A couple of months ago, I was at a workshop and I heard an indie filmmaker talking about the movie he wanted to make.
“A cult classic.”
I bit my tongue. Unsolicited advice is rarely welcome and I didn’t want discourage him.
The problem with cult films is distributors don’t want them.
Cult films, by definition, speak to a limited niche audience. They’re strange, subversive, quirky and offbeat. From midnight movies to so bad it’s good camp classics, cult films are the antithesis of the mainstream.
There’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Monty Python, The Big Lebowski, Clerks, Night of the Living Dead, Grey Gardens, Showgirls, Hedwig and The Angry Inch, The Blues Brothers, Donnie Darko, Eraserhead and Office Space to name a few.
Cult movies are slow burners. They take time to find their audience. There’s an initial underwhelmed response. They’re box office flops or get panned by the critics, or both. Over time, they find a passionate fan base and get reappraised.
But, the way we watch films has changed. There’s no space anymore for cult movies in traditional distribution.
DVD rental and sales are dying and they’ve killed cult films with them.
Cult films thrived in the days of home rental, when you could go into the video store, browse the titles and pick out a movie. Films could gain a reputation through word of mouth. I remember renting Austin Powers with friends and laughing so hard I cried. It became a sleeper hit that spawned a franchise. It was also a time with fewer films and TV channels and less competition for eyeballs and audience attention. There was more of a captive market.
But, the days of DVD rental are over. DVD retailers, stores like HMV, are on their last legs all around the world. DVD sales are now confined to limited shelf space in supermarkets, going to films that will shift mass units – studio fare, star led films that speak to the lowest common denominator.
VOD sales and rental haven’t been able to counterbalance this. Partly that’s due to anonymity of a title and thumbnail. Audiences are unwilling to take a chance on a film they don’t know. TV channels have to focus on their ratings and won’t license a film without mass appeal. There’s no platform for cult films to find their audience.
The upshot? Distributors don’t want cult films. In a market where film revenues are falling, distributors can’t take the chances on films with limited appeal, that would take a long time to recoup. Films need to sell well early or they get pulled from the cinemas and shelves and languish on VOD without any marketing to support them. It’s bad business. Unless there’s big name to push the marketing behind, like Michael Fassbender in Frank, cult films struggle.
Here’s the contradiction though. Just as traditional distribution is turning away from cult films, there’s also a rise in support for cult projects through crowd funding.
Here’s a screenshot of Kickstarter’s most funded film projects. Click for a bigger version.
None of these projects could be seen as conventional or mainstream. I think that’s a reaction to the homogenisation of film. Audiences are hungry for content that’s different and speaks to them.
The cult film is dead. Long live the cult film?
It prompts the question, what does that mean for distribution? How do your translate that support and find a wider audience? How do you market cult films effectively?
Traditional distributors haven’t figured that out. So, that puts the onus on filmmakers. You need to start thinking about your marketing and distribution in development and build that into your film. Find your audience first. How can you drive word of mouth and build buzz? How do you develop your brand as a production company?
Crowd funding is a great start. If you’re successful, you’ve already found a niche audience passionate about your film. You need to sustain and grow that when it comes to distribution.
VOD will become the leveller for films, but it’s also a platform where the signal to noise ratio is immense. How does you film stand out? What can you do to promote it? How can you sustain interest in it over months and years?
There are no easy answers, but these are questions all filmmakers need to be thinking about. Your involvement with your film doesn’t stop at the final cut any more. Marketing and distribution matters. The more successful your film, the easier it will be to get funding, support, talented cast and crew for your next one. It’s become an integral part of building your career.
Agree, disagree, questions, thoughts? Hit me up in the comments.
Picture Credit: Blade Runner