What makes a film stand out? It’s an age-old question, but something even the most prolific filmmakers can’t always nail down.
Is it one that dominates the box office for weeks on end? Or a slow-burn, that builds its reputation over time?
One thing is for certain: a great film doesn’t always need a great big budget.
In fact, it really doesn’t even need to make any money in order to stand the test of time.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show was originally released in eight cities and then pulled quickly from screens due to low ticket sales, but it went on to become one of the most influential and culturally relevant films in history.
Conversely, some of the highest grossing films that burst into theatres have since faded from cultural memory like a very average, uninspiring fever-dream.
Mallrats was released in 1995 and grossed just $AUD3 million worldwide, compared to Batman Forever, which earned over $AUD490 million and was one of the year’s most popular films.
25 years, and countless other Batman adaptations later, the hype around Batman Forever has fallen to a whisper. The Val Kilmer blockbuster that packed theatres received a negligible 32 per cent on movie review site Rotten Tomatoes.
Meanwhile, it seems Mallrats has finally come into its own, achieving quirky, cult status and a glorious Rotten Tomatoes rating of 82 per cent.
Zak Hepburn, film critic and general manager of Melbourne’s iconic Astor Theatre, said the difference between a blockbuster and a cult film is when and how it is embraced.
“Cult films often take a while to obtain that cult status — people don’t set out to make a cult film but they do set out to make a blockbuster,” Mr Hepburn said.
“People get swept up in films sometimes when they get released, and then they’ll look back on them and think maybe they weren’t that crash hot to begin with.”
According to Mr Hepburn, anniversaries and movie milestones are the perfect time to review a film’s success and wider cultural reception.
Hindsight has a lot to offer when trying to explore how smaller, indie films have held their own alongside blockbuster films like Se7en and Die Hard with a Vengeance.
“Anniversaries are real poignant times to look back and reflect on why they connected with audiences when they did, and why they didn’t connect with audiences, and subsequent years have been kind to some films and they’ve also been quite cruel.
“Something like Welcome to the Dollhouse was very much ahead of its time, that film was released primarily on the smaller arthouse circuit, and it takes some time for audiences to locate that film and engage with its themes,” Mr Hepburn said.
“It was universally despised upon release and then subsequently earned that cult status, and I think that’s purely through word of mouth.”
Welcome to the Dollhouse resembles Mallrats in that both films were consumed by critics early on, only to slowly grow their fan-bases over the last two and a half decades.
“And I think that’s purely through word of mouth, I don’t think that film could connect with the right audiences when it was released and it required that fan base that was built around it to spread the word,” Mr Hepburn said.
“Films sometimes take their time to find their right time and their right audience, and while it may not be the case when they’re initially released they usually do find the audience that will cherish them and be the advocate that that film needs.”