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October 20, 1999


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Shyamalan Psyches Disney Again

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R S Shankar

The Sixth Sense The whizkid, who has just struck a record $ 10 million deal with Walt Disney, had a prolonged panic attack in August.

The Blair Witch Project, a shoe-string budget film had turned into a huge hit, grossing about $ 60 million in a month, and there were no signs anyone casting a curse on its popularity

Would another film with supernatural theme have a ghost of a chance, Manoj Night Shyamalan wondered.

Of course, his movie had Bruce Willis in the lead, and since it cost $ 40 million (a small figure by Hollywood standard), it had a far better look than the edgy Witch made for $ 60,000.

But then Shyamalan was also aware that Willis had not really scored a big hit outside the domain of action movies. And the movie's distributors were downplaying Willis's presence, hoping that the word of mouth about The Sixth Sense,, and its jolting climax would work box-office magic.

But the 29-year-old writer and director thought The Sixth Sense would go the same way as his previous two films, Wide Awake and Praying with Anger had gone.

"I thought nobody on the face of the earth would see my film," he says. The latter which cost a modest $ five million lost all of its money, and yet Disney, its producer, had allowed him to make a far bigger film because they were convinced of the strength of his script.

As the movie history has it that The Sixth Sense spooked not only the Witch but many other big budget movies. While the Witch suffered steep attrition at the box-office because of Shyamalan's film, ending its American run with a still extremely profitable $ 140 million, Sense became Bruce Willis's highest grossing movie in America. In its 11th week, it grossed $ six million at the weekend, with a $250 million made in America.

It has been psyching audiences in Korea and Taiwan for over four weeks, and last weekend, it took the highest position at the Australian box-office with a hefty $ 6 million in the first week The Disney movie, which is already the 15th highest grossing film in America (with the $ 610 million Titanic leading the list), could end up with $ 280 million in America.

Given the initial response for the movie in a few countries it has been released, Hollywood insiders expect at least $ 300 million abroad making it one of the most profitable ventures for Disney.

Now Shyamalan has made history for yet another reason last week.

He inked a deal with Disney that gave him $ five million for writing and $ five million for directing yet another spooky venture, Unbreakable. Shyamalan beats Shane Black's $ four million record for The Long Kiss Goodnight, an action thriller with Geena Davis which bombed at the box-office.

Shyamalan does not divulge much about his film, except to say that it is not a sequel to The Sixth Sense, but Willis plays another haunting character who learns several startling and devastating things about himself when he recovers from an accident. Samule T Jackson, one of the most protean of Hollywood actors (Pulp Fiction) will play a key role in the film which will be made for about $ 70 million. There are rumors that Shyamalan will also get part of the box-office gross, apart from his fee, and so will Willis.

Like The Sixth Sense, the movie is 'definitely about two people on opposite side ends of their lives,' Shyamalan told USA Today. It is also a character-driven film, he says. But unlike Sense, it will have some action scenes, like in the Harrison Ford hit, The Fugitive.

Shyamalan will start shooting the film in April and have it ready for release by the end of 2000.

Willis says he found script "very dark and intense".

Meanwhile, the supernatural theme of The Sixth Sense continues to be discussed widely in the media.

'Is There a Sixth Sense?' asked the cover of People magazine last week. The cover, with pictures of Willis and child star Haley Joel Osment, announced how people are re-thinking matters of life and death, and how a new breed of psychics is making believers of millions who long to talk to the dead. No doubt, with so much discussion about it, The Sixth Sense suffers the mildest decline at the box-office week after week. While even hit movies like Double Jeopady decline by about 30 per cent each week, Shyamalan's film loses in the range of 10 to 15 per cent.

Shyamalan, who rarely talks about himself, said recently that his wife Bhavana, who is in a graduate program in psychology, and their three-year-old baby daughter would live happily with $ 60,000 a year -- and that the big bucks are not changing their lifestyle, except that he has bought several DVDs.

Shyamalan, who was born in Madras, and came to America in his infancy with his physician parents, lives close to them in the suburbs of Philadelphia. He shot his past two films in Philadelphia and he will shoot his next venture there too.

The only time he goes to Hollywood is to sign deals. And come next year, there are many who expect him to be at the Oscar ceremonies.

"You can certainly expect the film to get nominated in several categories, including screenplay and supporting actor (Osment)," says film commentator and culture writer Ric Ornellas.

"Despite all the big money it has made, there is still an aura of a underdog attached to it."

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