Editorial: The Rise and Fall of Cult Status

     August 19, 2011


Look back on this week.  How many times did you directly or indirectly reference a movie or TV show you like?  Did you wear a T-shirt with some sly reference or did you simply make an offhanded quote?  Our world has become drenched in allusions to the entertainment we enjoy and it can dominate our dialogue as our identity becomes more and more entrenched with brands and our identities entwined what we enjoy.  A recent study published in the Journalism of Consumer Psychology [via BoingBoing] concluded that criticism of a brand caused personal offense to the supporters of that brand.  Or, as Devindra Hardawar put it, “Fanboys explained.”  It’s the same way religion functions except now zealots worship at the altar pop culture and, even more fervently, entertainment that landed outside the mainstream.

This editorial will explore the latter and the irony of how a fandom’s fervent devotion and popularization of a cult property can drive off an original adherent.

big-lebowski-blu-ray-cover-01The most important thing in a cult property’s life is that the movie or TV show not hit the mainstream when it arrives.  Of course, there are outliers.  Star Wars was a monster hit when it hits theaters and the franchise has stayed that way ever since.  Star Trek, on the other hand, slowly amassed its now gigantic fanbase over the course of 45 years.  But now both titles are both firmly in the mainstream.  Instead, I will look at two properties and how their popularity has caused me to drop the torch I used to bear for them.

In 1998, The Big Lebowski hit theaters and despite being the Coen Brothers’ follow up to their critically acclaimed and modestly successful Fargo, Lebowski flew under the radar.  It made $20 million at the box office and then it simmered outside the popular conscience.  If it had been released later in the year and Gramercy Pictures had made the push, it could have probably landed a couple Oscar nominations, in particular for John Goodman and Jeff Bridges.  But that’s neither here nor there.  In 1998, The Big Lebowski was nowhere close to as popular as it is now.

I was proud to have seen the film when it was still in theaters.  It wasn’t because the film demands to be seen in theaters (although Roger Deakins’ cinematography is, as always, superb), but because it was good to be an early adopter of a great movie. I believe that The Big Lebowski‘s small scale of quotable dialogue and memorable performances is what allowed it to live on home video.  You could re-watch the movie over and over again and a new aspect would come to life or a quote you never really cared about before would suddenly become your favorite.  And because of its rising popularity, Lebowski has that rare honor where almost every line of dialogue is quotable (Personally, I will never be able to hear the word “rug” again without saying “It really tied the room together.”).

This week, there was a live reunion event for The Big Lebowski as the film had yet another special edition release on home video.  If you’re wondering why we keep getting those, it’s because the movie’s home video sales have probably made twenty times what the film earned at the box office.  And I contributed to those sales.  I bought the movie on VHS in 1998, I bought it when it first hit DVD, I bought the special edition DVD, and I’ll buy the new Blu-ray.  The movie hasn’t changed and I’m not a special feature hound, but I love the movie and I’m idiotically going to keep buying it simply because there’s a “better” version now on sale.

lebowski-fest-01But I’m no longer a champion for the movie.  I have over 400 DVDs and a slowly growing shelf of Blu-rays and it’s not because I’m constantly re-watching movies.  It’s because I want to share the movies I like with my friends.  It’s a library and I know that someone is more likely to watch a movie I lend them as opposed to telling them to put it in their Netflix queue or buy it sight unseen.  In high school I would hang out with friends and share The Big Lebowski with them.  I still remember showing the flick to a friend and how he almost died laughing when Walter scatters Donnie’s ashes and they land on Dude.

The Big Lebowski no longer needs me as its champion.  It’s arrived in the mainstream and I should be happy for that and, to an extent, I am.  I’m happy that the movie not only found an audience but grew that audience exponentially over the years.  I’m in no way taking responsibility for that accomplishment.  I contributed insofar as sharing the movie with my circle of friends just as other early adopters shared it with their circle of friends and it slowly grew to where it now has an annual fest and the aforementioned live reunion event.  But now the question I have for people is no longer “Have you seen The Big Lebowski” but instead “You haven’t seen The Big Lebowski?”  It’s like loving Star Wars.  It’s warranted but you’re just another member of a massive fan base.

firefly-dvd-box-cover-01The other case study is Firefly.  Like Lebowski, I think Firefly is great.  I re-watched the whole series a few months ago and I still loved every episode.  But its fandom is  different from Lebowski in that its adherents revel in the property’s cult status and want to keep it in the cult.  One of the show’s greatest strengths in its ongoing fandom is that it was canceled before it even finished its first season.  The show is like a child who died and all anyone can remember is how full of life he or she was and all the unrealized potential we’ll never see.  And then that kid came back from the dead, got a two hour movie, and died again.


Unlike Lebowski, I’ve become uncomfortable supporting Firefly because its fandom makes me a little sad.  They call themselves “Browncoats” as a reference to the rebels who lost the war against the alliance.  They’re the perpetual underdogs, identifying with the defeated and their special show that will never hit the mainstream. It will never become the powerful “Alliance” and I think the fans like it that way.

I don’t care much for that attitude and I know that may seem hypocritical.  How can I be upset about Lebowski‘s widespread acceptance and then turn around and criticize Firefly fans for wanting to hold onto their property?  I believe the key difference is that why I may be personally bummed that my work on championing Lebowski is done, I’m happy it hit the mainstream and found the audience it deserved.

I feel that Browncoats are selfish and also slightly gullible.  Granted, they’re in an untenable position.  Lebowski is a complete work.  It has a beginning, middle, and end.  Firefly was canceled and there’s an understandable yearning for more and that more will never happen.  Not only will the series never be revived, but it had its shot with the movie and the movie flopped.  But I believe that the flop coincides with the ethos of the fanbase: we’re special, we love something unique, and no one appreciates it but us.

Serenity was for the fans.  Those fans could vote with their dollars all they wanted, but its failure at the box office and middling success on home video proves there was no mainstream appeal for the movie.  And perhaps Universal knew this so they made a clever ploy at pumping up their box office: they offered fans the chance to see an unfinished cut.  These were basically test screenings, but unlike regular test screenings, they catered to a specific audience rather than gauge how the movie played across demographics, and more importantly, fans had to pay to get in.  It’s opportunistic to sell fans an unfinished film, but those fans jumped at the opportunity.  The tickets sold out in minutes.  There was no encouragement to bring a friend and there was a haphazard guess that fans could somehow spread their enthusiasm to non-Browncoats by word of mouth.  And maybe the fans thought that they could support the movie with their dollars alone.  But there weren’t enough fans to power another Firefly movie and I think the fans liked it that way: defeated but righteous.** I don’t mind identifying with the underdog.  I mind identifying with folks who romantically cling to the notion that lost causes are the best causes.

serenity-movie-poster-01I’ll admit that it’s irrational to not like it when people like the things that I like.  But there is something enjoyable when not everyone in the room gets the reference.  It’s a good feeling when you can identify a shared interest with someone based on a single line of dialogue. And the more esoteric the reference***, the more you’ve shown you’re one of the true believers, or at least until there’s too many true believers or the other true believers get on your nerves.

*The nominees that year were:

James Coburn for Affliction

Robert Duvall for A Civil Action

Ed Harris for The Truman Show

Geoffrey Rush for Shakespeare in Love

Billy Bob Thornton for A Simple Man

Raise your hand if you remembered that Geoffrey Rush was even in Shakespeare in Love.

**Anyone who argues that Serenity was intended to wrap up the series is deluded.  Fans wanted Firefly to be the next Star Trek and spawn a film franchise.  Furthermore, if Serenity had been a box office hit, do you honestly think that Universal, Joss Whedon, and the cast would have balked at the prospect of making more?

***I should mention that I wrote this review while wearing a T-shirt for the Sheinhardt Wig Company.  It’s a reference to a single episode of 30 Rock.  That’s how far down the reference rabbit hole I’ve gone.