Wet Hot American Summer is a wonderfully campy movie about the last day of a fictional summer camp. When it was first released in 2001, it was a complete flop at the box office. But in the intervening years, it has amassed a cult following. Capitalizing on this, Netflix reunited the cast for a prequel miniseries that was released this summer. As I was watching it, what struck me is that it seemed as though every cast member had gone on to become massively successful since the movie’s initial release. So that made me wonder…
Are the cast members of Wet Hot American Summer unusually successful?
Now, before I can answer that question, I have to clarify it. That is, are the cast members unusually successful relative to whom? I figured that the most apt comparison would be to compare Wet Hot American Summer (WHAS) to other cult classic comedies. My specific question is this: are the actors from WHAS more successful than the actors from other cult classic comedies? To make sure the comparison is fair, we’ll be looking at the same time point for all the movies–14 years after the movie’s initial release–which means we’ll be comparing WHAS to other movies released in 2001 or earlier.
Now that I have my question, the first step is to collect the data. First, I’ll need a list of cult classic comedies so I have some movies for comparison. Off to Wikipedia I went, where I found this list of cult films and used the Wikipedia API to retrieve them. This isn’t exactly what I need though — many of these films aren’t comedies — so I’ll need to filter the list. In order to do this, I submitted a new API request for each movie title, which retrieved the categories associated with each movie’s Wikipedia page. If any of those categories included the text “comedy” it was counted as one.
Since my question is about the actors in each movie, my next steps are to retrieve the cast list for each cult classic comedy, and then retrieve each actor’s credits so I can see how many movies they were in before and after the cult classic. My first thought was that IMDb would be the perfect place to retrieve this data, but as it turns out, they don’t have an API! Although there are many substitute APIs, not all of them contained the information I needed; in the end, I ended up using The Movie Database API.
Once I had my list of movie credits for every actor in every cult classic comedy, it was time to clean up and analyze the data. First, I used the lubridate R package to calculate the interval between the cult classic movie release date and the release dates of the actor’s other credits, and removed any post-cult-classic movies whose interval was longer than the interval between WHAS and WHAS: First Day of Camp (the prequel released in 2015). Then, using the dplyr R package, I tallied the number of movies credited to each actor before and after the cult classic comedy. Let’s look at that data now. Below, I’ve plotted on a log-scale the number of movies attributed to each actor before the cult classic (x) and after the cult classic (y). Each dot is an actor, with pink dots representing actors in WHAS and blue dots representing actors in other movies. Since there are so many blue data points, each blue dot is semi-transparent. Dark blue dots, like those in the bottom left, indicate that there are many data points at that position. Although there are some pink dots scattered throughout, there are a bunch at or near the top of the chart, the highest of which are labeled. Bradley Cooper, who had not been in any movies prior to WHAS, tops all other actors with no prior credits — he’s since been in 36 movies. But even more experienced actors are at or near the top when compared to actors with similar experience. Paul Rudd, who had 14 credits before WHAS, appeared in 41 more after. He’s beat out only by Salman Khan, a Bollywood actor with 46 credits after Andaz Apna Apna. Based on this plot, it’s looking like WHAS is actually pretty unusual in terms of its actors’ future success.
To verify this, the last step was to calculate a value that represented how much more successful an actor became after the cult classic comedy. Critically, this value needed to be specified with respect to their Pre-Cult-Classic-Comedy success. Why is this the case?
Imagine the following scenario:
- Mr. Success stars in 10 films before he appears in a cult classic, after which he stars in 15 more
- Mr. Nobody has been in 0 films before he appears in a cult classic, and appears in 5 movies after
Although the raw difference in scores is the same for Mr. Success (15 – 10 = 5) and Mr. Nobody (5 – 0 = 5), Mr. Nobody clearly got a bigger popularity bump from his cult classic credit than Mr. Success did. In order to account for this, I calculated a “Movie Change Index” which was defined as (Post – Pre) / (Pre + 1). The +1 in the denominator is so you don’t get any divide by zero errors for actors whose first movie was the cult classic.
The plot below shows the distribution of Movie Change scores for WHAS and other movies. Note that the y-axis is the Density of the distribution, rather than a raw value. In other words, it represents what proportion of the actors in that distribution have a particular Movie Change score. Both distributions show peaks at the low end of the scale — which is to say that most actors are about as successful after their cult classic comedy than they were before. And in fact, since WHAS lists 52 credited actors (many of whom we probably wouldn’t even remember from the movie, like individual campers), about 70% of the WHAS actors fall into this range as well. But what’s notable is how many WHAS actors appear out at the far right tail of the distribution. All of the labeled bumps are WHAS actors whose Movie Change score was greater than 5. These are the superstar graduates of WHAS, of whom Bradley Cooper is the valedictorian. His Movie Change score of 36 is the highest of the entire dataset. There are only 3 non-WHAS actors between him and Joe Lo Truglio: Paul Guilfoyle (Howard the Duck), Oliver Platt (Married to the Mob) and Timothy Olyphant (First Wives Club).
Finally, let’s compare the mean Movie Change score for WHAS to other movies. As I mentioned earlier, WHAS has a whopping 52 credits, far more than most other movies, and since most of those 52 actors have low scores, it will drag down the mean. To account for this, I looked at the top 5, 10, 15, and 20 Movie Change scores for WHAS and compared them to the top 5, 10, 15, and 20 Movie Change scores from actors from other movies (excluding movies that did not have enough credited actors). No matter how you restrict the size, WHAS always comes out on top.
So, coming back to my initial question, are the cast members of WHAS unusually successful? My answer is YES. Not only did WHAS provide the biggest bump to any individual actor (Bradley Cooper), but it provided the biggest average bump to its top 20 actors. As far as cult classic comedies go, it’s in a class unto itself.
To view the R code and data, hop on over to GitHub