Friday, October 16, 2009

French CULTure

A conversation arose yesterday on Twitter between myself, Lynden Barber (of Eyes Wired Open) and Palace Films (a local film distributor) over the poster for Palace's upcoming release, The French Kissers, a French American Pie of sorts, and its use of the word "cult".

I queried the use of the phrase "A COMEDY DESTINED FOR CULT STATUS" on a poster since the majority of the general public (ie, those who don't see 50+ movies a year) associates "cult" with "bad". Now, that's not always the case, since some of the biggest cult movies are in fact incredibly excellent, but a film doesn't become a cult movie because it was a hit and everybody loved it. No, a film becomes a cult movie when it fails both at the box office and - a lot of the time, anyway - critically. The reason they fail at the box office? Because the general public does not care. They don't think it will appeal to them and they decide to not spend their money on it. They're ultra-niche if you will. And just because you are one kind of ultra-niche film (for instance, the European teen gross-out comedy) doesn't automatically make you "cult". What about The French Kissers gives off the illusion of "cult"? There's nothing subversive, nothing of an important social or political nature, technically its quite well made and if it were in English I have no doubt it would be a smash hit. Eraserhead, a true cult classic, this is not. That was a film that would "shock the establishment" with its subjects and styles. The French Kissers will only shock those who are grossed out by public displays of affection by teenagers with pimples.

Now, as I've already said, cult films can be excellent and a few have even gone from cult success to legitimate mainstream success - just look at The Rocky Horror Picture Show for a perfect example. However, cult movies are not made on purpose - and that's certainly not the case with French Kissers - and history has shown that anybody who goes out of their way to make a cult movie is irrevocably doomed to failure. Just look at GrindHouse as a big example of that.

Mainstream audiences, by pure definition, don't want to see cult movies so advertising a film as one is cutting out all but the film geeks. @PalaceFilms says "if it (the use of "cult") suggests Lebowski, Office Space or Napoleon D connotations - ripper Rita." That's all well and good, but Lebowski and Office Space were box office flops and you'll be hard pressed to find anybody who doesn't spend hours a day discussing film who has seen them, let alone liked them. Napoleon Dynamite on the other hand isn't "cult" at all. When your movie is a box office hit and has merchandise in Myer and Target mere months after release, you're no longer cult.

It's why Bruce Campbell has never had a proper career or why Troma films are always bad. They trade on "cult", but the audience for cult - by pure definition - is too small and to scream to everyone that your film is "destined for cult status" is to all but say "this film is destined to be watched on late night cable TV by people who read AICN!" It's a shame though because French Kissers looks better than that and while Lyndon was right in saying that "We can safely assume FRENCHKISSERS is not going to be m-stream hit in Oz," it's still a bad marketing method in my eyes. Why ally yourself with a word associated with failure (warranted or not)?

I've always had an aversion to the word "cult" in any movie marketing for these very reasons. I find it cheap and ultimately unsuccessful. Paranormal Activity hasn't stunted its growth by calling itself an "instant cult hit!" has it? No. If The French Kissers is as good - and as popular in its home country - as I have been lead to believe, why not trumpet that instead of its vague similarities to some movies that nobody saw? I believe I'm seeing The French Kissers next week some time so I'll try and chime in with whether there is anything remotely "cult" about it.

I'd really like to hear your thoughts on the matter, so do chirp up in the comments or on my twitter page.


Dame James said...

Glenn, I totally agree with you. It takes time for a film to achieve a legitimate cult status and it's not something you can set out to do from day one.

Jake said...

There used to be cinemas - e.g. the Valhalla in Melbourne - that devoted themselves exclusively to screening "cult" films, and they did very well. Times have changed, but there are still plenty of people who want to set themselves apart from the mainstream, and appealing to them is a marketing technique as legitimate as any other. Otherwise Vice magazine would go out of business. Whether this makes French Kissers a "cult" film in any meaningful sense is another question.