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How Will Smith’s Assault On Chris Rock Could Hurt His Career

Forbes 4/1/2022 Scott Mendelson, Forbes Staff
HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 27: Will Smith accepts the Actor in a Leading Role award for ‘King Richard’ onstage during the 94th Annual Academy Awards at Dolby Theatre on March 27, 2022 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images) Getty Images © Provided by Forbes HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 27: Will Smith accepts the Actor in a Leading Role award for ‘King Richard’ onstage during the 94th Annual Academy Awards at Dolby Theatre on March 27, 2022 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images) Getty Images

No, this post won’t be about the almost hourly updates concerning how Will Packer, Dawn Hudson and those of their ilk reacted to Will Smith slapping Chris Rock on Sunday night’s Oscar telecast, both in terms of right after it happened and in the days after in terms of whatever punishment might be offered up. Nor will this be a screed about the morality of what went down earlier this week, although even Smith’s apology seems to admit “thing bad.” However, there will be fallout. Right now, Smith’s commercial value is in existing franchises, and this incident may have done real damage in terms of his worth in non-franchise films.

Will Smith was once Hollywood’s biggest movie star.

Will Smith has been a movie star at least since he raced down a city street chasing murderous drug dealers, unbuttoned shirt billowing in the wind, in Michael Bay’s early 1995 hit Bad Boys. He became an icon when he punched out an alien and snarled “Welcome to Earth” in Roland Emmerich’s $820 million-grossing Independence Day in the summer of 1996. Moreover, there was a period from around 2002 to 2008 where he was the biggest movie star on Earth, putting butts in seats for a slew of genres with and without existing IP.

He pulled out massive global box office successes from romantic comedies (Hitch), animated films (DreamWorks’ A Shark’s Tale), sci-fi fantasies (I, Robot), action adventures (Bad Boys II), superhero dramedies (Hancock, still the biggest grossing original superhero flick), apocalyptic melodramas (I Am Legend, whose $77 million domestic debut in 2007 is still the biggest for a solo star vehicle) and economic mobility dramas (The Pursuit of Happyness, which grossed $306 million worldwide). Even as Hollywood was following the four-quadrant IP franchise money in the wake of Harry Potter, Spider-Man and Pirates of the Caribbean, Smith was the franchise.

He was the biggest movie star of the post-9/11 era, and I’d argue his recent films (including Bad Boys For Life) have been partially about reflecting on his role as America’s top creator of pop culture bread-and-circus films (often playing a righteous cop no less) during that very grim moment in time. But Smith hasn’t been a huge star sans franchise for the last decade. While Hancock earned $624 million in the summer of 2008, Smith was (I’d argue) unfairly dinged for the $170 million global gross of Seven Pounds. I argued then that only Smith could pull such grosses for a movie like that, a grimdark drama about a man choosing suicide over his role in a fatal vehicular accident.

In 2002, he reacted to the commercial failures of The Legend of Bagger Vance and Ali by making Men in Black II. I would argue he reacted to the mixed reviews for Hancock and the commercial disappointment of Seven Pounds by making Men in Black 3. The over-budget and much-delayed MIB3 inexplicably turned out to be the best of the trilogy, and it earned a strong $179 million domestic/$623 million worldwide right alongside The Avengers a decade ago. But that success came to define the last decade of Will Smith’s career. He’s still worth his big paycheck in explicit “sequel to that Will Smith movie you liked” extensions and as an added value element, but almost everything else is (at best) a coin toss.

He’s still a bankable box office draw in either his own previously successful franchises (Men in Black 3, Bad Boys For Life) or as a big-deal added value element to an IP cash-in (Aladdin, Suicide Squad). Moreover, attempts to make sequels to Will Smith-centric hits without Will Smith (Independence Day: Resurgence, Men in Black International, The Suicide Squad) have gone down in flames. However, in original or new-to-you flicks like After Earth, Focus (admittedly $150 million on a $50 million budget), Collateral Beauty, Concussion, The Gemini Man, Spies in Disguise and King Richard, well, that’s why he was rumored to be in talks for a sequel to I Am Legend (despite his character dying at the end).

LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 23: Will Smith gets slimed onstage at Nickelodeon's 2019 Kids' Choice Awards at Galen Center on March 23, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images) Getty Images © Provided by Forbes LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 23: Will Smith gets slimed onstage at Nickelodeon's 2019 Kids' Choice Awards at Galen Center on March 23, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images) Getty Images

Here are the three ways the fallout may impact Will Smith’s career...

Kevin Spacey’s value as a film actor dropped into the abyss following allegations of sexual assault precisely because his only value was in prestige. While he hadn’t been a butts-in-seats draw since the early 2000s, Spacey still “classed up” movies like Baby Driver, Horrible Bosses 2 and Margin Call. Once he lost his prestige, he became useless. Likewise, Armie Hammer may be finished in Hollywood precisely because he was never a butts-in-seats draw and now offers no value as a prestige element. Johnny Depp was barely a butts-in-seats draw outside of Pirates of the Caribbean sequels and, in some cases, Tim Burton-directed fantasies (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland). Following allegations of spousal abuse, he now offers little in terms of prestige.

Likewise, save for the Oscar-winning (and $175 million-grossing) Hacksaw Ridge (which Mel Gibson directed but did not star in), Gibson’s last decade has mostly been defined by straight-to-VOD thrillers of varying quality (Last Looks > Force of Nature) and periodic stunt casting in the likes of Machete Kills and Daddy’s Home 2. Now if you’re arguing that Gibson, Depp, Hammer and Spacey were accused of (or committed) serious crimes, while Smith “just” lost his temper and slapped a colleague on national television, you’re 104% correct and I don’t mean to compare in terms of morality. But those three examples are useful in terms of what kind of damage can be done to actors who aren’t butt-in-seats draws and then lose the presumption of prestige.

Will Smith has the advantage of being a hugely successful box office draw and a recent track record of added-value element boosts to inherently commercial IP flicks. He’s a big reason Suicide Squad earned $725 million worldwide and he was a huge boon to Aladdin, essentially playing the Genie as a reprise of Hitch, and its $1.053 billion global gross. At worst, he’s probably still “worth it” in Aladdin 2, Bad Boys 4 or those kinds of star+IP packages. But there are only so many Will Smith franchises that can be sequelized (it’s not like the world is desperate for Bright 2, Hancock 2 or Wild Wild West’s Revenge), and (like Pixar) he’ll eventually run out of how own franchises.

So, absent obvious paydays, will “the slap” cost Will Smith his prestige to the point where he won’t be all that useful in studio programmers and year-end awards flicks? We already know that such films are not commercial haymakers (quality notwithstanding, I’m the weirdo who likes Collateral Beauty), but sans the presumption of prestige and the potential for year-end awards, well, Smith may have trouble justifying his casting in anything other than surefire IP and sequels to prior glories. The question going forward is whether Smith still gets to star in films like Apple’s $120 million runaway slave actioner Emancipation and Netflix’s David Leitch-directed thriller Fast and Loose. That suggests a third scenario.

The third scenario (alongside “no harm no foul” and “just nostalgia sequels”) is akin to Tom Cruise. Cruise’s antics while promoting War of the Worlds put a permanent stain on his star power. While he didn’t really jump on Oprah Winfrey’s couch (and was merely playing to Oprah and her excited audience), the “couch jump controversy” led to Cruise’s current normal where he’s only remotely bankable in Mission: Impossible sequels and like-minded action/sci-fi flicks. The Cruise who could power A Few Good Men, Jerry Maguire, Eyes Wide Shut or even The Last Samurai to relative blockbuster business is gone. The “option C” is a new normal where Will Smith gets to make movies, even big movies, but nothing akin to King Richard or Focus ever again.

SANTA BARBARA, CA - JANUARY 27: Actors Will Smith (L) and Tom Cruise attend the Santa Barbara Film Festival Modern Master Award Presented to Will Smith at the Arlington Theatre on January 27, 2007 in Santa Barbara, California. (Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images) Getty Images © Provided by Forbes SANTA BARBARA, CA - JANUARY 27: Actors Will Smith (L) and Tom Cruise attend the Santa Barbara Film Festival Modern Master Award Presented to Will Smith at the Arlington Theatre on January 27, 2007 in Santa Barbara, California. (Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images) Getty Images

Epilogue

The long-term implications won’t be determined over the next weeks or months. Without getting into “deserved,” because that’s not my place to say (and, yes, Smith’s status as a Black movie star complicates the conversation), the Oscar incident shattered a carefully crafted 30-year image of approachable, harmless and always-on movie star charisma. Honestly, there are few actors (maybe Tom Cruise, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jackie Chan, Tom Hanks or Sandra Bullock?) for whom such a sight would be equally as shocking. As I explained to my kids in terms of my shock (they know some of these people but grew up in a different time), it was akin to watching Mickey Mouse lose his temper and slap one of the Animaniacs on national television.

Hollywood killed their star system by constantly trying to turn every handsome white guy into the next Tom Cruise and didn’t bother trying to find the next Will Smith until marquee characters replaced actors as the driving motivation for moviegoers. It will be a bitter irony if both former titans find themselves with near-identical third acts of their otherwise illustrious careers. Either Will Smith’s career isn’t aggressively impacted by this, he loses the Q score to do anything beyond fan-friendly sequels or (as a skewed middle ground) he remains an action star in theaters and on streaming but loses his theatrical value for anything beyond action movies. What do you think is most likely? Sound off below if you want to place your bets.

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