Tuesday 20th February 2018,

Is M. Night Shyamalan Really A Failure?

Thanks to Racialicious for reposting!

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.

Share This Article

About The Author

Aymar Jean Christian is assistant professor of communication at Northwestern University. He writes about media and society for a number of publications. For more information, click the "About" tab at the top of the page.


  1. madison moore July 25, 2010 at 6:44 pm

    i went to see SALT today and the trailer for DEVIL played in my theater, too. the thing is: i’m actually kind of curious about seeing DEVIL. it’s another of those hitchcockian, trapped in a cube, etc, type of thing. i think the thing that strikes me about it is that it’s REAL. all his other movies seem completely ridiculous. do not get me started on Lady in the Water, that hot ass mess. i might just give DEVIL a try.

  2. Aymar Jean Christian July 25, 2010 at 7:17 pm

    Yes, but I think that’s why people grown. Shyamalan’s ideas always look cool/innovative in trailers! It looks pretty real, except in the film, the Devil is actually in the elevator. Could be good though. I won’t see it because I don’t do horror.

  3. srilatha August 5, 2010 at 1:06 pm

    I think the thing that strikes me about it is that it’s REAL. It looks pretty real, except in the film, the Devil is actually in the elevator.

  4. Jim August 12, 2010 at 11:53 pm

    I personally think his career is over, or is going to be over. I really don’t see how he will be able to make another big budget project and regain his reputation. I have a feeling if he wants to keep making big budget films, he is going to have to listen to some critics and fans and try to adjust his style of filmmaking. He would’ve made more money if he listened to fans of airbender. Even if the critics hated his film, he still would’ve had more fan support and possibly make enough for sequels. I just don’t understand why he would cause himself trouble when there are asian and native american actors to portray those cultures.

  5. Terri September 4, 2010 at 10:33 pm

    Today I saw the first trailer for Devil and was thrilled. I am a Night fan and love his “B” style movies. I find I have to wait a couple years for his next movie to come out, but it seems that quite close to The Last Airbender release. I can see him making few more movies before society would start calling him a “has-been”. Or if he’s smart, to lie low for awhile, then come out with something as big as The Sixth Sense.

    He claims to be a “B” movie maker and enjoys making these movies. He didn’t realize that The Sixth Sense would be as popular as it became. Now movie goers have this huge success to compares his other movies too and get disappointed. He has a way like Hitchcock about his movies which is becoming predictable. But that’s his way…but what I found upsetting was that he didn’t make his usual cameo in The Last Airbender. In his movies that made it to the theatre, he had his cameo with exception of Lady in the Water where he was in most of the shots.

    I still look toward to his movies and have every one back to The Sixth Sense.

  6. Jim May 29, 2011 at 5:28 am

    Shyamalan did make a cameo in the last airbender, he was one of the firebenders during the earthbenders scene.

    I read from another sight, someone made a comment that Shyamalan’s film’s pacing may be too slow for some people. His style of filmmaking is said that whenever there is a scene in the story Shyamalan didn’t like, the pacing would be slow, which may bore some people. I personally feel he needs collaborate with talented writers, directors, producers etc instead of trying to do everything yourself like an egomaniac. It is said, he has better direction than writing.

  7. Jim May 29, 2011 at 5:42 am

    Also, I don’t see how Shymalan can claim himself to be a “B” movie maker when “The Sixth Sense” budget was $40 million with top Hollywood actors like Bruce Willis, that’s not really a “B” budget film.