EW Online explains how Disney turned this buzz-free film into a box office winner

By Josh Wolk
August 13, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT
Stephen Trupp/Star Max

In its first weekend ”The Sixth Sense” opened to little media hype and low expectations but ended up surprising box office experts by nabbing first place with a powerful $26.7 million take. And in its second weekend, it dropped only two percent to take in $26.1 million, confounding the conventional wisdom that said “Bowfinger” would take its place. Exhibitor Relations’ Paul Dergarabedian, for example, predicted last week that ”Sense” would drop “only” 30 percent, which he considered a strong follow-up, especially compared to the 54 percent plummet experienced by last month’s big-budget spookfest ”The Haunting” after its No. 1 debut. While it’s still too early to start predicting a final gross for the film, the industry pros now say the Bruce Willis thriller could end up one of the summer’s big winners.

”Sense”’s success is due in large part to Disney’s marketing wizardry: The studio pounced on the frenzy surrounding the ”Blair Witch Project” and advertised ”Sense” as a spooky chiller — with TV ads that focused on ghosts and the young star Haley Joel Osment whispering, ”I see dead people” — rather than touting it as the lower-key supernatural thriller that it actually is. ”Disney knew exactly what it was going for,” says Robert Bucksbaum of the box office prediction service Reel Source. ”’Blair Witch’ brought the horror enthusiasts out of the woodwork and whet their appetite for the genre.”

Timing is everything. At the end of June — when most studios were pushing their summer films back — Disney moved ”Sense”’s release date up by two weeks to Aug. 6, and intentionally or not (Disney execs claimed it was a lucky coincidence) the eerie trailers hit theaters just as ”Blair Witch” fever kicked in. Reel Source polling found that only 35 percent of heavy-moviegoing teenage males wanted to see ”Sixth Sense” two weeks before it came out, but the week before it opened — when ”Blair Witch” expanded to 1,000 theaters and had become a national craze — that number had nearly doubled, to 68 percent. And because ”Sixth Sense” earned a kid friendly PG-13 rating, younger teens blocked out of the R-rated ”Blair Witch” now had a place to plunk down their frightfest dollar.

Emphasizing the ghosts over Willis was also savvy. Reel Source found that only 20 percent of people wanted to see the film because of Mr. Movie Star. Compare that to the 50 percent of those who say they are heading to ”Bowfinger” because of Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy. More proof: Last year’s ”Mercury Rising,” which also focused on Willis helping a tormented child, grossed just $32.9 million, a number which ”Sense” has bettered in only seven days.

Even so, Willis’ longtime box office appeal also helped the movie by drawing older audiences who may not have bought the ”Blair Witch” hype but were looking for a fright, ”[In theaters now] you basically have two scary films,” says AC Nielsen EDI president Tom Borys. ”’Blair Witch’ has nobodies in it, but has a real buzz and resonates with the Gen-X crowd. ‘Sixth Sense’ attracts older audiences who may be more skeptical about a film without anybody in it. They want to be scared, but they want to have the familiarity of a big star.” We know what they mean: When you’re being chased with an ax, there’s nothing more comforting than having Bruce Willis around.

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • 107 minutes
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