Is M. Night Shyamalan Really A Failure?

By Guest Contributor Aymar Jean Christian, cross-posted from Televisual

Watching the previews for Salt, I had what appears to be a common experience. The trailer for an elevator-themed film came on. It seemed strange: what is this movie? What’s it about? My confusion grew into clarity when the words “From the Mind of M. Night Shyamalan” preceding the title Devil came on the big screen. I sighed, recognizing the trademark “things are not as they appear” quality to the trailer. The rest of the audience, however, groaned.

Groaning at the sight Shyamalan’s name has been reported from screening to screening. The phrase “box office poison” is now repeatedly being associated with the director’s name. Shyamalan is only credited as creating the story for Devil, but already people are asking if the film can redeem his credibility. Shyamalan has hit a nadir, causing people to question his career and brand him a failure, a has-been riding off The Sixth Sense. My question: is it true?

First let me say I’m not really Shyamalan fan. His genre is not one I regularly frequent at the theater and I’ve only seen a few of his films (the early ones).

There are at least two ways to examine a filmmaker’s success: critically and commercially. Critically, it’s near incontrovertible: Shyamalan is not doing too well. Consider the graph showing the writer-director’s steadily declining reviews since the acclaimed Sixth Sense. They are bad.

But we have to ask the question: if Shyamalan’s films are so bad then how does he consistently get funding to make them? The answer must be in his box office receipts.

Hollywood accounting is complex, to say the least, and really all the numbers industry outsiders have are suspect and basically guesses. But judging from what we have, it’s clear Shyamalan is hardly box office poison — yet. Instead, it seems his early successes have bought him some leeway for a few recent misses, suggesting he doesn’t have a lot of wiggle room in the future, but it’s not irrational he keeps getting big budget projects.

Using BoxOfficeMojo, Wikipedia and other random web sources, here’s what I’ve gathered about Shyamalan’s past pics. I have estimated production budgets for each, but I’m missing distribution and marketing for many.

The Last Airbender (2010): $280 million to make and market; $150 million gross so far.
The Happening (2008)  – $57 million to make ($70 million to market?), $163 million gross
Lady in the Water (2006) – $150 million to make and market, $72 million gross
The Village (2004)  – $71 million to make, $256 million gross
Signs (2002)  – $72 million to make, $400 million gross
Unbreakable (2000) – $73 million to make, $248 million gross
Sixth Sense (1999) – $40 million to make, $672 million gross

Let’s assume, reasonably I think, that the distribution and marketing for Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, Village and Happening came in on average at 100% of production (consistent with what we know from Lady in the Water and Last Airbender, though it may be an over/underestimation depending on the film).

With that assumption, a more complicated picture emerges. Five out of seven of Shyamalan’s movies have been successful, and his earlier films — especially Signs and Sixth Sense — were undeniable global blockbusters.

I could be wrong, of course, very wrong. I’m making a lot of assumptions. Certainly Airbender is a huge bomb, and his most expensive bomb to date. Lady in the Water was a failure and The Happening failed to make any meaningful mark. These three facts explain the “Shyamalan is box office poison” thinking at the moment. To be sure, when audiences recoil at the mention of your name, your career is not headed in the right direction.

What this also might suggest, however, is the bar for a Shyamalan comeback might be considerably lower than critics and journalists may think. One more big hit could easily restore faith in the director.

Shyamalan has a number of projects in development at the moment. I’m sure he feels the pressure. His mojo is gone, but not yet ancient history.