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The personality of cult

By Nick Nunziata
CNN Headline News

Brad Pitt and Edward Norton in 1999's cult classic, "Fight Club."

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(CNN) -- Some films aren't meant to succeed. Whether too quirky for the mainstream, poorly marketed, or too cheaply made to warrant a major release, these films eventually dissolve away into the world of home video where they are either devoured by the throng of similar titles or revealed to be diamonds in the rough -- otherwise known as cult classics.

Though there are obvious films like "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" that define this small niche of film, the world of cult movies is rapidly changing. DVDs have become so popular and provide such a big revenue stream that failures have become successes and oddballs have become cash cows.

It's a brave new world for sure, one that writer Aldous Huxley might even find a bit perplexing. In the past, the films that achieved cult status were the products of men like Roger Corman, Herschell Gordon Lewis and Andy Warhol. We now live in a world where an expensive failure like David Fincher's "Fight Club" could go from being a red-headed stepchild to oft-reprinted DVD that serves as the cornerstone for nearly every collector's library.

By today's new definition, "Fight Club" is a cult classic. As is Paul Verhoeven's critically pillaged "Showgirls." Because of ancillary markets, the value of a film can no longer be determined by its run at the box office.

Though it doubled its budget theatrically, the film "Rounders" was considered an underperformer when it pulled in just under $23 million at the turnstiles. With then-hot stars Matt Damon and Edward Norton it was expected to be a juggernaut. For distributor Miramax, it was more naught than jugger. Now with the revisionist world of DVD, "Rounders" is not only a rousing success but also one of the most beloved films of the past decade for hundreds of thousands of people. It's also to poker players what "Scarface" is to gangsta -- their own little celluloid bible.

While "cult" was once a synonym for cheap and cheesy, it now is an amorphous definition that applies to any kind of film of any budget from any filmmaker. The market is so saturated and the window of opportunity for films to connect with an audience is so small that it's almost a necessity that the film business adapts to the change.

As a result, the personality of the cult film isn't just limited to stories of underwater zombies, drag queens on motorcycles, and cannibalistic humanoid underground dwellers. Films about card sharks and anarchists with split personalities are now part of the massively growing cult... of cult.

What was once avant-garde can now be corporate, and what once was considered camp cinema now looks like dollar bills to executives who've recently enrolled in the school of DVD marketing. The box office numbers on Monday are starting to look a little less exciting in the wake of the DVD sales on Tuesday, and there's no end in sight. The fringe is getting pretty attractive these days.

It's getting harder for Hollywood to lose money. We should all have that problem.

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