×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Word-of-Mouth Turned M. Night Shyamalan’s ‘Sixth Sense’ Into a Sleeper Hit 20 Years Ago

It’s the 20th anniversary of “The Sixth Sense,” a success that took everybody by surprise, including the filmmakers. Writer-director M. Night Shyamalan had made only two films, “Praying With Anger” and “Wide Awake,” which barely made a ripple in theaters. However, Variety reported Aug. 9, 1999, “In a surprise ending to rival the film’s twisty plot, Buena Vista’s supernatural thriller ‘The Sixth Sense’ stunned prognosticators by snatching the weekend box office title from odds-on favorite ‘The Blair Witch Project.’ The Bruce Willis starrer opened to an August record $25.8 million, according to studio estimates.” A month later, Variety declared it the “Sleeper of the Summer,” and said amid all the films with big marketing budgets and the studios’ newfound fascination with internet promotion, “Sixth Sense” had an old-fashioned reason for success: “This film has spectacular word of mouth,” Marc Pascucci, senior VP of marketing for Loews Cineplex U.S., told Variety.

The film had been set to open in October, but the studio took a big gamble and opened it Aug. 6, thinking that it might do some business as summer was winding down.

A few days before the film’s opening, Variety’s reviewer predicted good box office, though he was unimpressed by the film itself, finding it “a mostly ponderous tale — moody, low-key and semi-pretentious without being scary or suspenseful for most of its running time.” He also marveled at the fact that “Few pictures have hinged their effectiveness so completely upon information withheld until the last moment” and said the pic might be “more rewarding upon second viewing.”

Indeed, many audience members flocked to repeat views. On Sept. 8, 1999, Variety printed a package of stories analyzing the past summer; box office maven Ben Fritz began his story about “Sixth Sense” by describing the low expectations, in light of the other offerings at the multiplex. “If women and couples were going to ‘Runaway Bride,’ the teens and hipsters to ‘Blair Witch’ and the male action fans to ‘The Thomas Crown Affair’ and ‘Mystery Men,’ who would be left to see a film whose trailer tagline was an 8-year-old saying ‘I see dead people?’ The answer, in retrospect seems obvious: Everyone.”

Fritz said “Sixth Sense” benefitted from “largely positive reviews, a savvy marketing campaign that emphasized the film’s intelligent scares and a family-friendly PG-13 rating” — and, of course, word of mouth. He pointed out that the Hollywood Pictures/Spyglass Entertainment film not only won its opening weekend, it stayed at No. 1 for the next three weeks, with only modest declines.

Globally, it earned $673 million, the second biggest hit of 1999 after “Star Wars: Episode 1 — The Phantom Menace.” And the film was nominated for six Oscars, including best picture, director, writer, editor (Andrew Mondshein), and supporting actors (Haley Joel Osment and Toni Collette).

Popular on Variety

More Vintage

  • James Wong Howe Asian Cinematographer

    Cinematographer James Wong Howe Put Diversity in the Picture in Early Hollywood

    Few Hollywood stories can match the career highs and heartbreaking lows of James Wong Howe, whom Variety recognized in its July 15, 1976, edition as “one of the world’s foremost cinematographers.” Born in China on Aug. 28, 1899, he was 5 when his family moved to the U.S. At 18, he was hired for $10 [...]

  • Crystal Gayle First Time in Variety

    Crystal Gayle on Building Her Music Career After Leaving Sister Loretta Lynn's Label

    With her self-titled debut album for United Artists Records in Nashville nearly 45 years ago, singer Crystal Gayle immediately established a winning sound that would take the 24-year-old younger sister of country music legend Loretta Lynn repeatedly to the top of the music charts. Hit records such as “Wrong Road Again,” “I’ll Get Over You,” [...]

  • Stanley Nelson

    'Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool' Filmmaker Stanley Nelson on What He Loves About Documentaries

    Stanley Nelson’s documentary “Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool” is playing in U.S. theaters after screening at Sundance. But for the past 30 years Nelson’s films, such as the features “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” and “Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities,” have detailed lesser-known stories of [...]

  • Mickey Gilbert The Wold Bunch

    Meet Mickey Gilbert, Hollywood's Veteran Western Stuntman

    Among the true legends of Hollywood’s stunt profession, Mickey Gilbert has always performed a notch above the rest. The stunt double for Robert Redford from 1969’s “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” through 2018’s “The Old Man & the Gun,” Gilbert has more than 100 film and TV credits as a stunt coordinator and a [...]

  • Francis Ford Coppola Apocalypse Now BTS

    Why Everything About 'Apocalypse Now's' Production Was Unorthodox

    Lionsgate, myCinema and American Zoetrope are releasing “Apocalypse Now Final Cut,” the third version of Francis Coppola’s 1979 war epic, to commemorate the film’s 40th anniversary. While multiple versions of any mainstream movie are unusual, everything about this movie was unorthodox. Related M. Night Shyamalan Sets Two New Films at Universal James McAvoy Reveals Patricia's [...]

  • 'Russian Doll' Star Natasha Lyonne on

    How Natasha Lyonne Talked Her Way Into a 1996 Movie Role as a Teen

    Two decades before her turn as the gruff-voiced, sardonic Nadia on the existential dramedy “Russian Doll,” a teenage Natasha Lyonne played DJ, the chirpy narrator in Woody Allen’s 1996 whimsical romantic-comedy musical “Everyone Says I Love You.” Lyonne’s name first appeared in Variety on Dec. 2, 1996, in a review of the Allen film.  Related [...]

  • When They See Us BTS Ava

    Ava DuVernay on Moving From PR to Filmmaking, Directing 'When They See Us'

    For the past 14 years, Ava DuVernay has used film as a way to tell the often untold stories of marginalized communities — but the Oscar-nominated filmmaker has more IMDb credits as a publicist than as a director. DuVernay rose through the ranks as a PR executive early in her career before starting her own [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content