1. John Waters
Despite flirting with mainstream filmmaking with Hairspray (1988), the overwhelming majority of Waters’s films are never widespread hits outside of his fanbase. He is most well-known for featuring regulars in his ensemble casts—called the “Dreamlanders”—his ’70s and ’80s “trash films,” as well as casting real-life convicted criminals in his movies. Though well-regarded, it’s not exactly a recipe for mainstream success.
2. David Lynch
“Lynchian” is a style known well throughout the film industry as categorizing movies that feature prominent dream imagery and “meticulous” sound design, but most of his works have never enjoyed mainstream success. Most of his work, such as Eraserhead (1977 his first cult classic) is hard to follow, despite being visually and audibly appealing, if somewhat disturbing at times (e.g. Mulholland Drive, Twin Peaks).
3. Pedro Almodóvar
Almodóvar got his start in shorts in the late-seventies, and ever since his popularity has increased—at least internationally. Despite being arguably the most successful Spanish filmmaker in recent memory, most of his movies in the US are followed only by the most astute (except, perhaps, 2006’s Volver). Not to mention those who have strong stomachs, as La Piel que Habito (The Skin I Live In) isn’t exactly for the squeamish.
4. Terry Gilliam
Gilliam achieved much success through the Monty Python series, but many of his films are actually best-known and regarded by only those who try. Brazil (1985) is an absurd, surrealist, 1984-esque glimpse into the future, while Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) is too trippy for most people. That being said, few can argue that the man’s talented as hell.
5. Kevin Smith
When a guy starts off his directorial debut with a budget of $27,575 and films the movie in the same convenience store in which he works, you know it’s the perfect combination for a cult director (1994’s Clerks, of course). Smith’s subsequent films have featured many of the same actors and even characters, creating what fans know as the “View Askewniverse”; a world in which you have to be dedicated to all his works to fully understand.
6. Wes Anderson
From his first full-length film, Bottle Rocket (1996), to his most recent, Moonrise Kingdom (2012), Wes Anderson has attracted a following that—at its core—is about as devoted as Apple fans. Although he gained a lot of mainstream success with 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums and a somewhat exponential increase ever since, the motifs and aesthetics of his films continues throughout—and not everyone is into it.
7. Christopher Guest
Guest’s career began in the 1970s, but he wasn’t on the map until 1984’s This is Spinal Tap; however, Rob Reiner (another notable cult director) directed it and Guest wrote it. Regardless of whether he wrote, directed, or both, his films all have a distinct, dry, somewhat alienating humor that’s either a huge hit or miss among audiences.
8. Quentin Tarantino
It’d be strange for someone to not know Tarantino’s name, but most people haven’t seen many of his movies outside of the most prominent ones, like Pulp Fiction (1994) and Inglourious Basterds (2009). Given the racy content often mired in controversial themes and smothered in drugs and alcohol, though, many of his films are hindered from become true “hits,” despite being universally renowned.
9. Harmony Korine
Like Tarantino, Korine is known for focusing on often unexposed topics, such with Kids (1995), which depicts the AIDS crisis in mid-nineties New York City. Despite that it was “touted as a realistic viewpoint” on the subject, it was also given an NC-17 rating, inhibiting it from achieving a widespread audience. His other films similarly explore dark topics and have thus been inhibited in the same manner, but his cult following is large because of the grittily realistic nature of the films.