Apparently, M. Night Shyamalan has a sixth sense for hype.
What was originally billed by the Sci Fi Channel as an "unauthorized documentary" examining the "buried secret" of the Oscar-nominated Sixth Sense director with a flair for twist endings has, in a twist, been revealed to be a hoax.
On Monday, the Sci Fi Channel admitted the program, titled The Buried Secret of M. Night Shyamalan and debuting Sunday night, was essentially a three-hour infomercial for the filmmaker's new spooky thriller, The Village. The "buried secret" stuff? Just a hoax.
"We never wanted to hurt the press," said Sci Fi spokeswoman Jean Guerin. "We did this type of thing before and our viewers expect this from time to time...We were looking to play along with our brand and it's something we worked on with Night."
Too bad the Associated Press fell for the bait. The venerable wire service, which provides a news feed to newspaper, broadcast and online outlets, fell for the story and ran an article detailing the supposed fallout between Shyamalan and documentary filmmakers Nathaniel Kahn and Callum Green, who were hired by the Sci Fi Channel to capture the 33-year-old Signs helmer behind the scenes.
The AP was snookered by a Sci Fi Channel release that claimed Shyamalan pulled out from cooperating in the three-hour film when his questioners delved too deeply into his personal life. The director was so ticked, the story goes, that he threatened to sic his lawyers on the documentary producers and prevent the cable channel from airing what it touted as a "disturbing exposť."
That included a bogus revelation that Shyamalan's obsession in the supernatural stemmed from the drowning death of a young boy near the filmmaker's Philadelphia home when he was 11. Feigning defiance in the face of potential litigation, Sci Fi said it planned to air the Buried Secret anyway.
The idea was to recreate the kind of guerrilla marketing campaign that transformed 1999's The Blair Witch Project from a low-budget horror flick into a $250 million commercial blockbuster by developing a mythology around the movie using fake Websites and word of mouth.
The Sci Fi Channel kept up the ruse for weeks, sending out sham press releases and refusing to correct news stories reporting on the purported rift between Shyamalan and the documentarians.
The closest the cable net came to revealing its scam was when it sent out a promotional reel to the press. According to the Los Angeles Times, the promo hinted that the special was more mockumentary than documentary. (For instance, why would Shyamalan have allowed footage from The Village to be shown in a documentary that he was opposed to?)
"Three weeks ago we sent out a 30-minute tape which was a clearly a wink to the press. We knew that once people saw it, [they'd realize] it was part fact and part fiction," said Guerin.
Instead, the fake story continued to spread. Shyamalan himself would not address the alleged controversy.
Finally, it was Sci Fi's sister network, NBC (both of are owned by NBC Universal), that spilled the beans.
"This marketing strategy is not consistent with our policy at NBC," NBC spokeswoman Rebecca Marks said on Sunday. "We would never intend to offend the public or the press and value our relationship with both."
Disney, which is releasing the film, also distanced itself from the Sci Fi Channel special. "Disney has nothing to do with [the special]," the company said in a statement. "There's no relationship between Disney and the Sci Fi Channel special."
Guerin acknowledged that the cable channel may have gone a bit far with the deception.
"We do have a different way of operating," she said. "But we have to make sure we look at all the risks and make sure we're not offending anyone."
Such a hoax shouldn't come as too much of a surprise. Shyamalan has always fancied himself something of a modern-day Hitchcock--one part director, one part showman.
And after all, there's no such thing as bad publicity.
The Village opens in theaters nationwide on July 30.