How 'Knock at the Cabin' broke up Shyamalan and Universal
Box Office, and other thoughts on M. Night's latest underrated movie
Less than two weeks after M. Night Shyamalan’s Knock at the Cabin (based on the novel Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay) premiered in theaters courtesy of Universal Pictures, Deadline reported that the writer-director had signed a new multi-year deal with Warner Bros. Discovery, which included an August 2, 2024 release date in store for his upcoming thriller Trap.
Left unstated by the report, however, is any acknowledgement that something must’ve soured the Night/Uni relationship, which dates back to 2015, when the studio picked up Night’s comeback movie The Visit for distribution. I’d say that something is the fact that Cabin failed to make back its money at the box office.
In this article, I will illustrate why I believe this to be the case. In addition, I will discuss Cabin in the larger context of Shyamalan’s career and what its performance, along with his departure from Universal, could mean for him going forward.
Marketing Costs vs. Box office
The idea that Cabin actually didn’t make its money back might sound a little uncon-vincing at first. After all, there has been no real announcement in the news of it being a box office bomb and its current $54 million worldwide gross surpasses its relatively meager production budget of $20 million, which Shyamalan supplied himself.
But things become a little clearer when you take into account the film’s “Print and Advertising” (P&A) Costs, which includes all the marketing, publicity, physical distribution and other related expenditures undertaken by Universal Pictures. These costs, as is typically the case in Hollywood, have not been reported or revealed. But considering that the semi-independent film got ample promotion and a wide release in over 3500 theaters, I’d estimate them as being at least $15 million.
For the sake of argument, let’s accept these figures as the true numbers for the movie and go along with the generally accepted idea that exhibition takes up on average around 50 percent of a film’s gross.* Based on this, we can estimate the Cabin likely had to make at least $70 million to break even. Instead, it ended up with around $54 million globally in the course of theatrical exhibition.
*This ignores the fact that production budgets in the US are often deliberately under-reported and how much exhibitors get of the take can differ depending on the specific title, release region, and numerous other factors.
If we get more specific, we could argue that Universal might have made a rather tiny profit from the picture, while Shyamalan has not. Traditionally, a distributor gets to remove its P&A Costs from the gross income before taking his fee or cut of the Resulting Net Income. The remainder can then undergo additional steps at which costs are subtracted from it (such as by sales agents) before it trickles down to the Producers, who are responsible for supplying the budget.*
*See this article and then this follow-up by Stephen Follows for more detailed information on how box office is distributed.
By this logic, Universal got $27 million from the gross of Cabin, recouped its $15 mil P&A, then took a fee from the $12 million remainder before passing it to the next stage. By the time it trickles down to Shyamalan then, the take is likely less than $10 million. If so, then Night would’ve lost over 10 million on the theatrical box office.*
*Again, this is assuming Universal spent only $15 mil on the P&A. If it spent more, then its profit margin would be even thinner and Night’s losses greater. Needless to say, if the total P&A costs were actually more than $27 million, then Universal would be at a loss as well.
Now, of course, this does not consider the numerous other factors in the equation. We are not counting, for instance, the post-theatrical (PVOD, Blu-Ray, streaming) revenue streams, which could eventually help the movie turn a profit over time. We also do not know if Shyamalan’s deal might’ve precluded his losses, such as being able to literally get a percentage of the box office gross. But whatever the case is, when it comes to theatrical exhibition, either Night, Uni, or both had suffered a loss.
It is safe to assume that nobody involved with Cabin was happy about the low opening weekend numbers, which meant that a loss was virtually guaranteed. And this probably did not look well for Shyamalan, given that his projects with Universal have seen diminishing returns. Split (2017) was an unexpected hit that made $278m, but Glass (2019) was a smaller hit that performed below expectations with a final tally of $248m (and, iirc had a special deal in place that meant sharing revenue with Disney).
Then came Old (2021), which had the same approximate budget and P&A costs as Cabin, but grossed $90m, despite being released during the Covid pandemic. I wouldn’t be surprised if all this led Universal to reconsider the terms of its deal with Shyamalan - announced in October of last year - over the release of his next film, an untitled production with a scheduled April 2024 release.
Maybe Uni executives even wanted to drop the movie altogether. Regardless of the specifics, the enthusiasm Uni had for working with Night must’ve cooled down.
Seeking to patch up things with the talent after the bridges the previous regime burned when it unexpectedly enacted its direct-to-streaming measures in 2021, Warner Bros. Discovery makes Night an offer he can’t refuse. And now, Night is gushing about Warner and talking up the release of his new movie Trap in 2024.
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A Hollywood film directed by Shyamalan
The Official Trailer, copyright Universal Pictures
The box office take of a film is far from always reflective of its quality. In a perfect world, bad movies would fail and good movies would succeed. Life, unfortunately, is not perfect. There are plenty of bad films that have huge revenues and there are numerous excellent pictures that have bombed.
In the case of Cabin, I’d say the film deserved better. I wouldn’t say Cabin is a masterpiece or even a great Shyamalan movie, but it is really good at what it sets out to do, which is to provide an intense thrill-ride that also poses some thought-provoking questions, while doing so in the most visually interesting way possible.*
*Look, a Shyamalan movie having amazing, unconventional cinematography is just a given at this point. Cabin has beautiful, beautiful shots all over, particularly when it comes to the super-intense close-ups of its characters’ faces.
What fascinates me is that Cabin failed, despite being easily the most commercial and accessible movie Shyamalan has made in years. In fact, I’d go so far to say that it comes off as a Hollywood movie directed by Shyamalan, rather than a true Shyamalan movie. It feels, in other words, less eccentric and personal than say, Unbreakable (2000) or The Village (2004) and more like The Sixth Sense (1999), which was very much designed and intended to help Night break into the studio system.
Without a doubt, it is certainly the most Hollywood-esque picture that Night has made since reinventing himself as a self-financed (semi-)indie filmmaker of contained thrillers with The Visit, which allowed him an unprecedented amount of creative freedom, provided he kept costs low and largely tethered the action to a single central location. Visit was rougher-around-the-edges than Night’s previous studio-financed efforts, its occasional amaeturishness reflecting a filmmaker learning a new craft or style. Night subsequently honed his skills with Split before making a master’s thesis with Glass (which I tell everyone is the first great movie of 2019) and taking his hand at applying his contained thriller approach to a larger scale with Old.
Cabin certainly does have traits of a true Shyamalan film.
It sort-of maintains Night’s contained thriller style, using a small number of characters and one big central location. It also places Night’s favorite thematic conflict - that between belief and doubt - into the center of the narrative. And yet, it is often cleaner, less provocative, with some of the rougher edges of Night’s last few indie years sanded off. It’s also almost completely sincere when it comes to tone, lacking the tinges of double-coded paradoxical (post-)irony and self-reference that have suffused Shyamalan’s more unadulterated oeuvre since Unbreakable.
Finally, it looks and feels more polished than Night’s previous indie endeavours. This is especially visible in the fact that, unlike most Shyamalan works, Cabin lacks any instance of clunky dialog. And trust me, I was paying attention, especially after seeing Old, which had a lot of groan-worthy lines that threatened to break immersion.
In theory then, Cabin should’ve been more attractive to audiences than Night’s past five pics. So, why didn’t more people see it?
Maybe after the mixed reception of Old, audiences were less interested in seeing another Night movie so soon. Maybe part of the problem was Universal's reduced 45-day theatrical window strategy, which hypothetically might’ve convinced some potential ticket buyers to wait until Cabin arrived on Peacock.
Then there's also the fact that the quality of theatrical presentation has had a general decline in the past couple of years, which I believe is leading audiences (myself included) to become way more picky about what they want to see on the big screen. Specifically, I think this compels viewers to prefer the big tentpole movies to mid or low-budget independent pictures.
But these are all just speculations. Nobody knows for certain.
From producer to director
When you actually look into the BTS history of the movie, the reason for why it feels more polished and accessible becomes evident. This was not originally a Shyamalan script. Night was going to be a producer on the picture before he ultimately chose to become director, after which he did a rewrite. And the biggest change he made was to the ending, which was supposed to be directly taken from the novel.
I don’t wish to get too into the discussion of whether the film’s ending is good or bad/better or worse than that of the novel. I think Keith Phipps ofalready published an interesting study of how the ending changed from the source material. What I will say is that Night’s creative choice to avoid ambiguity is understandable given that he makes deeply spiritual movies and always come down on the side of belief and the believers. And it certainly works for the movie he is making.
“"He started showing up on the periphery and the director team mentioned that they had a talk with him and he was thinking of maybe producing it," Tremblay recalls. "Then months went by — maybe even a year plus — then it became, ‘Oh, he’s still interested and now he actually wants to direct it.’ And once that started happening, it felt like, ‘Oh, this might happen’ because M. Night has a film deal in hand with Universal. It became like a, 'Well, if he wants to make it, it will get made' kind of thing. [But] had to wait for him to make Old first.""
Source: Paul Tremblay, interview with Syfy by Josh Weiss, Jan. 30, 2023.
“Well, it was very organic. The movie came to me as a producing entity where the writers and the directors who were on wanted to make a straight adaptation of the book, just moment for moment, straight adaptation. And that's how it came to me. And then I said, "I love this premise so deeply. And I think you guys are onto something, I really do. I don't believe in this story when it went left. I can't get behind that. And I think my audience, I wouldn't want to have them experience that." That's what I said. And I said, "I totally support you and I wish you the best." And then they went, and it didn't come together, that movie.
Then organically, the book came back to me and they said, "We loved what you were saying about..." I said what I thought should happen and where the story should go. And then they said, "We really believe in what you just said." And I said, "Huh." Then I was thinking about it and I thought, "I believe in this premise so much. I'm having that irrational connection to it." And I could see myself working on it for a year and a half from there. And so I said, "You know what? I'm actually going to do it myself." So it was very beautiful in the way it came organically back.
Source: M. Night Shyamalan, interview for Collider by Tamera Jones, Feb 2, 2023.
No, there is no twist - the reception
Mainstream Film Critics seem to be prejudiced against Shyamalan.
To some extent, this is the result of Shyamalan’s first major Hollywood movie The Sixth Sense (technically the third or fourth feature in his filmography ) being such a huge hit that it made him a household name and put him on a pedestal that folks were then keen to knock him off of.
Night’s behavior didn’t always help matters. Like so many auteurs, he did have an ego in the 2000s, but one coupled with an earnestness and naivety that I think brushed people the wrong way. He was incapable of conducting a professional brand image back then and so, like his movies, he was often misunderstood by the press and the public. And so critics slowly but surely largely pivoted to reviewing not so much his movies but rather Night himself. Things have shifted after he reinvented himself, but some of the prisms through which folks decided to view his movies still remain.
For instance, many reviews of Cabin, which had a mostly positive reception with a 67% fresh RT score, like to proclaim it as ‘the best Shyamalan movie since Signs…’ as though Night hasn’t made a single movie as good or maybe good at all since 2002. This, imo, is downright asinine. For one thing, Cabin is a good but not great entry in Night’s filmography.* For another, in the last 21 years Shyamalan has made one bonafide masterpiece (The Village, 2004, which thankfully got some much needed re-evaulation in the last decade), one near-masterpiece (Glass, which is yet to be widely recognized as great), and only one legitimately bad film (The Last Airbender, 2011).
*Certainly, it is way more consistent than Old though it doesn’t quite reach its heights. I’d grade it a solid B+.
And of course, there are all the reductive “twist” takes.
When will more critics come around to discussing other things that Shyamalan movies do, like what they have to say about faith and spirituality, or how they tackle modern politics, or what they like to say about the act of storytelling itself?
Sigh… The fact is that numerous Shyamalan movies including Signs, Lady in the Water, The Happening, After Earth, Airbender, and Split, don’t actually have big plot twists. Sure, they reveal themselves, reveal what they are really about over time, but they are not built around concealing information or constructed in such a way as to misdirect or fool audiences. Heck, even the big reveals of Unbreakable and The Village don’t actually change anything about each respective picture’s plot itself.
In reality, the only movie whose plot truly revolves around a big twist is still The Sixth Sense. But after seeing it, folks still can’t help but to try to read those things into every new work that Shyamalan puts out. And so, it wasn’t surprising when articles and thinkpieces started to come out declaring that the ‘twist’ in Cabin is that THERE IS NO TWIST! Seriously, even Variety had to get it on the act!
God, when will it stop? When will the Sixth Sense comparisons end?
On Trap and Shyamalan’s future
Though not fully confirmed, it is very likely that Trap was going to be the April 2024 movie Night was originally making for Universal. If so, then this suggests the project may have gone into turnaround at Uni before being bought up by WB-D, with the resulting issues necessitating its release being postponed by about 4 months.
Details about the movie at this point are scarce but I do think a recent interview with Shyamalan for Cabin suggests this will be another adaptation. At the very least, this is another project Shyamalan had originally intended to produce, suggesting he is not the original writer or initial intended director of the movie. Consequently, Trap could be another, more Hollywood-friendly thriller film in the vein of Cabin rather than a purer Shyamalan picture.
“What can I tell you? It's interesting, both this last one – meaning Knock at the Cabin – because I was thinking of it for somebody else, right? I was thinking of it as a mentor or as a producer for other people, so I was thinking about what it should be in a very organic way. And then I decided to do that version because I felt so deeply about it.
Same thing happened with this. I was thinking about it as something for someone else to direct, as an idea for someone else to direct. And I just kept on thinking about it and thinking about it. And I was like, "Well, then this could happen and then that can happen. Oh my God. And then this could happen. Oh no. And then this could happen." And then I got through the whole thing and I was like, "I'm going to do this." The same exact thing happening again. Maybe it's one of those things, like you said, I can never let go of it.”
Source: M. Night Shyamalan, interview for Collider by Tamera Jones, Feb 2, 2023.
It wouldn’t surprise me if, after the not-so-great performance of Cabin, Night will be a bit more budget conscious in developing Trap. Perhaps, rather than self-finance the movie, he will get Warner to invest in it. Or, if he does self-finance it, he will attempt to keep the costs closer to the budget levels of The Visit and Split, resulting in a return to a more enclosed and limited environment in terms of setting.
Either way, I hope he actually makes a more personal film than Cabin, as I generally prefer Shyamalan films to Hollywood films made by Shayamalan.
Of course, the whole situation here is quite ironic.
Night originally had a strong working relationship with Disney until the box office and negative critical reception of The Village (2004) led to him having a falling out with Nina Jacobson, after which Night took his next intended project to Warner, which would become the critical and commercial flop Lady in the Water (2006).*
*Lady actually isn’t bad but American audiences have yet to recognize that. The French knew it way back in 2006 though.
I wish Night and Warner to have a stable and prosperous working relationship that lasts a few years, as Shyamalan is still one the best American filmmakers working today. American Cinema is better with his movies in it.
Of course, things might change pretty quickly, given all the regime changes that have occurred with Warner in the past 5 years or so, but one can hope…
This was a great read. I have always been a Shyamalan fan (dont get me started on my arguments in support of The Happening) but i wasnt grabbed by Cabin's premise in the previews - you've changed my mind haha I'm now very excited to give it a go. Saturday night plan is set!
His films are the ones I always look forward to watching. Each is different from the other and unique and creative in itself. The cinematography is mind-blowing and novel in Knock at the Cabin. I hope he continues making his films as he wants to make them; it's certainly not easy when studios want to impose their ideas and the budget constraints. Thank you for this insightful essay!