box office

M. Night Shyamalan’s Old Gives Us the Pandemic Era’s First Big Box-Office Upset

Photo: Universal Pictures

In a real-life display of the “everything you thought you knew is wrong” plot twists that distinguish so many titles in M. Night Shyamalan’s oeuvre, the writer-director’s Old became the top-grossing new title in wide release. To score what is being hailed as the first box-office upset of the COVID-19 era, the $18 million horror-thriller took in $16.5 million this weekend, beating much bigger-budget competition from Snake Eyes and Space Jam: A New Legacy, the presumptive Nos. 1 and 2 according to prerelease “tracking” estimates.

That news is particularly devastating for Snake Eyes, which reportedly cost $88 million to produce. The third in a G.I. Joe Origins–branded franchise from its distributor Paramount Pictures (based on IP from Mattel), the action-thriller only grossed $13.3 million in North America and a piddling $4 million in 37 overseas markets.

Thanks in large part to continuing theater closures due to coronavirus and recent spikes in the Delta variant across the country, Old arrived as the lowest-grossing July No. 1 in a quarter-century. But the film marks Shyamalan’s third in a row to claim the top box-office spot; his similarly low-budget titles Split (2016) and Glass (2019) helped resurrect the Oscar-nominated filmmaker’s reputation after a string of flops. Loosely based on the 2013 graphic novel Sandcastle, Old follows a disparate group of strangers (Vicky Krieps, Gael Garcia Bernal, Ken Leung, Rufus Sewell, and Nikki Amuka-Bird among the actors in its ensemble cast) trapped on a secluded beach that makes them age a lifetime in a day.

To hear it from Comscore senior media analyst Paul Dergarabedian, Old overcame competition from more widely promoted and immediately recognizable movies at the multiplex due to three factors: the horror genre’s hotness du jour (with A Quiet Place Part 2 recently setting a record for pandemic-era ticket sales and The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It coming in at No. 1 last month), a certain clarity of concept that delivered its messaging, and resurgent audience goodwill toward Shyamalan.

“Taglines are important and being able to understand what a movie is about in one sentence — maybe not even one sentence — is pretty important,” Dergarabedian says. “Horror has been a successful go-to genre because people want to see horror movies in a theater. And horror movies punch above their weight. The cost doesn’t necessarily dictate the scariness or quality.”

“[Shyamalan’s] name has obviously been known since The Sixth Sense,” the analyst continues. “And he’s had that resurgence with both Split and Glass opening to more than $40 million. That really reenergized M. Night Shyamalan’s career. He is a brand. He’s front and center on the marketing. And there are only a handful of directors who have that brand equity, brand name, drawing power: Wes Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, and M. Night Shyamalan.”

A reboot-cum-origin story, Snake Eyes stars Crazy Rich Asians breakout Henry Golding as the mysterious masked Joe commando of few words and deadly fighting skills. The film was, however, snake-bitten by a spate of middling to negative reviews. “It’s as though [director Robert] Schwentke was operating from a checklist of expected action-movie clichés and hurries through them all,” wrote Soren Andersen in the Seattle Times. “The script is pockmarked with clichés, tropes and never-ending predictability,” Brandon Katz opined in The Observer. Meanwhile in the AP, Lindsey Bahr faults the film for misunderstanding Golding’s star appeal: “He’s not exactly bad, just miscast and misused. And despite the novel trimmings and flash around him, his character is woefully generic.”

After a prolonged period in which opening-weekend box-office tallies ceased to be an accurate barometer of movies’ overall profitability, Dergarabedian chooses to look on the bright side of our discussion of Snake Eyes’ perceived failure. “It feels like a normal weekend,” he says. “Why? Because we’re talking about two movies and how they performed against each other. Which we wouldn’t even think about doing a little while ago.”

Correction: This article has been updated to clarify Old’s status as the lowest grossing No. 1 movie released during the month of July in the last 25 years.

M. Night Shyamalan’s Old Won the COVID Box-Office Race