Even if you haven’t seen an M. Night Shyamalan movie, you know what an M. Night Shyamalan twist is. It’s a small piece of the plot which suddenly makes us question everything, including our own lives. 18 years later, we’re still salivating over The Sixth Sense’s ending. Fast forward to today, Shyamalan has continued to shower us with his stories- even if we haven’t asked for it.
First of all, let me be upfront: I like Shyamalan’s work. I’ve been defending him since The Village (except for The Last Airbender) and will continue to support his work down the road. I even have a copy of Lady in the Water somewhere (though don’t tell anyone). However, watching him over the past few years has been interesting. Ever since Lady in the Water, Shyamalan has been considered a joke. His plots are underdeveloped, and his signature twists are seen as far-fetched. However, that doesn’t stop him from getting continuous work in both film and television. As laid out by Business Insider, he hasn’t had a big hit since 2002’s Signs and continuously racked up horrible reviews film after film.
When trailers for his newest film, Split, got released, the audience already considered it another dud. Shyamalan is releasing a movie in the middle of January?? Might as well change the title to Shit, am I right? However, when positive reviews were starting to come out, fans rejoiced saying that this was his “comeback.” While that’s all fine and dandy, why did Shyamalan get so many chances in the first place?
It’s no secret that sexism is rampant in Hollywood and that it puts an ungodly amount of pressure on female directors. Men can have a flop and just chalk it up to bad writing; women have to be perfect the first time to get another shot. And even if they are successful, they have to try much harder to stay in the industry. In Caroline Suh’s docu-series, “The 4%: Film’s Gender Problem,” cinematographer Ellen Kuras says:
“I’ve seen guys — where they haven’t done anything — or they’ve had two flops, and then they go back and get $50 million to make their next movie. So I myself have questioned, ‘What is that about?’”
Boys Don’t Cry’s director Kimberly Peirce is a shining example. Her controversial film won Hilary Swank an Oscar, and she still hasn’t gotten much work. Her last film was the 2013 remake of Carrie, which opened to mixed reviews. Since then, she’s only directed a few television episodes here and there. She’s had to fight just as hard to stay in the industry, but that one flop currently has her waiting for bail in movie jail. In “The 4%: Film’s Gender Problem,” Peirce says:
“If a woman makes a mistake, people remember it. If a man makes a mistake, more often than not, people forget it.”
Mimi Leder is another unfortunate victim. Her film, Pay it Forward, did not do well critically or financially and kept her from getting any of her future ideas on the table. She described it as a very painful experience and that it took her eight years to produce another feature film. On average, the gap between a male director’s films is 1-3 years while a woman’s gap is 3-7 years. That statistic puts Shyamalan right in the middle with approximately two years between every movie (and technically one between The Visit and Split if you count festival circulations). It shouldn’t have to take eight years for women to get another directing gig. Women also have bills to pay, but, more importantly in Hollywood perhaps, they also have stories to tell. Shyamalan may be one of the kings of genre films but so are Kathryn Bigelow and Karyn Kusama. What do these women have to do to be taken seriously?
If Shyamalan was a woman, would he have the same struggles? He’s a director of color, so he’s already managed to jump over a big obstacle, but, as a man, he still has an advantage. Despite him having many flops, folks still tend to cheer him on because they remember The Sixth Sense or Signs. But, when Kusama releases her first film after seven years (The Invitation), moviegoers just remember Jennifer’s Body (which isn’t that bad, come on). In Suh’s docu-series, Sundance’s executive director, Keri Putnam makes an excellent point about women’s failures in direction. She said:
“Women can fail once. If they fail, it’s the woman who fails.”
It’s because of these sentiments that male directors are nabbing blockbusters with close to no experience. Colin Trevorrow got Jurassic World because his go-getter attitude made the studio executives remind them of their younger days. It doesn’t matter that the film was basically a rehash because it managed to get him an even bigger honor—a Star Wars movie. Are there any female executives’ heartstrings that female directors can tug at?
Because of his horrible adaptation of The Last Airbender, it was thought (or hoped) that Shyamalan’s franchise attempts were over. But, If you have seen the end of Split, then you know that it’s far from over. Judging from how the film ended, we may have given Shyamalan permission to start his own franchise. If studios are so desperate to cash in on this exhausted fad, why not approach women for the job? Don’t give me that whole “women aren’t interested in directing blockbusters or action films” excuse. According to Bigelow’s track record, that’s entirely untrue. Women want them; they’re just not trusted to do it. That’s why Wonder Woman has to be good; if it’s bad, fans will blame not only the studio but Patty Jenkins as well.
I’m rooting for Shyamalan to succeed. We definitely need more directors of color working in Hollywood. But with his track record, it’s astonishing how many chances he gets. Shyamalan may be back to his roots, but at least let women sow their seeds.