Cult movies come about in different ways. Some, like "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," happen because their particular brand of badness lends itself to celebration. Others, such as "The Big Lebowski," reach cult status due to a matching of style and fan base. The strangeness attracts a following, and that following spreads the word.
"The Interview" is the latest film to make a case for cult status. As the Seth Rogen-Evan Goldberg comedy about the fictional killing of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was dropped by theater chains and Sony Pictures last week, the movie has gone from midsize Christmas release to forbidden holiday fruit. It's currently be one of the best-known cultural products in the world, but it also is a movie without a home, adding to its novelty and fueling curiosity.
On Monday, a number of smaller theatrical entities said they would show "The Interview" if given the opportunity, while large theater chains remained silent. A small stage company in New York, Treehouse Theater, said it was organizing an impromptu live reading of the movie's script this weekend.
The embrace by a more independent arts community at the expense of the corporate film business is a critical development for the Sony production. How "The Interview" is consumed will go a long way toward determining not just the commercial but the cultural fate of the film, which has morphed into something very different from the broad studio comedy as it was once conceived.
Whether it takes on the attributes of a cult movie, however, is a trickier question.
"The Interview," observers note, lacks the stylistic character of many cult movies — far from bizarre or campy, its jokes are largely of the mainstream studio variety. No dudes abide, few scenes lend themselves to "Rocky Horror"-style talk-backs.
What the film does have is an exotic setting. It's rare that any mainstream entertainment product deals so irreverently with something as serious as oppression. "The Interview" contains the requisite bathroom humor and celebrity-culture sendups, sure, but they take place amid the food shortages, propaganda and megalomania of Kim's North Korea.
That setting is what gives the film its allure — and in turn has contributed to its de-facto banning in the United States and commentary from President Obama, who chastised Sony for backing down. It is also what has made the film both a rallying point for 1st Amendment defenders and a giant Sony headache.
After some fits and starts, Sony Pictures' Chief Executive Michael Lynton has said the company is committed to releasing it, and Sony lawyer David Boies appeared on "Meet the Press" Sunday to assure viewers the film was on its way, somehow, someday. "It's going to be distributed," he vowed.
Reports have already surfaced of a possible online release via Sony platform Crackle, a move that would circumvent the problem of persuading a large outside platform such as iTunes or Netflix to take it on. But Sony has knocked down those reports.
An alliance of independent movie theaters known as Art House Convergence said Monday that its members are willing to screen the film. The group, which puts on an annual conference for independent cinemas, posted an open letter to Sony on the website Change.org, expressing support for the beleaguered film as well as for the studio that was crippled by a cyberattack nearly a month ago. The U.S. blames the North Korean government for the attack, though Pyongyang authorities deny responsibility.
"We implore our fellow exhibitors and our nation of moviegoers to stand up in recognition that freedom of speech and artistic expression are vital not only to the entertainment industry but for all art and commerce worldwide," wrote Russell Collins, the Art House Convergence's director, in the letter.
Locally, the co-owner of Laemmle Theaters, which operates seven cinemas in Los Angeles County, also said he would play "The Interview."
"I think we're all upset with the idea that a bunch of people sitting at their computer screens can do this," said Greg Laemmle, who signed the Convergence's petition. "Without the support of the major circuits, it's going to be very difficult to come up with a release strategy that makes a difference. But I suppose there is some way to put it in movie theaters and show this cannot be stopped."
There were other calls for Sony to show the film. "Game of Thrones" author George R.R. Martin has said his own small theater, the Jean Cocteau Cinema in Santa Fe, N.M., would "be glad" to screen "The Interview," calling the decision not to screen the movie "a stunning display of corporate cowardice." Sony had no comment on the statements from the Art House Convergence and Martin.
Niche screenings play into what kind of movie "The Interview" can become — seen and beloved by hard-core supporters of both Rogen and the 1st Amendment, turning it into an object of cult fascination.
But another scenario is possible: Sony could still put the film into wide release. That would give "The Interview" a very different vibe.
Of all the potentially comparable situations, the fate Sony most wants to avoid is that of "The Day the Clown Cried." Jerry Lewis' infamous dark comedy about the Holocaust has never seen the light of day and almost certainly never will. Lewis himself has said he is embarrassed by the film and has marshaled his legal rights to ensure it is never released, even though fans still ask him about it 40 years later.
A similar dynamic is at work with "The Interview." No matter how much it's liked, if the film is released in any mass way, the novelty vanishes--and with it, so does the cult status.
Among the unusual mix of supporters encouraging theaters to show "The Interview" is Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus.
"As a sign of my commitment," he told executives of large theater chains in a letter, "if you agree to show this movie, I will send a note to the Republican Party's millions of donors and supporters urging them to buy a ticket — not to support one movie or Hollywood, but to show North Korea we cannot be bullied into giving up our freedom."