to make your own schedule than to adhere to one set by networks. Most stations show their new programming before 11 p.m. and cycle through news, talk shows and infomercials late at night. The average student stays up much later, and DVDs make it easy to design thier own programming schedules. Our generation is truly the first to have this freedom.

p. Hollywood has noticed the power of today’s youth in creating cult classics (and in making them a lot of cash). They’ve tried to cater to our culture, turning out fodder like “Snakes on a Plane.” Forcing a would-be cult hit on us was harder than they thought, and the film failed to attract the youth cult audience it sought.
So what determines which films become cult classics? Without a set formula or theme tying them together, it’s anyone’s guess. What is for certain is that movies are a powerful part of our lives, and in today’s world, we have the ability to decide which films are given that power.

Matthew Falwell is a Critical Condition Columnist. He spends his free time searching for undiscovered classics.

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