So, I did something I almost never do. I went to a movie on opening night. It would be a lie if I said this wasn’t partially due to PG’s influence. However, I really wanted to see it too. Despite the bad reviewers, I wanted to see The Happening. And there are really bad reviews, really bad. The Happening got a combined metacritic score of 37 and a 20% on Rotten Tomatoes. That’s pretty bad.
However, when I got out of the movie, I liked it. Actually, I liked it a lot. A brief look at the reviewers who had been giving it such awful scores and from my experience at the theater, I think I know the problem. People went into the movie expecting The Sixth Sense, but got a B-movie instead.
There is no mistaking The Happening for anything but a B-movie. It uses classic schlock horror techniques left and right, in some cases quite heavily. The use of certain angles, the TV, the radio, the internal and external arguments, the crashing through windows, a number of the shots look as if they’ve been ripped right out of Night of the Living Dead.
I’m not sure why they’re surprised, Shyamalan has not exactly hid the fact that he wanted this to be a big-budget B-movie. He said so in an interview on NPR’s Science Friday. (I’d highly recommend checking it out, if you are having trouble deciding on whether or not to see the movie.) He’s not the only one either, the recent enormously successful Grindhouse set of movies worked on much the same principle.
So what’s the point of creating what traditional critics would call a bad movie? Why did Shyamalan do it and why have others been doing it?
The pursuit of a niche audience.
On a financial level, this is something that only a few directors can get away with. If The Happening had been directed by a more unknown persona, it would be a complete failure. As it is, it probably won’t rake in a huge profit. Shyamalan (and Robert Rodriguez) can get away with it, because it is their name on the product. Winning an Oscar is all well and good, however, winning a niche audience is much harder.
In our age of Internet communities however, a niche audience will give The Happening more staying power then No Country for Old Men will ever have. The Happening will become a cult film. Around a cult film you can see communities building up, interactive Internet fan clubs which will all buy copies of the film on DVD, re-watch the movie in re-play theaters, and so forth. For a director, building a community like that around your films has far more future advertising and audience potential then even the award for Best Picture. Communities give feedback, try to act as spoilers, eat up movie reprints, hunt down news, and play an active role in searching out the director’s activities and involvement.
I’m going to bet that Shyamalan’s next movie will delve into a serious viral marketing campaign before its launch, just like Heroes has.