"Cult" is a word that people were saying...a cult is popular as well, of course. You can't have a show that's just weird, that no-one watches. That's not cult, that's just...maybe a bad show that no-one wants to watch.
The air that every Geek breathes, a Cult Classic is a film or other work which has a devoted, even if sometimes small, fanbase. Some Cult Classics are obscure commercial failures at the time of their premiere which have since then successfully attracted a fanbase, even to the extent of becoming moneyspinners. Although this is the common public perception to a Cult Classic, some Cult movies were in fact box-office successes at the time but maintained a cult following long after public interest has moved onto the next flavour of the month. It's probably for this reason that some films with a strong cult following (eg The Blues Brothers) are sometimes wrongly assumed to have been unsuccessful at their time of release.
Cult classics have an unusual shelf life, and seemingly avert the Popularity Polynomial completely. Rather than receiving a short but large burst of popularity before ultimately fading completely into obscurity, cult classics receive a marginal amount of attention almost indefinitely. It's a good bet that a show or movie considered a cult classic 30 years ago will still be such today.
Though some movie studios have intentionally tried to position releases as Cult-Classics-To-Be (like MirrorMask and Snakes on a Plane), perhaps hiring a bunch of cult actors and funky music, it is not usually successful. A true Cult Classic is as rare as capturing lightning in a bottle.
Note that not all cult classics are actually good. Although many of them are, or at least, are remembered as such. In fact, many cult classics are hilariously bad — which is why their fans adore them. These are sometimes called "Camp Classics".
See also Too Good to Last, though this extends to every medium. See also Critical Dissonance when the critics hate it, and Critic Proof when...the critics hate it, also. If it's a critical darling on the art-house circuit, but has no following beyond that, that's the other kind of Critical Dissonance. Contrast Quality By Popular Vote, which is the inverse trope. Compare Stoner Flick and/or B-Movienote Not all B Movies have a cult following; see page quote. Stoner Flicks are usually considered cult, however.
Often the term "cult" is (perhaps) inaccurately applied to anything that is both old and has a devoted fan following, even if it was popular at the time. If the devoted fan following is rooted in it being both old and critically-acclaimed, and thus popular with fans of classic works in general (e.g. The Marx Brothers), it probably doesn't count.
Also note that "cult classic" is an affectionate English expression for a work of this type, and does not mean that it's a "classic" in the same sense of, say, a "classic novel" or "essential work". Unless the fandom are surrounded by a sea of indifference, such usage is too broad to be meaningful, so works such as Star Wars don't count. Otherwise, the phrase would be meaningless, as Roger Ebert has noted in lamenting its misuse, since it does carry certain genre-specific connotations.
The word "classic" may also be seen as an intensifier of sorts, implying works that have become seen as cult over the years, similar to a Sleeper Hit — due to factors such as Audience Participation, Notable Quotables, or other engrossing aspects that attract a select audience who proselytize fervently and disdain non-believers.
One good measurement to use when in doubt, is critical consensus. If a work is commonly described by critics as quirky, fringe, bizarre or off-putting to newcomers, and therefore "cult", then that meets the definition of the trope. If this is actually used as a selling point, then that is a good sign. An even better sign is if critics debate whether or not it's still cult.
On The Other Wiki, "something of a cult classic" (exact words, always; see for yourself) is a well-worn Justifying Edit.
Note that most of these cult classics have their own pages already. Yes, we are collectively that geeky.
When a cult classic actually does become popular, expect geeks to complain It's Popular, Now It Sucks.
A standard guide in the cult film genre is Danny Peary Cult Movies List.
When listing works by the same author, please don't list, say, the entire filmography of a director with a cult reputation. A cult classic should have a small but devout following in the absence of widespread current popular acclaim, in addition to the work itself meeting the definition of the trope. Only list those works by a given author for which the label is justified.
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Anime and Manga
The medium as a whole everywhere except Japan (especially in North America).
AKIRA, a.k.a. the definitive cult anime in the English-speaking world. Released in Japan to relatively little fanfare in 1988, it gradually began to pick up popularity in the US and UK during the 90s as the dubbed VHS tapes were circulated among schoolboys, students, sci-fi and animation fans, until by 2001 it was such an underground phenomenon that the US distributor reportedly spent over $1 million on a film restoration and new dub for its DVD release, and recent months have seen large portions of the Internet (even outside the anime fan community) in an uproar over a controversial proposed Hollywood adaptation. It is often credited with single-handedly creating the overseas market for adult-targeted anime and paving the way for other international hits like Ghost in the Shell.
Neon Genesis Evangelion (about as mainstream as anime can get in Japan, but a cult phenomenon in the West, even among anime fans)
Berserk Is very well known in the manga and anime fandom for its high quality, but it still defines this trope because of its ultra violent, semi pornographic and all out grimdark nature that keeps it from ever becoming mainstream.
In the United States, practically every well-respected anime that aired on [adult swim] last decade has developed a cult following as a result. Many of these have eventually become mainstream, as have many of Toonami's (see below) anime programs.
Axis Powers Hetalia is shaping up to become one similarly to Afganisu-tan. Although its popularity has exploded considerably since its origins as a webcomic, it does have cult followings in different parts of the world, including Poland, Russia and the Philippines.
Dash! Yonkuro! and Bakusou Kyoudai Lets And Go didn't get exported to America, and they were forgotten after the shows ended, though there are still groups of people in Europe and Asia who read/watch these anime and play their mini-4wds, which is what these series encouraged them to do in the first place.
Fist of the North Star has become a cult favorite among aficionados for "manly" post-apocalyptic action. It also has a rather persistent fandom in France of all places, where it's called Ken le Survivant (literally "Ken the Survivor").
The Mysterious Cities of Gold was popular in France and the UK, but it has a cult following around the world, primarily in the US and Japan (the latter of which it was made in and bombed with audiences, preventing the creation of later seasons).
One Piece for America. After 4Kids' Cut-and-Paste Translation drew away most of its potential audience, Funimation's significantly more faithful dub has been working to gradually win them back. A rare case in that it's not as lesser known in most other countries (especiallynot Japan).
Among American audiences, Teknoman (the English adaptation of Tekkaman Blade). Despite its questionable quality, fans loved it to the point that Tekkaman Blade II was frowned on despite staying more faithful to the source material.
Since Most Fanfic Writers Are Fans, fanfiction in general falls under this. Even the most-well known fanfics are usually intended for and read by a subset of an existing fandom.
The Tamers Forever Series could be seen as a Cult Classic among Digimon fan fiction circles. It's not as well known as some other Digifics out there, But it is absolutely adored by those who have read it. (Just look at the reviews Silent Sorrow recieved)
The Rocky Horror Picture Show is the definitive example, without a doubt. Even though the movie only sold well at a single theater upon its release, it then opened for a weekly midnight run in 1978...and it's still running.
Burns suppers may be either formal or informal. Informal suppers typically include haggis (a traditional Scottish dish), Scotch whisky and the recitation of Burns' poetry. Formal dinners are hosted by organisations such as Burns clubs... and occasionally end with dancing when ladies are present. However whether they are single sex or not, the formal suppers follow a standard format.
Survivor: The few few seasons were extremely popular and ushered in the rise of Reality TV, but Survivor has become this over time. There was an article from a few years ago(I can't recall what site it came from) that proclaimed that it has one of the most devoted fandom's in American television.
Despite Andrew Lloyd Webber's attempts to disown Starlight Express, the musical has attracted a small but extremely dedicated fanbase, many members of which dress up as the characters a la The Rocky Horror Picture Show, interact with the actors backstage, and travel throughout cities and overseas to attend as many productions as possible.
The Haunted Mansion's following is even larger then that of Pirates. The vague story open to interpretation is the perfect fodder for fanfiction and spin-off works alike, the incredible details in the atraction offer a lot of things to discuss, with an entire blog and series of Mice Chat threads dedicated to dissecting the attraction.
Although it was closed after eight years of operation for scaring the pants off of too many little children, the Extraterrorestrial Alien Encounter at Walt Disney World has a loyal following who admire the attraction for its dark humor and rich atmosphere.
Disney's film The Wind in the Willows was based on...the book. It came out in 1949, while the ride (and Disneyland itself) are from six years later. The 1996 adaptation of Kenneth Grahame's book was then titled Mr. Toad's Wild Ride in the US, presumably so people would make a connection to the Disney ride.
The Great Movie Ride.
Drachen Fire was a steel roller coaster at Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Virginia. The ride was infamous for being very rough and encountered many problems during its lifetime. It opened in 1992 and closed in 1998, the park attempted to re-open the coaster in 2002 but failed and ended up demolishing it. Despite the ride's many problems, it had/still has a cult following by coaster enthusiasts and fans of the park.
The Neverhood didn't exactly blow the bank at its time of release, thanks to the adventure game genre's slow descent to obscurity that had begun a few years prior, but the game still manages to uphold a considerable cult following thanks to its charming art style, quirky sense of humour and Terry Scott Taylor's fantastic soundtrack. Especially in Japan and Poland.
The Tales Series has had a couple commercially successful installments in America, to varying extents, but the series overall outside Japan is very much a dedicated niche. Not helped by how many of the games don't leave Japan to begin with.
Yume Nikki; a strange, little freeware game by un unheard of Japanese creator, too large to be browser-based, and only distributed by the fans, yet it has generated no less than two dozen fangames (all of which can be seen here), massive amounts of Wild Mass Guessing, and an incredible amount of Memetic Mutation. And the game's only been released as Version 0.1.
Futurama (Not as popular in the mainstream as The Simpsons, but still has an obsessive cult following)
Gargoyles. It only lasted two seasons note Plus one non-canonical one made after Disney fired the original creator and it's been off the air since 1997, but a small, devoted group of fans was organizing conventions up until 2009. Fan demand even managed to get the show resurrected as a comic book series about nine years after it was cancelled, thought it only ran for for 18 issues.
Teen Titans was decently popular for a while, but was widely bashed by a lot of comic and superhero fans for its more unusual style, and turned into the Butt Monkey of Cartoon Network. However, even years after its cancellation, it still has a fiercely loyal fanbase.
Video Games used to fall under this, being seen as the exclusive domain of children and nerds. In the last decade, however, the success of products like the Nintendo Wii and iPhone App Store, as well as franchises like Halo, Grand Theft Auto, Madden NFL, Call of Duty and World of Warcraft, have made video games a much more commonplace and socially acceptable pastime. Still, most games apart from big-name franchises remain relatively obscure in mainstream popular culture.
Gamebooks have a small, but incredibly devoted following of readers, authors, bloggers, and programmers who kept the medium alive and thriving to this day.