Movies that were supposed to launch franchises (but didn’t): Unbreakable
When Unbreakable was released in 2000, writer-director M. Night Shyamalan was riding high. His previous movie, the supernatural thriller The Sixth Sense, had been a surprise smash. On a modest $40 million dollar budget, The Sixth Sense became the second-highest grossing movie of 1999 right behind The Phantom Menace. But unlike the Star Wars prequel, The Sixth Sense also enjoyed critical success as well. It was also nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay.
After his second movie as a director, Shyamalan was a Hollywood power player. Disney, which had released The Sixth Sense, couldn’t wait to make more movies with their new superstar. He was paid a record-breaking $5 million dollars for a spec script for Unbreakable in addition to another $5 million in directing fees. That is a quarter of what it cost to make The Sixth Sense. But if Shyamalan’s follow-up was even half as successful as that movie, it would be money well spent.
Like a lot of Shyamalan’s movies, Unbreakable was shrouded in secrecy. The previous year, it was considered blasphemous to spoil the twist ending of The Sixth Sense. When it came to Unbreakable, audiences weren’t even allowed to know which genre the movie belonged to. The posters for the movie featured images of shattered glass. The trailer indicated that Bruce Willis – the star of The Sixth Sense – was the sole survivor of a train crash he should not have walked away from. Given that information, it’s understandable that a lot of ticket buyers assumed that this movie was another supernatural thriller – a spiritual sequel to The Sixth Sense.
Unbreakable did have a lot in common with Shyamalan’s previous film. Both movies were somber and moody. Both featured Willis giving a minimalist dramatic performance. Both were character driven with long stretches of silence and both movies had surprise endings. But the twist in Unbreakable wasn’t a mind-bending revelation that changed the context of the entire movie up until that point. Instead, Shyamalan revealed that he had made a secret superhero movie.
Today is the 15th anniversary of the release of Unbreakable. So if you are still avoiding spoilers, oops. I sort of let the cat out of the bag. But if you want to avoid reading details of the story, now would be a good time to turn back.
At the time, conventional wisdom was that no one would go to see a superhero movie. There had been a few high profile flops in the late 90’s and the superhero genre was still a couple of years from becoming dominant. Disney, which now makes nothing but Marvel movies and Star Wars, was worried that if audiences realized Shyamalan had made a movie about comic books, they wouldn’t buy tickets. According to Shyamalan:
I remember when I made it, Disney was literally like, ‘Comic books?! There’s no market for comic books!’ That’s all they make now! It was a hilarious conversation.
Shyamalan has said that he originally conceived Unbreakable using a three-act structure. The first act would be the traditional origin story. In the middle chapter, the hero hones his skills fighting a general threat. And in the final act, there is an ultimate battle between the hero and his arch enemy. Ultimately, he deiced to concentrate on the birth of the hero for the first movie.
This is where things can get a little frustrating. Shyamalan has gone on record as saying that he was not thinking of Unbreakable as the beginning of a trilogy, but he has also said that there was more story to tell and on several occasions he, Willis and Jackson have talked about planned sequels. So the degree to which a franchise was planned is open to debate. I think it’s pretty clear that this wasn’t like a modern superhero movie where sequels were expected. But I also think that everyone involved was hoping for a Sixth Sense-sized hit that could be spun off into a trilogy.
There is a perception out there that Unbreakable was not successful. It certainly wasn’t as successful as Shyamalan’s breakout movie. But that’s a mighty high bar to clear. Generally speaking, critics agreed that while Unbreakable wasn’t as good as The Sixth Sense, it was still a good movie. Why didn’t it click with audiences?
I think you can look at Disney’s vague marketing strategy for this one. There was a mystery around The Sixth Sense, but audiences knew from the trailer that it was about a kid who sees dead people. That’s a clear concept. A ticket buyer can decide whether or not they want to go see a spooky ghost story in which Bruce Willis tries to help a scared little boy. The twist ending wasn’t initially the movie’s selling point. It was a bonus that gave the movie incredible word of mouth.
Unbreakable didn’t have that – at least not in its marketing. The story is a pretty straight-forward superhero origin story albeit one with a middle-aged protagonist and a lot of moping. There’s obviously an audience for stories about guys who discover they have super powers, but that’s not the movie Disney wanted to sell.
They wanted people to think that Unbreakable was another Sixth Sense which it obviously wasn’t. So people who bought a ticket expecting another creepy supernatural story were obviously disappointed. And people who might have been interested in seeing a superhero movie in the days before the genre dominated the box office didn’t know they what they were missing.
Ultimately, Unbreakable didn’t live up to studio expectations. It opened in second place behind the holiday smash, How the Grinch Stole Christmas and ended up grossing about a third of what The Sixth Sense did. Granted, that was still nearly $100 million dollars. But Disney had expected a lot more from their new wunderkind. When Shyamalan pitched them on a follow-up, Disney passed.
Shyamalan’s next movie, Signs, was another massive hit at the box office which seemed to suggest that the writer-director had gotten passed his sophomore slump. But Shyamalan’s next movie, The Village, would be his final movie for Disney and it was another disappointment. This lead to a messy break-up between the auteur and the studio. Shyamalan ended up at Warner Brothers where he made the critical and commercial flop, Lady in the Water. Disney breathed a sigh of relief that they had cut ties when they did.
Even now, fifteen years after the release of a movie that didn’t live up to expectations, there’s still talk about the potential for a sequel. Shyamalan’s career has cooled to the point where modest success doesn’t seem so disappointing anymore. And Unbreakable has built up enough of a fanbase on video that audiences would know what they were signing up for. It certainly helps that the superhero genre has become more popular than ever before. Earlier this year, Shyamalan expressed his ideas for Unbreakable 2:
It feels like a straight-up drama. It’s real. You’re confronting the possibility that comic book characters were based on people that were real. That’s the premise, so the tone has to be super grounded. It would be cool.