But the raging success of "The Sixth Sense," driven by word of mouth, still had a surprise ending. Without a major advertising campaign, it has rolled up five consecutive $20 million-plus revenue box office weekends-akin to "Titanic" in revenue pacing.
Moreover, "The Sixth Sense" is on track to become the second-biggest movie of this year-after the highly hyped "Star Wars: The Phantom Menace"-with about $250 million in overall revenue, according to industry estimates.
For the Labor Day weekend Sept. 3-6, the film posted $28.5 million in revenue, according to ACNielsen EDI, the most-ever for a Labor Day movie.
WHY PEOPLE GO TO THE MOVIES
"This is why people go to the movies, because they can discover it by themselves," said Craig Murray, president of Craig Murray Productions, an entertainment marketing company that works for Disney. "They are not bombarded by the movie's marketing."
"No one could have predicted this," said Dick Cook, chairman of Walt Disney Motion Pictures Group. "We knew this movie was going to be great, but no one [in the press] believed us. We did a sneak preview, and the screening allowed the movie to sell itself. It exploded from that moment on."
Typically, studios let consumers know when a big hit is coming, with tons of advertising and tie-in consumer product marketing and licensing arrangements-Sony Pictures Entertainment's "Godzilla" or Fox/Lucasfilm's "Phantom Menace" are good examples. This is especially true in the big June/July and November/December selling periods.
Instead, Walt Disney did a provocative trailer and TV commercial featuring the boy eerily whispering, "I see dead people."
Those spots were produced in-house by Oren Aviv, senior VP-creative marketing for Buena Vista Pictures Marketing. Mr. Cook credits the spots with being a crucial part of the film's marketing success.
REPEAT VIEWERS DRIVE REVENUE
"The Sixth Sense" was also atypical in how it built momentum. Movies generally fall off 30% to 40% in box office revenue from their debut weeks to the next week. "The Sixth Sense" defied those odds and maintained its weekend revenue, much of it repeat business from the same customers-teen-agers with the time and inclination to see a movie more than once.
Another reason "The Sixth Sense" has done well is simply because there are fewer films this summer, offering moviegoers a less cluttered market.
For years, movie executives opened multiple movies of similar genres against each other, resulting, in the words of one marketing executive, in many producers getting "their teeth handed to them."
"This summer you had one big film every weekend," said Peter Graves, former president of marketing at Polygram Films. "You didn't have two action films going head-to-head. The audience seemed to respond."
Much of the appeal of "The Sixth Sense" comes from its billing as an intelligent thriller, marketing analysts said. But curiously, it also has become a family movie-odd as that depiction is usually reserved for feel-good comedies and dramas or animated films.
'A SHARED AUDIENCE'
"There is an shared audience for the film; kids are really into this," Mr. Murray said. "It's almost a family movie. Sure, it's mature, but it's not gory."
The timing of "The Sixth Sense's" opening on Aug. 6, the first weekend of the month, had some positive historical tracking.
"Warner Bros., with [two hits] 'The Fugitive' and 'Unforgiven,' has made it a business by being out the first weekend in August," Mr. Graves said.
"It didn't go unnoticed," Mr. Cook said of Disney's scheduling "The Sixth Sense" to open that weekend. Of more importance to Mr. Cook, however, was the opening of two similar thrillers just weeks before-"The Haunting" and "The Blair Witch Project." Both scored well with consumers.
"We were very concerned about these movies," Mr. Cook said. "Fortunately, the