If its first trailer is any indication, Cocaine Bear desperately wants to be you newest favorite cult film. From its gonzo story (bear eats cocaine, bear mauls everyone in its sight) to its campy tone to really just its whole insane vibe, director Elizabeth Banks‘ upcoming action/horror/comedy/animal thriller hybrid makes its mission statement very clear. This is a movie designed for rowdy group watches with friends, midnight showings, and six eventual Blu-ray releases, all with increasingly unhinged cover art. And, hey, god bless everyone involved. I’ll certainly be watching Cocaine Bear as soon as humanly possible. But here’s the rub: Attempting to force a movie into cult-classic status rarely works out, and, in fact, positioning a film as a future cult classic in advance can actively work against that very goal.
The reason why is actually pretty simple: Cult films are not meant to be sold to you as such. Cult films are meant to be discovered. Such has been the way of things for decades and decades of hardcore movies fans. There’s no better feeling than finding that outlandish, low-budget horror movie or chaotic, little-seen Asian action film and gleefully showing it to a friend. And then that friend shows it to another friend. And it eventually spiderwebs out until a true cult classic is born, sometimes years after a film’s original release. Trying to reverse-engineer this hallowed ritual is an extremely risky proposition. Just ask New Line Cinema and the folks who worked on 2006’s Snakes on a Plane, perhaps the most recent notable example of a film being pre-packaged as a cult favorite.
‘Snakes on a Plane’ Proved It’s Tough to Reverse-Engineer a Cult Classic
With an absurd premise, a campy title that screamed “B-movie fun,” and a star – Samuel L. Jackson, in this case – ready to chew all the scenery he could eat, Snakes on a Plane got the hard sell as a “so-bad-it’s-good movie that you just have to see to believe” before it was ever even released. A film-going community that was increasingly more online cackled at the trailers and joked about the movie online – Twitter had just debuted earlier that year – which only fed the marketing beast. The studio chased after the online chatter, even ordering reshoots to bump the film from a PG-13 to an R and to add Jackson’s infamous “I have had it with these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane!” line of dialogue, which sprung from a fake trailer that was widely shared on the Internet. Snakes on a Plane was going to be the next big midnight movie … until, very suddenly, it wasn’t. The movie released to tepid reviews and audience disinterest. It grossed $15 million domestic on its opening weekend, underperforming expectations, and eventually topped out at a meek $62 million worldwide. Ultimately, box office doesn’t necessarily mean much when it comes to a film’s “cult classic” status, but a true cult film does need to live on through its enduring appeal. Unfortunately for Snakes on a Plane, no one really talks about it today in any capacity other than it serving as an odd, Hollywood footnote.
There are a couple of arguments to be made here about why this disconnect happened. One could be that, especially in 2006, online enthusiasm didn’t necessarily translate to general-population enthusiasm. You could also point out that cult movies built to withstand the test of time need to be either good or, at least, fun to watch … and that Snakes on a Plane was neither. But I think it’s also probably fair to say that a studio screaming “THIS MOVIE IS YOUR NEXT BIG GUILTY PLEASURE” isn’t the best method for making it a reality. Nobody wants to be told how to think, and, again, that feeling of discovery has always been crucial to the mystique of the “cult classic.” What’s left to discover about Snakes on a Plane when its most famous line of dialogue was a creation of the Internet before it was actually part of the movie?
Outrageous B-Movies Work Best When the Surprise Is Preserved
This leads into another good point about successful cult movies: It’s best not to know too much about them going in. Take, for example, Malignant – James Wan‘s 2021 gonzo horror film that may not have made waves at the box office but has built an increasingly rabid (and still growing) fan base. Whether Malignant remains enshrined as a classic for years to come remains to be seen, but a big reason it has made such a ruckus with the horror community is because no one went into it knowing what to expect. Even the movie itself largely starts off like a traditional ghost story, not dissimilar to some of Wan’s other horror films like The Conjuring, before veering wildly (and gloriously) into something else entirely. Horror fandom is always great about preserving the surprise with movies like Malignant (or Barbarian or any other movie with big second and third-act reveals). “Don’t read anything about it, just go see it” is a common Internet refrain as word of mouth spreads.
However, this is tough to do when the studio itself can’t help but to spill the goods when trying to market a film as the next big cult film. Take for example M3GAN, the soon-to-release horror film that Wan produced and that largely comes from the Malignant creative team. M3GAN looks to capitalize on the anything-goes, over-the-top plotting that also powered Malignant. But whereas Malignant held its cards close to its vest, letting audiences discover the insanity within, M3GAN has been actively promoting the antics of its short-circuiting killer android, filling its trailers with instantly meme’d images of the robotic doll throwing down some iconic dance moves, machete in hand. Malignant wouldn’t have worked nearly as well had its most crowd-please scenes been teased in advance. Does M3GAN have bigger surprises in store, or will too much have been given away in the trailers, ultimately limiting its word-of-mouth cult appeal?
Will ‘Cocaine Bear’ Be a Cult Classic?
Pretty much every word of caution I’ve advised in this article can be applied to Cocaine Bear. It’s got that overly campy title that pretty much screams its intentions. It’s got a story – extremely loosely based on the real-life story of a bear that was found dead after overdosing on cocaine that was tossed out of an airplane – that sounds B-movie ready. And it’s got a trailer that seemingly gives away a number of fun moments that perhaps could have blown the roof off a movie theater had audiences not already known they were coming. This includes both dialogue (“There was a bear. It was fucked!”) and moments of joyful, gratuitous violence. (Though there could be some misdirection happening, by my count, the trailer spoils up to five murders at the hands of the so-called Cocaine Bear in this movie.) There is no doubt this movie has been designed, engineered, and promoted to be a guilty pleasure/cult smash that fans rewatch and obsess over for years to come. Maybe it will be! But you know what they say about the best-laid plans. And when it comes to creating a film that can both make a dent at the box office and carry with it long-term, B-movie, cult-classic appeal, planning in advance for those outcomes has proven to be a mighty tricky proposition.