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Empire Records
Still from "Empire Records"via

How Empire Records bombed, then became a cult hit

It only took 20 years, but Empire Records has smoothly transitioned from total flop to cult classic

Success can have a thousand authors. For films that flounder at the box office, it can be financial and cultural suicide. Best of luck trying to find films bulldozed at the B.O. on Netflix. But long before the last pair of doors shuttered at Blockbuster, sounding the death knell for the straight-to-video industry, shitty films were liable to come back and encounter a ready-made fanbase willing to buoy them up to cult status.

Empire Records was, by all measures, a total flop. On October 20, 1995, the film opened in 87 theatres. It survived two sad weeks, grossing a sigh-worthy $250,000 in that period, and then seemingly sunk with the bite of a young Liv Tyler’s juicy lips. Variety called it “one teen-music effort that never finds a groove. As far as chart action goes, it could use a bullet – to put it out of its B.O. misery. Look for accompanying CD to roll on well past pic’s quick expiration date.” The Guardian said of Liv Tyler: “(Empire Records is) a debut she will wish to forget.”

Imagine suggesting today that a film be gunned down or simply forgotten, only to completely regret your comment 20 years later when it’s – at the very least – an annual watch. It was fundamentally perceived by critics as a soundtrack with accompanying images. Another Teen Movie. However, before the record-store tale could be scrubbed from our collective memories, it reared its head on home video. Empire Records came back, and somehow found an audience of nostalgic enthusiasts only too keen to word-of-mouth it back to life.

Over the course of a single day, a horde of teens with the “coolest job in the world” (hawking records while listening to records) are faced with the impending doom of their beloved record store being sold to Music Town, a big shiny tunes chain that would sanitize the edge out of the business. So no more tats or piercings welcome. Thinking he can rescue Empire Records from its sorry fate, Lucas (Rory Cochrane) takes some cash from the store’s safe, heads to Atlantic City, and attempts to gamble his way to enough cash to buy the store back from the dirty hands of capitalism. That plan backfires, and he heads back empty-handed and forlorn.

Desperate not to surrender to a corporate takeover, the teens hatch a plan on how they can save their hangout. Very much a flick of its time, Empire Records was an unlikely launchpad for young ingénues Liv Tyler and Renée Zellweger. It also cohesively captured slacker culture that dominated 90s films like Mall Rats and Clerks. Now that the internet fetishizes everything that resembles a time when it was great to be alive (i.e. the 90s), it makes complete sense that Empire Records has come out of retirement to enjoy its sunset years as a beloved cult classic. Like Rocky Horror, but less culty.

At 20 years old, new fans are blowing the dust off of old copies kicking around the cellar to VHS-and-chill on Rex Manning Day (a fictitious holiday born out of the film’s plot). Empire Records is back, enjoying its new-found status of The Breakfast Club of the 90s. It may be surface level, but the come-together-against-evil plot serves a purpose: a gateway to how we perceive 90s culture now that the 90s are actually over. It’s got all of the hallmarks of that decade (bare midriffs, The Cranberries) without any of the annoying bits we’d rather forget. And it continues to live on, whoring out its paragons of what it meant to be a Gen-Xer with inoffensive hilarity. Maybe that’s why it’s being venerated. At least it taught us one important phrase that will never lose its relevance: “Damn the man!”