Many films now considered "cult movies" came to achieve this status through repeat screenings at independent repertory cinemas, usually very late at night. Such films were cheaper for theaters to hire than current releases, often since their ownership had fallen into public domain. It became traditional, during the 1950s and 60s, to begin showing these films at midnight, when audience attendance was lower, and sensibilities often less discriminating. However, the first movie to be "officially" shown at a midnight screening was odd drama El Topo ( The Mole , Alexandro Jodorosky, 1970), which was discovered by Ben Barenholtz, booker for the Elgin theater in New York, at a Museum of Modern Art screening. Barenholtz allegedly persuaded the film's distributor to allow him to play it at midnight at the Elgin, because—as the poster announced—the film was "too heavy to be shown any other way." The disturbing film was a runaway success, and midnight premieres of offbeat movies eventually became (with varying degrees of success) a regular aspect of distribution, initially in New York and later elsewhere. The aim of the concept was to provide a forum for unusual, eccentric, or otherwise bizarre movies. The audience for these films generally tended to be those who were not averse to going out to see a film in the middle of the night—usually a younger group of urban movie fans not easily put off by unconventional themes or scenes of drug use, nudity, or violence. Indeed, many of the midnight movies that attained cult success did so because they transgressed various social taboos. For example, when its run had come to an end, El Topo was followed at the Elgin by Pink Flamingos (John Waters, 1972), which had late-night audiences lined up around the block. In fact, all of the films of John Waters eventually became staples of the midnight movie circuit, especially Polyester (1981) and Hairspray (1988), with their grotesque vignettes held together by the loosest of narratives and a bizarre cast of garish grandmothers and oddballs, generally led by the overweight transvestite Divine.
One of the most significant midnight movies was Eraserhead (1977), the nightmarish first film made by cult director David Lynch (b. 1946), which contained a series of disturbing images in a postapocalyptic setting. Lynch went on to make other movies that soon developed cult followings, including Blue Velvet (1986) and Wild at Heart (1990), both filled with dark, odd, ambiguous characters. Other important movies that gradually developed cult followings after years on the midnight circuit include Freaks (1932), Night of the Living Dead (1968), The Evil Dead (1981), and Re-Animator (1985).
Essentially, the real key to the success of a midnight movie was the film's relationship with its audience and the slavish devotion of its fans. Perhaps the most successful midnight movie of all time was Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), a low-budget film adaptation of Richard O'Brien's glam stage hit about two square lovebirds who enter the realm of an outrageous Gothic transsexual. A failure when it was first released, midnight screenings at the Waverly Theater in New York City quickly established Rocky Horror as an aberrant smash, starting a trend in audiences for interactive entertainment. As the film garnered a significant cult following over the late 1970s and early 1980s, audiences began to arrive at the theater dressed in costume, carrying various props to wave and throw in the aisles as they yelled responses to characters' lines and joined in singing and dancing to the musical numbers onscreen.
VCR and DVD viewing, network and cable television, and pay-per-view stations have significantly changed the nature of cult film viewing. Many movies that failed to find an audience upon original theatrical release now often gain cult followings through video rentals and sales. Today, word-of-mouth popularity can lead a formerly obscure film to gain a whole new audience on its video release, allowing it to earn considerably more in DVD sales than it did at the theater.