Explaining why people do or don’t go to the movies is the ultimate pseudo science. We like to cite lots of numbers, because that helps us pretend that it’s not essentially a gut-level prediction. Numbers have the added benefit of giving studio people something to point at to avoid taking responsibility for any decision in case that decision goes bad. “Hey, man, it’s not my fault, I was just going by the numbers!” We Monday morning quarterback all the marketing when the numbers come in, but no one really knows.
This weekend, when After Earth brought in $27 million for a movie the studio was expecting/hoping to do upwards of $35 – 40m, and got beat by a magician movie, there was no shortage of explanations for its failure. The obvious one being that it was a crappy-looking movie, from a director who has made four or five infamously-crappy movies in a row, starring a guy who’s been dutifully squandering the goodwill he’s built up over the years by shoving his obnoxious kid in our faces every chance he gets. But hey, the internet is not a place for Occam’s Razor. So it is that a competing theory has been gaining steam, one that says that After Earth failed because the marketing didn’t emphasize that was an M. Night Shyamalan movie enough. Whoaooooahaooh. Up is down, cats and dogs, living together, etc.
From Forbes, which wasn’t the only place where I saw this theory, sadly:
We’ll truly never know whether Sony would be looking at a bigger opening weekend for the Will Smith/Jaden Smith vehicle After Earth if they hadn’t chosen to hide the fact that the film is directed by M. Night Shyamalan. I’ve argued for much of the last week that said decision was a marketing blunder, and I stand by that assessment. The idea that M. Night Shyamalan is ‘box office poison’ isn’t confirmed by the facts of his fourteen years in the Hollywood limelight.
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 religious alien invasion Mel Gibson movie that scared the crap out of them in theaters eleven years ago.
First of all, you shut your whore mouth about Mars Attacks. Secondly, no one, least of all me, is going to argue that Tim Burton hasn’t made some crappy movies. I saw Dark Shadows, I know he has. One thing he hasn’t done, though, as M. Night has, is make nothing but terrible movies for 11 straight years. And even that 11 is assuming you don’t consider Signs a terrible movie, which I do. (It’s not on the level of The Last Airbender or Lady in the Water, but it’s definitely not good).
The writer, Scott Mendelson, goes on to explain that Shyammy’s only real “flop” was Lady in the Water, despite popular perceptions of The Happening and The Last Airbender. But wait, weren’t we talking about how to market something? Ie, something based completely on popular perception? If a guy makes a good movie and then a terrible one, you expect the terrible one to still make money, because people go into it with the reasonable expectation that it will be good. But if he makes two, three, four bad movies in a row, that expectation starts to decline. God forbid I use common sense to knock down this house of cards you’ve built entirely on thought experiments, but isn’t it possible that Shyamalan has spent more than a decade making movies beloved by neither critics nor audiences, and that the general public has finally caught on?
The biggest flaw in this argument is that it never mentions Devil, a movie M. Night Shyamalan didn’t write or direct, but which had “FROM THE MIND OF M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN” slapped across all the advertising, like Mendelson suggests After Earth should’ve done. And how’d that work out? Audience everywhere laughed when the Shyamalan title card came up. How often does a director’s name get actively jeered? That was three years ago and it’s not like he’s gotten a ton of good press since then. Bottom line, I don’t think this is the place to play devil’s advocate. When we talk about After Earth, I think we can say “a movie a lot of people didn’t see because it looked crappy, and they were right,” and call it a day.
[banner pic via FilminUtah]