With ‘Split,’ Philly’s M. Night Shyamalan is finally free from Hollywood jail

But will the director ever bring blockbuster budgets back to the area?

Shyamalan and the cast of 'Spilt' make a surprise appearance at a screening in Hamburg, Germany

Shyamalan and the cast of 'Spilt' make a surprise appearance at a screening in Hamburg, Germany


M. Night Shyamalan’s latest mind-blowing-twist movie is poised to take the top spot at the box office this weekend, prompting many fans of the filmmaker’s early work to wonder if Split is good enough to bail the Chester County resident out of Hollywood’s dreaded “director jail.”

The truth is that Shyamalan’s previous film, The Visit, already accomplished that goal, taking in $98 million worldwide on a measly $5 million budget — and that was without a marquee movie star.

After the release of The Sixth Sense (1999), Shyamalan was quickly anointed Hollywood’s wunderkind director. The Bruce Willis/Haley Joel Osment thriller, shot mostly in Philadelphia (Tequilas and Butcher & Singer served as sets) was both a critical and popular success; it has an 85% rating and 89% positive audience reaction score on Rotten Tomatoes, and has pulled in more than $293 million in the US over its lifetime.

Butcher & Singer served as the setting for Bruce Willis' dinner with his wife in 'Sixth Sense'

Butcher & Singer served as the setting for Bruce Willis' dinner with his wife in 'Sixth Sense'

Danya Henninger

The director used his newfound clout to reteam with Willis on Unbreakable, make Signs with Mel Gibson, and reteam with that film’s co-star Joaquin Phoenix on The Village. All of those Philadelphia-made films were hits, to varying degrees.

Then came the soggy fable Lady in the Water, which started Shyamalan’s downward spiral — according to Box Office Mojo, its take was just over $42 million domestically. Desperate for a rebound, the director came up with The Happening, one of the most unintentionally hilarious movies of all-time (18% and 24% on RT, oof). Clearly he needed to shake things up, so he tackled his first big-budget blockbuster with The Last Airbender, which performed far better than his last two films, but was ultimately dismissed by critics.

While The Last Airbender did Shyamalan no favors, it did earn him a job directing Sony’s sci-fi tentpole After Earth, which paired him with the father-son team of Will and Jaden Smith. That film was an epic flop — the box office of $60 mil did little to offset the production budget of $130m — and with that Shyamalan was sentenced to “director jail,” with Hollywood prepared to throw away the key.

Enter Jason Blum, the cost-efficient producer of the Paranormal Activity franchise. Blum partnered with Shyamalan on The Visit (2015), which was the director’s best film since The Village. In interviews, Shyamalan said he felt empowered by the freedom that came with directing a movie on a shoestring budget.

When Shyamalan was making The Last Airbender and After Earth, he was dealing with nine-figure budgets, not counting marketing costs. Anytime you’re dealing with that kind money, you’re dealing with more voices (i.e. pain-in-the-ass executives, or in After Earth’s case, the famously finicky Will Smith) and higher expectations. No one can really say whether those films suffered from having too many cooks in the kitchen, or whether Shyamalan’s own ideas were at fault.

Either way, directors are like quarterbacks. When the team wins (in this case, the movie), they get all the glory, and when the team loses, they get all the blame. Fair or not, that’s part of the deal, and Shyamalan knew that.

On the flip side, Blum’s production company Blumhouse offers filmmakers exciting opportunities to make movies for a fraction of the cost of a typical studio film. The Visit and Split cost $5 million each, so it’s like making an indie movie, except the film has guaranteed distribution from a major studio, since Blumhouse has an output deal with Universal Pictures. That’s not to say every Blumhouse movie gets the Universal treatment — many are dumped on iTunes or Netflix if they’re not up to snuff — but those that do stand to make a nice chunk of change. Just take a look at the Insidious and Sinister franchises.

The model comes with huge upside, and Shyamalan won’t be the last down-and-out director to reap its rewards. He and Blum teamed again on Split, this time armed with a bonafide movie star in James McAvoy, as well as an up-and-coming actress in Anya Taylor-Joy, the young star of The Witch.

The movie itself has proven to be somewhat divisive. Some critics have called it a return to form, while others (including myself) were left fairly underwhelmed. Everyone agrees, though, that the last two minutes will have audiences talking on their way out of the theater.

But that doesn’t really matter, because with another $5 million price tag, Split is poised to do solid business, with a domestic opening north of $25 million, according to Hollywood bible Variety.

Now the question turns to what Shyamalan will do next.

After making two profitable films back-to-back, he could use his regained clout to play in a bigger sandbox and chase big-budget studio gigs again, or he could choose to stay right where he is, making low-budget movies with Blum that give him more creative control and bigger profits.

Plus, unlike The Visit, Shyamalan’s Split lends itself to, if not a “franchise” as we’ve come to understand the word, further exploration of the universe in which the story takes place. The possibilities are endless, and the only one who can blow it at this point is Shyamalan himself. That would be the biggest twist of all.

Jeff Sneider is the editor-in-chief of Tracking-Board.com, and a former film writer for Variety and TheWrap.com.

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