After Earth

With director’s name losing cachet, Sony focuses its marketing campaign on Will Smith and son Jaden Smith

It’s been a rocky road for M. Night Shyamalan, who hit a career high in 1999 with the eerie Oscar-nominated thriller “The Sixth Sense,” but in recent years has struggled to stay atop Hollywood’s A-list of directors after several box office misses. Yet, ever since “Sixth Sense’s” surprise blockbuster success, the writer-director has been the marquee selling point for each of his films — until now.

With Sony’s post-apocalyptic “After Earth” set for release May 31, the studio opted to put stars Will Smith and his teenage son Jaden front and center in the marketing campaign for its $100 million-plus family picture, pushing Shyamalan out of the spotlight.

M. Night Shyamalan’s Box Office Track Record:

M. Night Shyamalan has never been able to duplicate the success he achieved with “The Sixth Sense.” Here are the worldwide grosses for his films:

Nowhere in the key promotional materials — the posters, trailers, TV spots and the film’s own website — is there a mention of the director. (You have to read the fine print in the credits to see his name.)

“Night is, without a doubt, a world-class filmmaker who we were thrilled to team up with on this project,” says Jeff Blake, Sony’s marketing and distribution chief. “Together, we decided to focus our campaign on both the action and Will and Jaden, given that “After Earth” is an adventure story of a father and son.”

Tracking for the film’s opening has picked up lately, with expectations of a $35 million-$40 million debut. That said, the marketplace is crowded with tentpoles, including newcomer “Star Trek Into Darkness,” which bowed May 16, and Memorial Day weekend pictures “The Hangover Part III” and “Fast and Furious 6.”

Shyamalan’s once-hot brand name means less to audiences today than it did before, given a string of disappointments, including his most recent effort, Paramount’s 2010 release “The Last Airbender.”

Despite his lack of visibility in “After Earth’s” marketing, surprisingly more than 60% of the approximately 1,000 moviegoers polled by Fandango in a proprietary survey conducted for Variety said they were aware that Shyamalan was directing the picture.

However only 39% said that fact made them more excited to see it. And on Facebook and Twitter, Shyamalan registers even less strongly, driving just 2% of the online chatter on “After Earth,” as opposed to Smith and son, who are the subject of a dominating 32% of the conversation — the vast majority of which is positive, according to social-media listening firm Fizziology.

It’s understandable that Sony chose to sell the movie on the back of Will Smith, who is one of the biggest and most marketable stars in the world and whose name could considerably boost international sales. Smith and producing partner James Lassiter’s production outfit Overbrook Entertainment, which produced the picture, is treated like royalty on the Sony lot.

An Overbrook rep did not respond to multiple interview requests. A rep for Shyamalan says the director “has been fully involved in the marketing process on this film, and is very happy with the campaign focusing on the Smiths.”

It was Smith who hand-picked Shyamalan to direct “After Earth,” about a father and son who crash land on an abandoned Earth that has evolved to kill humans.

For Shyamalan, the pic represents the first time he has been strictly a director for hire and has helmed a film based on a screenplay he didn’t originate. The script, based on an idea by Smith, was written by Gary Whitta (“The Book of Eli”). Once Shyamalan came aboard in 2010, he reworked several drafts to better acquaint himself with the project.

Any way you look at it, “After Earth” is much less a Shyamalan vehicle from top to bottom than his previous films. He received top billing on “The Last Airbender,” based on his $150 million adaptation of a cartoon TV series. The film, which cost tens of millions more to market and distribute, disappointed with $320 million in worldwide receipts.

The last original film written and directed by Shyamalan, Fox’s “The Happening,” grossed only $163 million globally in 2008, while his 2006 picture, “Lady in the Water,” was a total washout with a worldwide take of just $73 million.

In a move that will perhaps help rehabilitate his image and brand, Shyamalan will be trying his hand in television, exec producing and directing Fox’s limited series “Wayward Pines.” At the net’s upfront presentation in New York last week, Fox played a pre-recorded interview of Shyamalan promoting the 2014 series about a secret service agent who goes to Wayward Pines, Idaho, in search of two federal agents who’ve gone missing. The agent fears he may not escape alive.

As far as Shyamalan’s career is concerned, he can most likely relate.

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