The idea that M. Night Shyamalan is ‘box office poison’ isn’t confirmed by the facts of his fourteen years in the Hollywood limelight. In fact, through a mix of luck and random happenstance, the man has managed to all-but-avoid actual box office destruction.
For better or worse, the general public knows who M. Night Shyamalan is. His name on the marquee reflects that you’re not going to get a conventional genre film, that there may be something else up its sleeve. Maybe there is a twist; maybe there is just the occasionally off-kilter sensibilities that he brings to his mainstream fare. After Earth disappointed partially because it looked somewhat generic. Putting M. Night Shyamalan’s name in the credits alerts audiences that there will be at least something a little different about this would-be star vehicle. M. Night Shyamalan’s name in the credits would have signaled that this was not necessarily a conventional summer blockbuster.
For the general populace who don’t rigidly follow the industry, alerting them to the fact that the director of After Earth also directed The Sixth Sense and Signs won’t immediately bring to mind that he also directed The Last Airbender and Lady In the Water. When 20th Century Fox trumpeted that Planet of the Apes was ‘from the director of Batman and Sleepy Hollow‘, audiences didn’t immediately think, “Hey, it’s also the guy who directed that Ed Wood movie I didn’t see and that Mars Attacks! that I didn’t think was funny!” M. Night Shyamalan has taken his licks critically, but actual commercial disaster has mostly eluded him. To most general moviegoers he’s still that guy who directed The Sixth Sense, a movie that still holds up as far more than just its twist epilogue nearly fifteen years later, and Signs, that alien invasion Mel Gibson movie that scared the crap out of them in theaters eleven years ago.
His two out-and-out blockbusters are of course The Sixth Sense ($293 million domestic, or basically the top-grossing horror film/thriller of all time) and Signs ($232 million domestic, following a $60 million opening weekend). And the one in between, Unbreakable, was an $80 million superhero deconstruction, which ironically came right on the cusp of the modern comic book film fad. It received mixed-positive reviews and opened with $46 million over Thanksgiving 2000 and ended up with $248 million worldwide. Unbreakable, in my opinion his masterwork, wasn’t a box office world-beater, but a profitable venture for all involved and considered either his best or his second best film by most. Most prefer The Sixth Sense, but both are among the mainstream American best films of the last fifteen years.
But the one after Signs, which by the way still works as a deliciously fun and thoughtful popcorn thriller? M. Night’s next film was The Village. Well, *that* one was a stinker, right? Well, no. While I’d argue it was not a thriller but a somber political metaphor, the false marketing, based entirely around M. Night Shyamalan’s marquee value (no big stars like Bruce Willis or Mel Gibson to help him out), was enough to scare up $50 million on opening weekend. Yes the film was rejected by audiences and flamed out with $115 million domestic, but the $60 million “period piece” still earned $256 million worldwide. Next came his only out-and-out flop, which was both a blessing and curse commercially speaking.
With no stars larger than Paul Giamatti and a marketing campaign that couldn’t really pretend it was a Signs-type thriller, the creepy bedtime story Lady In the Water remains M. Night’s only bomb. The $70 million picture, his first away from Disney, opened with just $18 million (pretty high for a Paul Giamatti vehicle, but very low for a Shyamalan film) and closed with $72 million worldwide. If you ask most people to rattle off M. Night Shyamalan movies, they probably wouldn’t even remember that one. So while M. Night takes the commercial hit, his artistic reputation is mostly intact since so few outside his fan base actually saw the thing.
But The Happening was a bomb, right? Sorry, nope. The $50 million 20th Century Fox thriller, starring Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel, was advertised not just on M. Night’s reputation as the helmer of The Sixth Sense and Signs, but also on the tease of this film being his first R-rated venture. In a time when the industry was terrified of the R-rating, it was genuinely hilarious to see Fox use it as a selling point. So the film, sold mostly on Shyamalan’s reputation, opened with $30 million over opening weekend. The film was a quick-kill hit, ending its domestic run with $64 million, but thanks to Fox’s overseas muscle, it earned $163 million worldwide, or about triple its budget. Like it or hate it, it was another hit for Shyamalan. Now we get to the film that arguably should have ended his career, the stunningly terrible The Last Airbender.
I can defend Paul Giamatti’s performance in Lady in the Water and I can defend some of the kookier visuals and quirkier dialogue in The Happening, but The Last Airbender is basically indefensible. But it was not a flop in any sense of the word. Released in summer 2010, the Paramount adaptation of an allegedly quite-good animated adventure series was ravaged by critics (myself included), but audiences still flocked to it. We can debate how much of that $69 million five-day opening weekend was due to Shyamalan versus the appeal of the Nickelodeon cartoon. And we can arguably say that a better received film would have started a new franchise, since $319 million worldwide on a $150 million budget is pretty much what got G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra an eventual sequel. But the film still had Shyamalan’s trademarked visual pizzazz and Shyamalan had his third-biggest box office smash of his career.
So now we get to After Earth, a film that is being discussed as a big flop as far as summer movies go. Well, the good news for M. Night Shyamalan is that he’s nowhere to be found on the advertising materials. Since opening weekend is less about quality and more about marketing, one cannot fault Shyamalan for the $27.5 million debut weekend since he wasn’t actually used to market the picture. Now looking at his past opening weekends, I still question Sony’s wisdom of hiding his name, since everything save Lady In the Water has opened at what would respectively be considered a healthy debut weekend.
Out of eight mainstream studio releases since 1999, seven of them have been solid hits, with two outright smashes and at least three qualifying as rock-solid financial winners. The Last Airbender is objectively a box office hit but arguably counts as a miss because its poor quality killed a promising franchise. But his only pure flop (Lady in the Water) was also his least commercial enterprise, and a film that pretty much all-but film nerds have forgotten about over the last seven years. So we have a director who by this point in time arguably *should* be considered box office poison but isn’t because his films keep making money in spite of themselves.
The Village and The Happening may have been considered ‘bad’, but to most general audiences they were merely a mediocre movie-going experience never to be mentioned again (save for mocking the whole Mark Wahlberg talks to plants thing). And they both opened above expectations purely on Shyamalan’s name. The Last Airbender is a terrible film, but A) it made money and B) the parents who took their kids to the PG-rated adventure only cared that their kids had a good time. His good films were hits and most of his bad films were mostly hits too. Artistic disappointment, sure. But box office poison he is not.
After Earth may be a flop, but it’s tough to argue that hiding the one unique element, a director who is a known entity to general audiences and whose films generally make money and open well, was a good idea. For most moviegoers, M. Night Shyamalan is still the guy who made The Sixth Sense and Signs. That’s not necessarily a good thing for him artistically, as we must take stock in the fact that he hasn’t made a great movie in eleven years, but it’s been his commercial shield for nearly a decade. And it’s why Sony made a mistake not using his marquee value as they promoted After Earth in America last weekend.
With all that said. #8 may have something to do with M Night….