M. Night Shyamalan: The Rise and Fall of a Career in Posters

Do you remember M. Night Shyamalan?

I saw the teaser for his new film with Will and Jaden Smith, After Earth, a while back and noticed something strange: it never once mentioned his name. This is M. Night Shyamalan we’re talking about here. The guy who blew everyone’s minds with The Sixth Sense, and then went on to wow audiences at a continually decreasing level with each additional film. The guy who became known for his crazy twist endings. The guy who had the coveted marketing title of “visionary director” written all over him. The guy who became a beacon of hope for directors of color the world over. That last one may be exaggerated, but the point is, he was big.

This post is a little exercise in looking at his career through the posters of the major movies he’s written and directed: The Sixth Sense (1999), Unbreakable (2000), Signs (2002), The Village (2004), Lady in the Water (2006), The Happening (2008), The Last Airbender (2010), and After Earth (2013).

A disclaimer: I am a fan of Shyamalan, but have not yet seen the last 4 movies listed above. From all that I’ve heard, I’m one of the lucky ones. I still want to see them, though.

To the posters!

The Sixth Sense (Domestic Theatrical Box-office: $293,506,292; IMDb user Rating: 8.2)


What do we see in this poster? What are the film’s selling points? It’s major one is the presence of Bruce Willis, whose name is the only one that appears dominantly. The rest is pretty abstract and ambiguous, aimed at setting the appropriate mood more than anything else. This is going to be a creepy movie and Bruce Willis is in it. You should check it out. It was Shyamalan’s first major film, so nobody knew who he was. As many of us remember, the film went on to become a massive theatrical hit. Leading to:

Unbreakable, the very next year. ($95,011,339; 7.2)


Not as big a hit as The Sixth Sense, but man, I love this movie. The whole thing is basically the first act of most superhero movies. So much that I like about it, but let’s stick to the poster. Selling points? Bruce Willis AND Samuel L. Jackson! They were awesome in Die Hard with a Vengeance! What else? “From M. Night Shyamalan, writer/director of The Sixth Sense.” Very interesting. He’s not yet big enough to be known only by his name. We still need another point of reference. The color scheme is also dark and mysterious. Then you have that weird tagline “are you ready for the truth?” which already hints at the twist-ending which Shyamalan would become known for. Ok, he made The Sixth Sense, Willis and Jackson are in it, there’s a mystery…this should be cool. NEXT!

Signs ($227,966,634; 6.7)


Boom. All you need to know is that Mel Gibson is in it and that M. Night Shyamalan made it. You already know who he is because you either loved his last two films or have heard about him and how huge The Sixth Sense was from all of your friends and the media. They don’t even feel the need to tell you what movies he made. “It’s happening,” and it’s going to be huge. Also of interest: Joaquin Phoenix was not yet big enough to warrant a space on this poster. We don’t get much else. By this point, Shyamalan has already developed a following that will go to anything he makes. The poster once again points to some mysterious events and dark colors. Next, the beginning of the fall…

The Village ($114,197,520; 6.5)


This is a pretty creepy poster. The 3 rules already suggest the presence of some creature or undesired entity. Shyamalan’s name is in a font that’s almost as big as the movie’s own title. He’s on top of the world right now. No actors are even mentioned. You’ll want to see this because it’s a Shyamalan film. “There is no turning back,” indeed. No one could have seen the series of flops that this would start off. This film, while crossing the $100 million mark, made about half as much as Signs.

Lady in the Water ($42,285,169; 5.7)


I still haven’t seen this film, but I’ve heard a lot of really weird stuff about it, especially in relation to Shyamalan’s acting role. His name is still very prominently placed, much bigger than his lead actors: Bryce Dallas Howard and Paul Giamatti, whose appeal are nowhere near that of Willis, Jackson, or Gibson. Not really sure what the poster is trying to convey. I feel like the tagline could just as easily be featured on a race-against-the-clock romantic comedy. The color scheme is all blue, which I think is generally reserved for happier, naturey, or more fantasy films. Doesn’t really fit in with the other posters above. There’s nothing super mysterious about it or suggestive of what kind of movie it might be. Which may help explain the return to more familiar imagery – and text – for his next film:

The Happening ($64,506,874; 5.1)


Also haven’t seen this one, though based on the poster, this movie could be called Signs: The Streetz. All we really get is Shyamalan’s name up top, his lead actor’s down at the bottom, the movie’s title, and its tagline: “We’ve Sensed it, We’ve seen The Signs, Now…It’s Happening.” Not only does this tagline directly reference his two most successful films, it’s also identical to that of Signs! What?! They’re trying pretty hard to convince you that Shyamalan is back to his old self: creepyness, mystery, and a twist. All the things you’ve come to expect from a Shyamalan film.

The Last Airbender ($131,722,187; 4.5)


…do I have to talk about this one? What a weird product. My guess is that 99% of that $131 million came from fans of the AMAZING source material. I haven’t heard a single good think about this movie from anyone who has seen it, young and old alike. And while IMDb ratings certainly aren’t an end-all form of evidence, I think it’s telling that each successive film has a lower rating than the last. Poor guy took a pretty bad beating from the box-office, movie critics, movie fans, internet trolls, pretty much everyone.

Which finally brings us to After Earth.

after earth

And Shyamalan is nowhere to be found. Sure, when you have Will Smith in your movie, you really don’t need anything else. But something tells me if this movie had been made in the early 2000s, his name would be all over it too. Every single selling point is worth putting on a poster. For this film, all you need to know is that the Smiths are in it. And man, are they right. I would see this movie regardless of the director. Still, it’s odd that they wouldn’t include Shyamalan’s name on there. Is his name actually seen more as a liability now than  a selling point? That’s crazy to me. He’d still be a selling point to me. Though I don’t know how I’d feel if I’d seen Lady in the Water, The Happening, and The Last Airbender. Another interesting point: this is the only one of Shyamalan’s films in which he does not have sole screenwriting credit.

I feel bad for the guy. There’s no way you can please everyone when you make a career out of twist endings. It goes against the trope’s very nature. Here’s hoping After Earth is a huge hit and that we’ll see his star rise again.

Maybe some day I’ll do a similar thing with all of these films’ trailers…

12 thoughts on “M. Night Shyamalan: The Rise and Fall of a Career in Posters

  1. Brilliant article about the “diminishing career” of M. Night Shyamalan. I believe that your conjecture about the loss of his name on the poster is correct. It has become fashionable in Hollywood to bash Shyamalan every time he releases a new film. That is a prevalent trend in critic’s circles when someone so successfully shoots out of the starting gate so well.

    I’m a huge fan of his as well and it annoys me that both the industry and the critics are so quick to write him off.

    1. Thanks for the comment! I agree about how it feels that it’s kind of the cool thing to diss him. But I mean, that’s how the industry works, right? Marketing often requires neat little easily sold packages. Early Shyamalan had that. No one knew what to expect. But then he got pigeonholed by his own fame. It’s fascinating. I really want to look through the trailers now, too.

      Glad to have found a fellow Shyamalan believer! Let’s see how After Earth fares….

  2. This was a great idea. I loved reading each of your impressions.

    Also, thanks for letting me know “After Earth” was directed by him. I did not know that, and if I had I would have viewed the film negatively. I’m not entirely sold on it, but it would have been a definite “no” if I saw his name.

    1. Thank you for the comment! I’m glad to hear that the impression given by the poster holds true. I think it’s fascinating that his name on the poster would have made you NOT want to see it. It’s amazing what that says about not only Shyamalan, but the film industry as well.

      How do you think you would have reacted if the poster had both Will Smith and Shyamalan on it the first time you saw it? Would Smith’s presence push you to stick around? Or does your dislike of Shyamalan outweigh how much you like Smith, if at all?

        1. That’s really interesting. Sometimes I wonder if we put way too much emphasis on a filmmaker’s previous successes or failures. There’s also the issue of what audiences expect when going into a movie. You could expect a certain number of things from a Shyamalan movie. You can expect a certain number of things from a Will Smith movie. More than anything else, I’m just really curious to see how that pairing works.

  3. I also did not know After Earth was a Shyamalan film! The trailer interested me, but because there were two very similar trailers, I kind of wrote it off. Don’t remember for sure what the other two were…Oblivion was one. The other…Pacific Rim? I don’t know. I just remember thinking, wow, three movies about the same thing…

    I’m a Shyamalan fan as well. I saw through The Happening, which I thought was better than Lady in the Water. Good, in fact, although definitely not as good as the first four. Lady in the Water made no impression on me. Don’t even remember anything about it other than Paul Giamatti. I should really see The Sixth Sense again. The first time I saw it was in theaters, which was 11th grade, and I didn’t know nothin’ then.

    1. Thanks for the post!

      Very interesting about the impact caused by the placement of those 3 trailers in such close proximity to each other. I had never considered that before. Since I’ve published this post, several people have told me they had no idea AFTER EARTH was a Shyamalan movie. Crazy.

    1. I think expectations play a big part, no? When you’re fresh off of THE SIXTH SENSE, UNBREAKABLE, and SIGNS, it’s hard to live up to those expectations. Though I will say, writing this post is giving me the urge to have a Shyamalanathon! Definitely want to give THE VILLAGE another chance and watch the ones I haven’t seen yet.

  4. Shyamalanathon is a great word. I’ve seen all of his movies, and for that reason I view his name as a big turn-off. I don’t care one way or the other about Will Smith– he’s a good actor and I like a lot of his movies, but other good actors (Paul Giamatti, Dev Patel, Joaquin Phoenix, Zooey Deschanel) were not able to counteract the effects of weak storylines and poor dialogue in other Shyamalan movies.

    In fact, Signs was the last Shyamalan movie I anticipated with earnest interest. I went to the theater to watch it and left totally disappointed. For a movie about a global alien invasion, it was so slow and boring. The audience were essentially stranded on that farm in the middle of nowhere for the majority of the movie. I felt the same way, to a lesser degree, about Unbreakable. It just seemed so slow, depressing and visually colorless for a movie about super powers. It gave me the impression that Shyamalan’s goal was to take traditionally exciting, action-packed genres, then shrink them in scope, wash out the color and slow them down until they became “unique.” I’ll give him credit for attempting to innovate, but I don’t find his stories entertaining.

    All the same, I probably would’ve seen the Village in the theater if my sister hadn’t warned me that it had a stupid ending. And in my opinion, she made the correct assessment.

    Ever since then I just watch movies Shyamalan has made to marvel at how bad they are. The Happening was actually so bad it was funny, but it wouldn’t’ve been funny if I’d paid $12 to see it. And I sure won’t be paying $12 to see After Earth.

    1. Thanks for the comment! It’s been pretty interesting to see just how many people share your opinions about Shyamalan and who try to avoid him like the plague. I mean I knew he’d fallen out of favor pretty quickly among many film lovers, but didn’t realize just how far that extended.

      I totally get what you mean about the slowness of the movies. I think part of what you’re bringing up is closely connected to what you were expecting before you saw the movie, though. You say SIGNS was slow and boring “for a movie about a global alien invasion.” You say something similar about UNBREAKABLE: “it just seemed so slow…for a movie about super powers.” And I think that’s the big key here. I don’t think that’s what those movies are supposed to be mostly about. Those are more like the genre elements he chooses to use for the smaller story he’s trying to tell. Signs is much more about ideas of faith and fate than it is about a “global alien invasion,” which I would definitely use to describe a movie like Independence Day. In the same vein, I think Unbreakable is much less about super powers in the comic book superhero sense and much more about coming to terms with one’s own inner talents and abilities. What do you think?

      I think that’s part of what made his first 3 movies so great, for me anyway. They were very much character studies that took place in these worlds that we don’t usually get close character studies in: horror/suspense, superheroes, and aliens/sci-fi. I think you’re kind of getting at that when you say that he takes “action-packed genres then shrinks them in scope.” And I think that’s what I liked about them.

      But, again, I haven’t seen his last 3 films yet…which seem to be the biggest source of people’s disappointment and near-hatred for the guy.


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