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Hype Down

Mark Harris explains why the August doldrums make for happy moviegoers

''The Sixth Sense'' succeeds because of viewers, not Hollywood

Here we are in late August, and the exciting new piece of pop-culture entertainment I've been aching to tell you about is... nonexistent. You know what I mean. You've been through these dog days before.

August is when movie studios apologetically cough up the dregs of their summer schedules (wow, just when we'd all gotten over the excitement of ''Detroit Rock City,'' here comes ''Universal Soldier: The Return''! Will the fun never end?) August is when the networks, frantically promoting shows that will premiere in September and be canceled in November, just fill the airwaves with... whatever. (That title change from ''Two Guys, A Girl and a Pizza Place'' to ''Two Guys and a Girl'' has done wonders, don't you think?) August is when even the most skilled and sincere of online columnists resort to Larry King-like musings like ''Gee, it is just me or have potato-chip bags gotten a lot harder to open lately?'' (Online rule: The answer to most columns beginning ''Is it just me?'' is ''Yes.'')

August, in short, is when the hype machine, for a few blessed weeks, takes a breather. And as a result, something very strange happens: Audiences are allowed to make up their own minds. As a result, let's note the following surprise phenomena.

A good movie is doing really, really well For the last three weeks, and very possibly for the next three weeks, the No. 1 movie in America has been Disney's ''The Sixth Sense,'' a movie that is on its way to becoming the highest-grossing psychological suspense/horror movie in history for the simple reason that it's really good and people like it. And it got there without a single ''I eat dead people'' Happy Meal or cutting-edge website. The weekend before ''Sixth Sense'' opened alongside ''The Thomas Crown Affair,'' ''Mystery Men,'' ''Dick,'' and ''The Iron Giant,'' I talked to an executive at a rival studio who was predicting the weekend's grosses. ''Sense,'' he assured me, would ''not be a factor.'' So much for the tens of millions studios spend on research.

A bad movie isn't The new horror comedy ''Teaching Mrs. Tingle,'' a virtual encyclopedia of media buzzwords -- Miramax! Teens! Kevin Williamson! Katie Holmes! Horror! -- has been thoroughly ignored by moviegoers.

Wanna-see TV For the last week, and very possibly for the next week, the highest-rated show on television has been ''Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,'' a show that is not on this fall's schedule, and that, with its quaintly low-tech touches -- a contestant phoning his mom, an Ask the Audience poll, and a host who stands robustly outside the 18- to 49-year-old demographic -- would have been right at home on the hot new fall schedule of 1953.

Interesting, isn't it, what happens when you, the people, are allowed to make your own decisions? To be sure, the results aren't always refreshing. Some good old-fashioned media drum beating, for instance, would surely have helped ''The Iron Giant,'' an animated movie that got reviews every bit as glowing as those for ''Tarzan'' and great word of mouth, but that even a product-hungry child audience has, for some reason, avoided. But on the whole, a surprise hit is always a more exciting phenomenon than a ''Big Daddy'' or an ''Austin Powers,'' whose financial fate is virtually preordained.

By the way, my own exciting August discovery -- thanks to a burst of enthusiasm among EW's always-in-the-know TV department -- is The Food Network's ''Iron Chef.'' This show's great! Or is it just me?

Originally posted Nov 21, 2000