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Cult films and the changing nature of movie fandom

The following interview was initiated in conjunction with Allison Joy’s “What’s With That” column on Sacramento Press. It was prompted by the abrupt closing of the comment thread associated with “The Dark Knight Rises” on RottenTomatoes.com, the internet aggregator of movie reviews, following negative remarks and threats directed towards reviewers who gave the film its first negative ratings. Brief excerpts from the interview appeared in Allison’s column and the full exchange is reproduced here. The RottenTomatoes.com events preceded the shootings in Aurora, Colorado but the interview was conducted after that tragedy.

Allison: What I want to focus on is cult followings of films, why a certain storyline becomes so near and dear to viewers’ hearts that a few bad reviews cause them to inadvertently shut down commenting on a site as popular as Rotten Tomatoes.

What characterizes a "cult following"? Does “The Dark Knight Trilogy” have one? What is the difference between a cult following and a widely well-received film?

Tony: The idea of a cult film has changed somewhat over time – in the past it was more likely to be used to signify a film that had a core group of followers, often relatively small, and perhaps with respect to a film that didn’t gain much mainstream support or success. One of the most referenced films when people talk about cult status is probably “Harold and Maude.”

But mainstream films and other projects/people can also gain a cult status, with a very loyal group of followers who will follow all developments, buy memorabilia, track related trivia, etc. Two obvious examples are all things “Star Trek” and “Star Wars” – with Trekkies (or Trekkers as some fans prefer), for example, being a recognized sub-culture of fandom – and both of these groups have had films made about them. So they’re not just film fans but they’re the subject of films about fans.

It seems fair to say that what has become known as “The Dark Knight Trilogy” has a cult-like following – but I’m not sure that it’s entirely similar and it seems unlikely to be as long lasting. But it is one of the hottest projects currently gaining that kind of level of attention.

Allison: Can you give examples of other movies with a similar cult following?

Tony: Aside from those already mentioned, in the current year you’ve got a reboot of the “Spider-man” franchise and the ensemble “Avengers” that have garnered significant followings. And recently you’ve seen the “Harry Potter” series and the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, with that project now carrying its fanbase over to the new “Hobbit” films that Peter Jackson is making. But, again, these are not the types of films that would have been likely to earn the classic “cult” label – these are massive projects with a new breed of film “fanboy”- which isn’t intended to be gendered, it’s just a term that gets used. Clearly, “fanboy” doesn’t do such a good job of capturing the same level of enthusiasm that is associated with the “Twilight” books and films, or “The Hunger Games” series – but it’s just as enthusiastic – so it’s not a male-only phenomenon despite the prevalence of that term.

Allison: Why is “The Dark Knight Trilogy” so popular, in your opinion? Why do these movies mean to people?

Tony: Well with several of these projects, and this is a good example, you have a confluence of factors that cause an almost perfect storm of constructive interference. The Batman character has been around for decades and has had generations of fans – it’s an heirloom story at this point. You also have a very popular cast that have followings of their own, and a director who might even be labeled as having his own cultish following, especially following not just this series but “Inception.” But people were raving about his earlier films, like “Memento” and “The Prestige” and it’s that kind of notoriety that gets you attached to a series like this.

So you potentially have multiple levels of fandom involved in the outcome and a great vested interest that fans of the comic book series have in seeing whether or not their own internal interpretations are successfully adapted to screen. It’s a quasi-religious experience for some fans.

Allison: Do you think fans truly took bad reviews of the film as personally as it would appear? Is this the work of your standard internet trolls, or is this something different?

Tony: I think it’s different, in a historical context, but not unique to this film. Lurking in the background of Rotten Tomatoes there are discussion forums that have been around for over a decade. They’re getting harder and harder to find as the site has changed hands and they clearly aren’t the core product. But, coincidentally, I’ve been posting there for over nine years and it’s not unusual for people to track the reviews as they come in and comment on the first negative reviews for popular films. There’s this weird undercurrent of commentary that implies that certain reviewers just like to be contrarians to attract attention to themselves, or that there exists “backlash” against popular projects. None of which makes much actual sense for assorted reasons, not the least of which is that many reviewers watch movies and write their reviews before there’s any way of knowing what the balance of opinion will ultimately be.

But I think there’s a bigger change that has occurred over time that’s more important than trying to understand “cult” status. If you look back at the way movies have been released, the patterns and the knowledge the public have both changed considerably. “Jaws” is often credited as having been the first of the giant summer blockbusters, with an unusual television marketing campaign and opening on 400+ screens – which was high at that time. Most films historically opened in a couple of cities and then slowly rolled out to more and more locations over the following weeks. You still see that pattern, as with this year’s “Moonrise Kingdom” and “smaller” films in general, but the major mainstream movies are released in a tidal wave of marketing, hype, and opening weekend frenzy on as many screens as possible.

The theater chains have fueled this also by building more and more screens, to their own detriment as traditionally studios have taken a larger cut of ticket proceeds earlier in a film’s run. So theaters traditionally did better when a film stuck around for weeks or months – and we’re now focused almost exclusively on opening weekend capacity and performance and films burnout relatively quickly.
And 20 years ago, the general public didn’t study or even have easy access to box office reports as they were compiled. This became a mini phenomenon of its own when the Hollywood Stock Exchange opened online and created a fantasy investment craze centered on film revenues and the value of actors, becoming the film equivalent of fantasy sports leagues.

What you’re seeing 10+ years later is this strange combination of factors that have turned films (as well as some books, theatrical productions, TV shows, etc.) into something more like sports have traditionally been. People are studying box office reports like baseball fans used to study box scores. They can tell you how much money Nolan’s films have made, the best opening weekends, the highest grossing franchises, etc. – much like sports fans can happily recite earned run averages and home run rankings.

Which changes the game – now if you’re a big fan of a project for whatever reason, it’s not just about how well it’s produced, it’s about how it stacks up against other projects as measured at the box office. After all, the deep, quality dramas have their awards shows to separate out the wheat from the chaff, but the giant effect-laden comic book and action movies are rated by their fans in the box office competition – and it’s just like a sport with home teams and rivalries.

The “Tomatometer” itself – the scoring system Rotten Tomatoes uses to aggregate “Fresh” and “Rotten” reviews – becomes another factor in these comparisons. Although it’s also largely misunderstood/misquoted as the Tomatometer doesn’t just count overall positives and negatives, it also tracks average scores – so a movie could have, for example, a 90% fresh rating (i.e., 90% of reviewers gave it an overall positive score and 10% gave it an overall negative score) while also having an average score of, say, 7/10 (which would mean that although the scores were overwhelmingly in the positive range, the reviews were not exactly stellar). And other sites such as Box Office Mojo exist to compile all manner of budget and revenue data.

So now a bad review isn’t just an opinion – it’s no longer “Oh, we obviously have different taste” and it’s no longer dismissed with the old favorite putdowns “You didn’t get it!” or “If only you were more familiar with the source material!” Now it’s a threat to your “team’s” performance. Now a bad review might put somebody off seeing a movie and actually hurt your favorite project in terms of long term box office performance, rankings, and subsequently its perceived success and status in the pantheon of movies. And god forbid a bad “The Dark Knight Rises” review helps “The Amazing Spider-man” or “Avengers” look like better movies as a result. Suddenly it’s personal and people care unduly what others think.

Allison: The following is part of a statement made by Rotten Tomatoes: "The job of policing the comments became more than my staff could handle for that film, so we stopped the comments altogether," the site’s editor-in-chief Matt Atchity said in an open letter. "It just got to be too much hate-based on reactions to reviews of movies that people hadn’t even seen.”

Tony: This isn’t a situation entirely unique to Rotten Tomatoes – if you read the comments sections that used to exist, for example, on Yahoo! News stories the level of discourse was appalling and routinely filled with assorted manifestations of hate speech. Rotten Tomatoes has two problems – the comments themselves (which can be policed in various ways, including having them be subject to either advance moderation or by not allowing anonymous posts and anonymous threats) – and also the backlash against its reviewer base. But reviewers have had hate directed towards them for as long as there have been reviewers. It’s long been said that bad reviews in the New York Times could shut down both restaurants and Broadway shows. That said, we also live in a weird world where people tend to take things into their own hands to perhaps an unprecedented degree – as we saw this week in a mass killing that we may never fully understand. I’m not saying that was linked to reviews – indeed it was planned for months beforehand – but people used to exercise their frustrations through angry letters to the editor of a newspaper, rather than by credible death threats to a reviewer. And the scale and instant momentum provided by the internet has also changed that dynamic – it’s not just one angry fan or five angry fans, it’s suddenly hundreds or thousands all reinforcing each other overnight.

Allison: Have you/Will you see the movie? Why or why not?

Tony: Yes, I saw it at an early screening and my review appeared here. To date, I have not received any hate mail nor have the local servers crashed, that I’m aware of!

Thanks to Allison Joy for beginning this process and for permitting me to reproduce the entire exchange in this form.

About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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