We mathematically identified the biggest cult movies

Little did they know.
Little did they know.
Image: Reuters/Rose Prouser
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When the movie Donnie Darko was released in 2001 hardly anybody watched it. The science-fiction flick starring Jake Gyllenhaal made only made $2 million in theaters (in 2018 dollars). Today, it is considered by many a modern classic—particularly among college kids looking to expand their minds.

Donnie Darko is part of a grand tradition of cult classics—movies ignored when they were released that simmer their way to becoming popular and sometimes revered. And Donnie Darko, according to our admittedly flawed mathematical analysis, might just be the number-one cult movie of the last several decades in the US.

In order to quantify cult movies in the US, we turned to IMDb, a source for finding out all sorts of information about a movie, from who directed it to how much money it made. The site also gives fans an opportunity to rate films. The number of votes a movie has received, which includes both positive and negative assessments, is a good proxy for how popular and passionate people are about a film. The movies with the most votes ever are The Shawshank Redemption, The Dark Knight, and Inception.

To figure out which movies were the biggest cult hits, we divided the number of votes a movie received on IMDb by the movies’ box office during its run in theaters. For example, the movie Reservoir Dogs has about 805,000 votes on IMDb and made about $5 million (all numbers in this post are in 2018 dollars), so it received a score of 159,000. We included movies released from 1980 to 2010 that received at least 500,000 votes on IMDb, and had a theatrical release in the US. (Data as of Feb. 5, 2019.)

Ranking cult movies released from 1980-2010 

The biggest issue with our analysis is that IMDb voters skew heavily male and young, and towards people who spend a lot of time on the internet. Of voters who identified their race and age, only 15% of the people who voted on The Shawshank Redemption were women, and almost 90% of all voters were younger than 45. A movie like Eternal Sunshine of Spotless Mind, for example, which received 25% of its votes from women, might rank higher if the site had a more even gender balance.

What are the next cult classics likely to be? According to the data, it seems the the Danish thriller The Hunt and the dystopic science-fiction film Snowpiercer are on their way to a surprising afterlife. The following table shows the 10 movies released from 2011 to 2017 with over 200,000 votes that have the highest cult scores:

Potential cult movies released from 2011-2017

*This movie was a major hit in France.