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August 4, 1999
Shyamalan's 'Sixth Sense' Set To Spook Competition
R S Shankar
Could there be something common in Manoj Shyamalan and the late Stanley Kubrick?
You would not know unless you are a Hollywood insider.
And many Hollywood insiders are surprised that 29-year-old Shyamalan got a major studio grant him the same privilege as the veteran Kubrick has had through his illustrious film-career: The final cut.
In plain words, it means, a guarantee that the movie will be released exactly the way the director okayed it.
Shyamalan is the writer and director of The Sixth Sense, the $ 40 million psychological drama starring Bruce Willis, that opens on August 6 in more than 1,500 cinemas across America. Willis, who gets about $ 20 million per movie, was so impressed by Shyamalan's script, he agreed to work in it for a fraction of his usual fee. Of course, he will get a part of the profit
Despite his previous little seen films, Praying With Anger, shot in India in 1992, and a spiritual comedy revolving around a young kid, Wide Awake, made for Walt Disney in 1998, Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense script created a big buzz in Hollywood.
A bidding war broke out between Hollywood Pictures, which makes films for Walt Disney, and New Line, a division of Warner Bros. The former won, and Shyamalan, then 27, was paid an enviable $ 3 million for the screenplay and direction. Hollywood insiders believe he also has a backend deal -- if the movie becomes profitable, he could get some part of the profits.
"I loved the screenplay and decided to buy it," said David Vogel, president of Disney Pictures, who calls Shyamalan's "exceptional writing" highly suited for an emotional saga.
Shyamalan, who was smitten by movie-making as a teenager, rejected following the conventional immigrant college route. He was not interested in medicine or engineering or business. Instead, he studied film-making at New York University, and the year he graduated, he got his parents to part with $ 100,000 to make a film about an America-born Indian who discovers his roots in India.
Praying With Anger did not create box-office waves, but it got respectable reviews, and played for a few weeks in half a dozen American cities, gradually recouping the investment.
Shyamalan, who played the lead in Praying with Anger, has a small but significant part in his new film. The son of Philadelphia-based physicians, he cast himself as a doctor.
Shyamalan's story involves eight-year-old Cole Sear who is haunted by a dark secret: He is visited by ghosts. A helpless and reluctant channel, Cole is terrified by threatening visitations from those with unresolved problems who appear from the shadows.
Troubled by his paranormal powers, Cole is too young to understand his purpose and too terrified to tell anyone about his torment, except child psychologist Dr Malcolm Crowe.
As Dr Crowe tries to uncover the eerie truth about Cole's supernatural abilities, the consequence for client and therapist is a jolt that could change their lives for ever.
Despite the freedom he enjoyed at Disney, and the serious money the company is spending in promoting the film (reportedly $ 30 million), The Sixth Sense faces stiff competition in the summer market full of suspenseful and action-packed movies.
The Blair Witch Project, the critically acclaimed film made by five students of University of Central Florida for the unheard sum of $ 40,000, has emerged as a mind-boggling hit. After breaking records for two weeks in about 20 theaters, it is now in 1,000, where it grossed $ 28 million in just three days. The week Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense opens, The Blair Witch Project will have added 1,000 theaters. It is expected to gross at least $ 120 million in America alone.
And then there are other films which, though not spectacular hits, are making good money. These include The Haunting and Deep Blue Sea. It will also face competition from The Thomas Crown Affair, Mystery Men, The Iron Giant and Dick which are released around the same time.
But the fact that The Sixth Sense, which was scheduled to be released later in the year during a less crowded season, is opening now indicates the strong faith the distributors have in it.
The industry buz expects The Sixth Sense to be a middle-level hit, grossing about $ 80 million in the United States, and earning a bigger box-office abroad.
"But as many recent films have shown, the market place is full of surprises," says Gitesh Pandya, editor of Boxofficeguru. "If the positive buzz is really loud and ongoing, it could fly through the roof, giving Bruce Willis a solid hit outside the Die Hard genre."
Given the nature of fierce competition, if The Sixth Sense grosses over $100 million, don't be surprised if Shyamalan gets a call from Steven Spielberg.
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