How Has 'The Shawshank Redemption' Held Its IMDb Crown For So Long?

What is the best film ever made? Don't think too long about that question, or the various ways in which it could be broken down regarding "best" vs. "favorite." Though many of us can likely agree on some of the greatest films ever made, we each have different answers about what is or isn't the best ever, hands down. Online, where people never agree about anything pop-culture-related, it might seem even harder to find consensus on this kind of question. But one of the most reliable sources of movie-industry information, the Internet Movie Database, is well known for its IMDb Top 250, listing out the 250 films rated highest by its users. And for a long time, the number-one film on that list has been the same: The Shawshank Redemption.

They Send You Here for Life

Today marks the 25th anniversary of a film that, when it was released, didn't seem like it was going to find its way onto a lot of people's lists of the best films ever made, let alone as the best ever. Shawshank, an adaptation of the Stephen King short story "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption," was not the kind of film that felt like a home-run from the outside in. On one hand, it was based on a story from one of the most famous living writers. However, the long-titled story of an aloof banker serving a double-murder sentence in a New England prison, all while maintaining his innocence, didn't automatically sound like a story from the guy behind Cujo and The ShiningShawshank was a film with an almost entirely all-male cast, led by two well-respected actors, Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, who were not known as box-office smashes. Shawshank was from a first-time feature director, Frank Darabont; it was released through the mid-tier studio Castle Rock; and it had the misfortune to open in the fall of 1994 opposite the much buzzier and instantly-beloved film Pulp Fiction. All of these details are likely why, when The Shawshank Redemption left theaters in November of 1994, it had only grossed $16 million domestically against a budget of $25 million. At first glance, Shawshank was a mild flop, in spite of its positive reviews.Perhaps it's fitting that a film with the word "redemption" in the title was itself redeemed over time, getting a second life after its theatrical release. Despite its weak showing at the box office, Shawshank received seven Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Picture. Though the film didn't win any Oscars, the nominations themselves seemed like a big enough victory. But its true rise to fame began soon after.

Get Busy Living or Get Busy Dying

In 2019, it may be hard to imagine a prison drama being released, getting a tepid box-office reaction in spite of Oscar nominations, and eventually becoming one of the most beloved films of all time. For Shawshank, the road to becoming one of the top films of all time (at least according to some swathes of the Internet) was related to two key things: video rentals and cable-TV airings. Despite its weak box office, Warner Bros., which was in charge of the film's home-media strategy, ordered more than 300,000 VHS copies to video stores across the country. At the time, that amount was high — especially since the film itself didn't seem to merit such an amount of home media. But it paid off as Warner Bros. essentially force-fed the film to the masses, and Shawshank became one of the top-selling VHS titles of 1995. Two years later, the film's broadcast rights were snatched up by TNT — unsurprising, as the cable network was owned at the time by Ted Turner, the same man whose company had, in 1993, bought Castle Rock Entertainment, which produced Shawshank. In an era before streaming, this was perhaps the most important way for the film's life to be extended and expanded. There was a time in the late 1990s and early 2000s when it felt as if The Shawshank Redemption was airing on TNT or TBS (another cable network owned by Turner) basically all the time.The film was "inducted" into the New Classics series on TNT soon after it began airing on the network, and has since become as much a staple as any other film you could think of. In 2013, according to a research firm, the film took up more than 150 hours of airtime, tying Scarface and coming in right behind Mrs. Doubtfire. The film's undeniable popularity has translated to a genuinely solid paycheck for even its supporting actors. As Bob Gunton (who plays the sadistic warden of Shawshank Prison) said during the film's 20th-anniversary coverage, he gets residuals even now for the film; by the film's tenth anniversary, those residuals neared six figures.  

Salvation Lies Within

Perhaps the most surprising element of The Shawshank Redemption's continued fame is that it's not the flashiest film to have amassed a passionate fanbase online. The #ReleaseTheSnyderCut fans have sided with two of the biggest names (Batman and Superman) in superhero culture, and a director known for ultra-stylized filmmaking. Aside from that example, fans of filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, David Fincher, Christopher Nolan, and the like are often championing distinctively original, singular filmmaking styles, characters, and dialogue.And yet, if you go to the IMDb, the greatest film of all time is a fairly somber, 142-minute prison drama where one of the most dramatic moments comes when the lead character silently lets rain wash excrement off him, standing in a deliberately Christlike pose. It is, of course, worth noting that the IMDb Top 250 is a) not an actual arbiter of quality, and b) based on statistics driven by user ratings. It's not as suspect as people upvoting or downvoting an upcoming release before they've seen it, but it's also not a guarantor of true excellence. And the IMDb is awfully vague about how those statistics are built; you may have seen people mentioning how Joker received a 9.8 out of 10 on IMDb soon after its Venice Film Festival premiere. Yet Shawshank, with a 9.2, is on the top of the 250, and Joker is nowhere to be found. IMDb states that a film needs 25,000 votes to be on the list, and the list is based on a "formula [that] includes...the value of ratings received from regular users." And you, reading this right now, might be a regular user of IMDb...or not. Per one of the site's help pages, "we deliberately do not disclose the criteria used for a person to be counted as a regular voter."

The Path of the Tornado

Thus, it's a double head-scratcher. How is it that The Shawshank Redemption has a higher rating than The Dark Knight? (I'm not implying that the latter film is better than the former. But Nolan's 2008 Batman sequel has a pretty intense fanbase that could likely be coordinated enough to try and drive up a rating like this.) Recency bias hasn't helped plenty of newer films — to date, there are just two 2019 releases on the top 250: Avengers: Endgame and Toy Story 4. Endgame is ranked in the top 40, the highest placement of any new film. Avengers: Infinity War and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse are close behind, at 58 and 60, respectively. If you only looked at the top 10, you might wonder if you were looking at a ranking from 2019 or 2009. The Dark Knight, at the fourth spot, is the most recent film of the top 10, which also includes The Godfather, Pulp Fiction, and Fight Club. Most traditionally classic films can't hope to compete, though they're on the list. Citizen Kane, the American Film Institute's pick for the greatest film of all time, is at 91st place. The top film on Sight and Sound's list of the greatest of all time, according to a series of worldwide critics, is Vertigo. On the IMDb, it's at 88th place. Tokyo Story, the Yasujiro Ozu drama that directors chose in a separate Sight and Sound list as the best, is at 175 on IMDb.The Shawshank Redemption has basically willed its way into having a cultural legacy: in the AFI's revised list of the 100 best films of all time in 2007, Darabont's adaptation was in 72nd place, in front of two of the films competing for people's attention in the fall of 1994 that also got Best Picture nods: Forrest Gump and Pulp Fiction. Shawshank is now among the titles of the National Film Registry of the U.S. Library of Congress, further cementing its status as an essential drama of the 1990s. Having watched the film countless times myself (though never during its initial theatrical run, when I was just 10 years old), my own guess as to the film's legacy is how people put an invisible demarcation between the films they think are the best, and the films they would call their favorites. For a very long time, I'd have called Shawshank one of the latter — it's immensely, indescribably rewatchable (and at 142 minutes, it had a weirdly perfect pacing and length for the 3-hour runtime, with commercials, that made it such a standby on cable networks like TNT and TBS), and features a number of nuanced performances. Though Morgan Freeman was a well-loved actor before the film, his soothing baritone as heard in the voiceover narration seems to have become influential because of this film alone.

I Hope

"Soothing" may be an odd word to use in conjunction with a film set in prison (only a brief portion of the film takes place outside the walls of Shawshank Prison), but it's also weirdly apt in describing The Shawshank Redemption. It's a film of contradictions — a Stephen King adaptation with no supernatural elements, a grim prison drama that's soaring and hopeful — and it has somehow maintained its status as the IMDb's pick as the best film ever for over a decade. Its dialogue manages to be memorable and vaguely profound without being too deep, to the point where "Get busy living or get busy dying" became a near-inclusion on the AFI list of best quotes, and was a staple of high-school yearbooks everywhere. (Or was that just on my high-school yearbook?)The Shawshank Redemption is not a product of one of the great auteurs of cinema history. It never won any Oscars, and could have easily been forgotten after its release. But just as the era of streaming has lifted certain shows and films up to heights of fame they never achieved originally, the era of cable TV programming ensured that Shawshank would never be forgotten by audiences. For this film, at least, that strategy paid off.