Markets & Finance

Lights, Camera, Backbiting. It's Hollywood


The hottest material in Hollywood these days isn't an action script or up-market drama. Studio fax machines are working overtime to churn out galley proofs of a new book about superstar director and writer M. Night Shyamalan that wastes little time in ripping apart top executives at the Walt Disney Studios (DIS).

In The Man Who Heard Voices: Or, How M. Night Shyamalan Risked His Career on a Fairy Tale, the 35-year-old director of the 1999 hit film The Sixth Sense recounts to author Michael Bamberger the story of his six-year association with the studio—and how it came apart when Disney executives criticized the script of his upcoming film, Lady in the Water.

The criticism sent Shyamalan off in a huff to Warner Bros. (TWX). And then he started directing his own criticism at Disney. As Bamberger writes, Shyamalan believes Disney Studio President Nina Jacobson's "creative vision" had "decayed." Among her concerns: Shyamalan seems to pop up in every scene of his own film. Jacobson's boss, Dick Cook, was lambasted for "no longer valuing individualism." (This despite the fact that Cook offered to fund the film to the tune of $60 million and to have studio execs stay out of the director's way.)

A little childish? You betcha. Indeed, his antics, which have set a new standard for prima donna behavior, have made Lady in the Water, which opens July 21, one of the summer's most anticipated movies—for reasons that have little or nothing to do with the film itself. You see, Hollywood is a town where nearly everyone hopes to see the other guy fail (miserably if possible), and the knives are now out for Shyamalan.

"EVERYONE HATES EVERYONE." Of course, there are other crosscurrents that are wonderful to behold. True, there's a gaggle of naysayers who would love to see the phenomenally successful Shyamalan fall on his face. But there are also agents who are itching to see Disney, known for its occasionally sharp elbows and tough negotiating tactics, fail. And don't forget the folks who are eager to see frequent box-office champion Warners, which picked up the project once Shyamalan and Disney parted ways, get taken down a notch.

Ain't Hollywood grand? "Everyone hates everyone around here, it's what we talk about," says one top studio executive. And now everyone is talking about Shyamalan for talking to Bamberger. According to his spokeswoman, Shyamalan was away on vacation and not available for comment.

Granted, battles between Hollywood "suits" and the creative types are hardly new. Warner Bros.' Superman Returns went through directors faster than Clark Kent changes into the Man of Steel. Tim Burton has been known to battle studio executives over the direction of his films. But Hollywood likes to keep its circus under the big top, and Shyamalan is allowing admission for the price of a book written by one of his Philadelphia friends.

Disney, for its part, says it has "enjoyed a fruitful relationship" with the director. The folks there say they "wish him the best of luck…in all of his future endeavors."

A HIT CONQUERS ALL. He might need that luck. People may be talking about Lady in the Water, but according to Nielsen's National Research Group, only about 3% of moviegoers list it as the movie they'd most like to see. Shyamalan backers—and yes, there are some—say the numbers will improve as Warners heats up the marketing campaign, and the director's cult following will give him large enough opening numbers to boost word of mouth. Others point out that no films are tracking right now, as Disney's mega-hit Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest is capturing everyone's attention.

So, are we seeing the undoing of M. Night Shyamalan as a Hollywood power? On the one hand, his shtick as an industry outsider—he makes all of his films near his home outside Philadelphia—may be wearing a little thin. And what he did just wasn't smart. "The person you dis in print today may end up being the head of another movie studio tomorrow," one Hollywood writer blogged on writerswrite.com.

On the other hand, there will always be a studio eager to put a director with hit films behind a camera. Shyamalan has been riding a streak of hit films that any Hollywood director would give his Malibu beachfront villa to match. His 2002 film Signs was a blockbuster, and even his misfire, the 2000 Bruce Willis film Unbreakable, grossed $94.9 million.

That's why Shyamalan had better hope Lady in the Water is a hit. Hollywood can forgive insolence and insults. But failure? Hardly ever.


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