In 1999, a creatively fertile year for Hollywood, the most successful movie was an obvious one: Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace. It came out in May, broke opening-day records, and behaved exactly as a brand-name summer sensation would today. The second most successful film of 1999 was an old-fashioned ghost story from a largely unknown Indian American director. The movie came out in August (then viewed as the doldrums of the blockbuster season) and advertised itself with a poster that listed the five human senses and hinted at a sixth that involved a little boy and was, well, really spooky.
The story of The Sixth Sense’s word-of-mouth triumph is the kind of industry narrative studios still salivate over but used to build their entire financial operations around. Yes, not every mid-budgeted genre picture is going to be a runaway hit, and not every August release will be remembered past its opening weekend. But once in a while, there will be a flabbergasting, market-correcting phenomenon that few could have predicted, one that justifies production companies sinking tens of millions into films that aren’t guaranteed moneymakers.
The Sixth Sense, directed by M. Night Shyamalan and starring Bruce Willis and Haley Joel Osment, is a terrific film. A stately but involving piece of horror that could appeal to all sorts of viewers, it was light on jump scares and crafted with a lovely emotional through line. But that doesn’t fully explain how it became such a juggernaut. The movie made more money than Toy Story 2, than The Matrix, than The Blair Witch Project, than American Beauty—the film that beat it for Best Picture at the 2000 Academy Awards. The Sixth Sense might sound like a one-off smash that can’t be replicated, but its popularity is rooted in some of the oldest moviemaking traditions: plot gimmickry, good salesmanship, and genuine quality.