By Louis Allred

Earlier this summer, a YouTube video went viral. It was a cameraphone recording of the trailer for M. Night Shyamalan’s latest project, Devil. (To be completely fair, it wasn’t something he directed, or even wrote the screenplay for. He was a producer, and was also given “Story by” credit.) However, the marketing department banked on his name recognition to sell the film, and halfway through the trailer, the words “From M. Night Shyamalan” appear in foreboding red letters. It’s supposed to be a signal that Devil is, in some way, a continuation of the Shyamalan brand: a spooky, supernatural thriller. It was meant to inspire interest. But, when his name appeared in the trailer on this YouTube clip, something surprising (to some) happened.

People booed. Loudly. And on the blogs that covered this clip, comments piled up from others who reported similar reactions, from jeering to outright laughter. The trailer played before one movie I saw (I can’t recall which, was it Inception? Scott Pilgrim?), and though the reaction was more muted, I did hear some chuckling when Shyamalan’s name appeared.

After writing and directing two smaller films, Praying With Anger and Wide Awake, Shyamalan had his first big success with The Sixth Sense, which quickly entered the pop culture lexicon with Haley Joel Osment’s “I see dead people” line and surprise twist ending. It was also highly regarded critically, picking up six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Screenplay, and Best Director. Shyamalan looked to be the new wunderkind in Hollywood, and only one year later, his new film Unbreakable premiered Thanksgiving weekend. It was a similarly low-key thriller, also starring Bruce Willis, which also ended with a twist, and was similarly well-received by critics. However, it didn’t succeed nearly as well as Sixth Sense, only making about one-third of the previous film’s domestic gross. However, Shyamalan hit his stride again with Signs, which made over $200 million and remains his second-highest-grossing film to date.

However, the seeds of a Shyamalan backlash were being sown, and with his next movie, The Village, that backlash exploded in full force. Critics were much less supportive, and after an impressive debut weekend, its gross dropped by two-thirds the next weekend, continuing to fall as time went on. Most everyone who saw the movie complained that his trademark twist ending this time was ridiculous to the point of insult. He was no longer the new Hitchcock, or whatever phrase was being thrown around. He was now “that twist guy.”

Lady in the Water followed, which was roundly trashed by critics, and barely seen by the public (at approximately $42 million, it’s his lowest-grossing mainstream film). The Happening fared a little better at the box office, but was loathed even more by critics, and word-of-mouth about the insane storyline quickly killed it off. (It’s windy! RUN!!) The icing on the cake was this year’s Last Airbender, an adaptation of the beloved Nickelodeon cartoon – an adaptation so ill-received that in one online review, even the cartoon’s hardcore fans, many dressed up as the characters, registered their seething hatred.

So, by the time Devil‘s trailer was released, many moviegoers were long since done with him.

What happened with Shyamalan? I think the main source of M. Night fatigue was simply the overwhelming similarity of his films. With Sixth Sense, that kind of low-key, dramatic thriller was welcomed, as it was a style people hadn’t seen in the multiplex for quite some time. And it was a good movie, as was Unbreakable. But, when someone makes a whole string of slow-paced, overly-ominous films like he did, it wears on moviegoers. It got to a point after a while that, upon hearing he had a new film coming out, people would immediately joke about what the twist was going to be. (See also: the “Robot Chicken” clip above.) That baggage didn’t help his last few films, since they really didn’t have twists in them anyhow (The Happening especially – that movie just ended). Shyamalan became a one-trick pony, and even when he wasn’t performing the trick, he couldn’t shake off that perception.

There has also been an undercurrent of growing ego detected as his films progressed. By the time Signs and The Village were released, all the posters had “M. Night Shyamalan’s” attached before the titles. He’d always had brief cameos in his movies, but his later drop-ins were given more and more weight. The pinnacle was Lady in the Water, where Shyamalan cast himself as a writer whose future book will lead to someone reading it and changing the world. I would imagine this book is not the novelization of Lady in the Water. He has since toned his cameos down.

With all of this backlash, it may seem confusing why studios would still give Shyamalan work. His latest films haven’t set the box office on fire, and his name now seems like a liability, marketing-wise. But, he hasn’t actually had an abject failure yet. True, Lady in the Water barely missed its production budget with its worldwide theatre gross, but after factoring in even minimal DVD sales and rentals, it probably broke even. The Happening actually made more than its budget domestically (thank the producers for using less-popular actors and more spartan shooting locations, I guess). And Last Airbender wasn’t nearly the financial turkey everyone was expecting. Devil had a weak opening, but it looks like it was a smaller film to begin with, so it may end up OK when all is said and done. Shyamalan’s not the sure thing he was before, but neither is he a truly terrible investment.

It seems that Shyamalan’s name, if not an attraction for some moviegoers, is at least not a factor preventing them from seeing his films. No matter how much the critics bash him, he’ll still have an audience. And as we’ve seen time and again, even the worst movies can make loads of money.

Just ask Michael Bay.

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