It was announced last week that Will Smith’s Overbrook Entertainment will not be renewing its long-standing (over a decade) first-look deal with Sony Pictures, and just might be taking the production company’s business to streaming giant Netflix, where Smith’s most recent film, the fantasy-thriller Bright, calls home, and where it garnered 11 million streaming viewers in the USA over its first three days, according to Nielsen.
Although, at this time, there’s no official confirmation that Overbrook will indeed ink any deal with Netflix, meaning the company is, in effect, “homeless” and just might function entirely as an indie for the time being.
The announcement has led to speculation on what this might suggest about Will Smith’s star power – once one of the most valuable movie brands in the world. Did Overbrook dump Sony, or did Sony dump Overbrook? Was it a mutual agreement? And in either of the 3 scenarios, what were the reasons? What direction does Will Smith’s career take next without the comfort that a first-look deal with a major studio can provide, assuming Overbrook doesn’t deal up with Netflix or another? None of those questions have been answered, hence the broad speculation.
But to be frank, in a rapidly changing business – one fraught with many new uncertainties – the writing may have been on the wall, since there really hasn’t been a Will Smith-branded critical and commercial blockbuster movie (essentially, films that he has carried) since I Am Legend a decade ago (which was actually made with Warner Bros., not Sony). In fact, looking over his resume, going back to the 1990s, we could break down Smith’s career into 2 halves: pre-I Am Legend and post-I Am Legend. There’s a marked difference in terms of box office grosses and critical appeal between those 2 Will Smith eras. The pre-I Am Legend Will Smith movies grosses an average (domestic) of about $157 million, while the post-I Am Legend Will Smith movies grossed, on average, around $90 million. That’s a significant drop-off. Note that I didn’t include Suicide Squad in the post- count because, again, it’s not a Will Smith movie. He didn’t carry the film; it was an ensemble cast adaptation of a known property with a built-in fan base. And arguably, Margot Robbie may have been the draw for many fans, especially considering that hers (Harley Quinn) is the only character from the movie with a stand-alone, spin-off project in development.
But even the addition of Suicide Squad to the post-I Am Legend era will still result in a box office average that’s well below the pre-I Am Legend period.
It should also be noted that the post- era gave birth to a Will Smith that seemed less interested in big box office spectacle, and more focused on projects with award-winning (specifically Academy Award) potential: Seven Pounds, Concussion, and Collateral Beauty for example. Unfortunately Oscar continues to elude him, despite his best efforts. Some have suggested that he abandon the chase and instead return to the kind of movie-making that made him an international superstar.
By the way, Smith himself seems to acknowledge that I Am Legend was kind of a critical moment for him, stating during a Concussion press junket in 2015: “I’m obsessed with trying to put small character dramas into the middle of blockbuster packages. The most successful I’ve ever been with that concept is I Am Legend. I Am Legend easily could’ve been a stage play, right? You know, a one-man show, a dude with a dog — you generally would think you need a little bit more than that for a blockbuster, but to date that’s my biggest opening and my second biggest film. So that’s an obsession for me, to not act so much that people don’t want to see it. You [can] act so much that you turn people off, or you [can] put so many creatures in it that now people don’t take the acting seriously.”
A prequel to I Am Legend was in the works, with Will Smith reprising his role as Robert Neville, but it was eventually buried.
Remembering his early years in Hollywood (before his first big studio movie, Bad Boys with Sony) , in an interview with THR two years ago, the actor talked about how he and manager (now Overbrook business partner) James Lassiter strategized his career path: “I said to JL, ‘I want to be the biggest movie star in the world.’ And he said, ‘Okay. Well, let’s figure out what that means.’ And he went and got the top 10 movies of all time, the list of the top 10 movies of all time at the box office — top 10 box office successes — and we also looked at them, adjusted for inflation and views versus dollar value. Also, we looked at all the different variations… What we found is, at the center, there were always special effects… So it was always special effects, there was always creatures, there was always a love story. So we started looking for movies that had special effects, creatures, and a love story.”
And his next film, after Bad Boys, which checked all those boxes for the most part, was Independence Day in 1996. He followed that up with hit after hit, after hit (although not all of them were special effects creature features with love stories), in films like Men in Black (I and II), Enemy of the State, I, Robot, Hitch, The Pursuit of Happyness, another Bad Boys movie, and I Am Legend. There was Ali, which wasn’t a box office hit, although it was received mostly favorably by critics, and we could say was his first taste of Oscar; he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, although he didn’t win.
I remember this old quote from Mr. Smith: “I’ve never really viewed myself as particularly talented; where I excel is in a ridiculous, sickening work ethic. While the other guy is sleeping, I’m working. While the other guy is eating, I’m working.”
This was evident to anyone who was paying attention to how strong his self-promotion game was. While researching for this article, I was scouting YouTube looking for related clips, and I stumbled upon one video of Big Willie going to one Hancock premiere after another, each one in a different city, all within a span of about 5 days. And each time, he looked just as euphoric, mingling with countless excited fans, as he did during the previous city’s premiere, even if it was just the night before, several hundred, if not thousands of miles away. He stops to sign autographs, shakes hands, honors kiss requests, and even dances with a band, all-the-while maintaining his signature Big Willie smile, seemingly thoroughly and gladly drowning himself in each moment. First he’s in Paris, then a few days later, he’s in London, and the following night he’s in Moscow, and so on, and so forth, maintaining the same level of intensity each time, leading to the film’s USA premiere, where, naturally, he most certainly was present, Big Willie style as usual, as adoring fans clamor for a mere sighting or touch of one of Hollywood’s biggest stars at the time.
But the magic doesn’t end there; the traveling continues for another 2 to 3 straight months, as Hancock premieres followed in other countries around the world, and there is Will, walking the red carpet at each locale, flashing that smile, satisfying old fans, and winning new ones over with what feels like an unpretentious charm. Is it any wonder why he was the biggest star, not only in America, but in the world? Making the film is half the job. Promoting it is just as important, and Will certainly hasn’t ever taken that phase of the process lightly. It’s a prime example of the “ridiculous, sickening” work ethic he mentions in the above quote. He’s smart enough to know that he’s not only promoting the movie, but he’s also promoting himself, which, especially earlier in his career, helps with awareness of the next film, the one after that, and so on.
But then something happened that seemed to reshape his initial career strategy. Gone were the special effects creature features, to be replaced with more of what we could describe simply as adult dramas. Listening to Smith talk about it years later, the “failure” that was After Earth (2013) may have been the catalyst. For the average Hollywood actor, a film they’re headlining that grosses $244 million worldwide, would probably feel like a gift. But Will Smith, at least at that time, wasn’t the average Hollywood actor. He was an international superstar who had seemingly *transcended* race (as some said), with appeal to almost every demographic. So a $244 million cume for a Will Smith project – as was the case with After Earth (although his son, Jaden Smith, really was the star of the movie) – was considered a disappointment within the industry.
Of the $244 million, just $60 million of it was domestically-earned. Which means that the bulk of its box office came from overseas. And we know how important overseas box office has come to be for studio films, especially big budget productions. Keep in mind though that the film’s production budget (minus any marketing costs, which I’m sure were significant) was an astounding $130 million, for a film that looked like it cost about half of that.
Although, in all fairness, we could, again, ask whether After Earth was really a Will Smith movie, or more of a Jaden Smith “failure.” But I suppose, either way, it’s a “Smith movie,” and Will’s name and face were pivotal in how it was marketed and sold to audiences.
In addition, some would argue that, even though the studio (Sony) erased him and his name from the film’s marketing campaign, word still eventually got around that M. Night Shyamalan was the film’s director. And he wasn’t exactly the most beloved Hollywood filmmaker at the time. According to then reports, Will insisted on Shyamalan directing the film, suggesting that there may have been other voices of influence who didn’t agree with the choice. It makes one wonder why Smith did that, especially since After Earth material wasn’t quite Shyamalan’s forte. The last time (before A.E.) that he attempted a sci-fi fantasy adventure film, was with The Last Airbender, which was ripped by critics and audiences.
Reviews of After Earth were decidedly negative, as it still ranks as Will Smith’s worst-rated feature film ever, currently at a low 11% on movie review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes. It tops 2016’s Collateral Beauty as the worst-reviewed Will Smith movie of all time (Collateral Beauty is at 14% as of the time of this posting).
This was a few years after Seven Pounds (2009) which was also a box office and critical dud, as well as the disappointment that was the summer of 2008’s Hancock (although it made good money worldwide). And so the “failure” of After Earth that would follow, led to some questioning whether Smith’s box-office appeal was then beginning to fade – even just a little. The choices he would make from then on were crucial in providing answers.
It wasn’t long after After Earth opened in 2013 that Mr. Smith voiced his desire to take on edgier roles and challenge himself. During a press conference for the film in the UK, in the summer of 2013, he said: “There’s something about making movies that just really gets me excited… I love people being wrapped in a story and being able to deliver that emotional punchline at the end. It’s been an absolute necessity that the movie be a blockbuster, but I think I’m going to start moving out of that and finding more danger in my artistic choices.”
(Related: See Adam Thompson’s “On Will Smith’s Seemingly Strategic Aversion To Controversial Roles…” piece published on Shadow and Act in 2012.)
And then, 2 years later, there was this from Big Willie, during a press conference for Focus just before that film’s release in February 2015: “For me, this film really marks a transition in my life and emotionally and in my career. After the failure of After Earth, a thing got broken in my mind. I was like, ‘Oh, wow. I’m still alive. Oh, wow. Actually, I still am me, even though the movie didn’t open number one. Wait. I can still get hired on another movie.’ I realized that I still was a good person… So when I went into Focus, I completely released the concept of goal orientation and got into path orientation. This moment, this second, these people, this interaction. It is a huge relief for me to not care whether or not Focus is number one or number ten at the box office. I’ve already gained everything that I could possibly have hoped for, from meeting the people that I met and from the creation of what we did together. And it’s just painting. I’m going to paint, and some paintings are going to be fantastic. Others are going to be not so good, but I no longer measure the quality of myself on whether or not somebody else thinks what I painted is beautiful. Ali would say, ‘I’m the greatest. I’m the greatest.’ And when we talked, it would be because how much like the greatest he didn’t feel, right? So it was almost a mantra for himself. And that’s sort of a thing that I’ve developed. It’s actually nerve‑wracking for me sometimes to walk into a new space. My experience is, if I just let myself go, it’s a whole lot easier than letting the voices say, ‘Oh, my God! You know, Focus may not be as good as Enemy of the State! Rather than letting all those things come in, I just like to leap.”
There’s nothing like one major box office flop to give you some new sense of purpose, I suppose.
So the post-I Am Legend shift is clearly something that he’d been pondering for some time. And more danger in his artistic choices is something we here at S&A had been hoping for, also for some time. I remember when it was announced that he was Quentin Tarantino’s first choice to play Django, and all the discussion that followed about whether Will was *courageous* enough to take on a controversial project like that. Although I should note that he has since revealed what his reasons were for not taking the part, and they had nothing to do with fear of controversy.
But don’t cry for Mr. Smith. He’s done and continues to do very well financially, as one of the highest paid actors in the business, and one of the few whose payment deal structures have included collecting a portion of the back-end. Plus, he’s still popular enough; the question is for how much longer, especially if he doesn’t produce a film (or TV show) that wins over audiences and critics alike, like he used to do during his far more successful pre-I Am Legend days. And unfortunately, frustratingly forgettable films like Netflix’s most expensive film ever, Bright (despite 11 million views within the first 3 days) certainly don’t help. One wishes Smith would take on a *smaller* project with a really interesting director that would challenge him, like Steve McQueen or Barry Jenkins. It may come as a surprise to some, but Will Smith has never worked with a black director. Not once. One of the biggest stars of African descent in Hollywood, and he’s never been directed by a filmmaker of African descent. It’s truly puzzling to me. There are many strong black directors (up-and-comers and veterans) who would probably love the opportunity to direct Smith in a film, but who may never get the opportunity. However, that’s another post for another time.
Despite ending its relationship with Sony, Smith’s Overbrook production company will continue to work with the studio on projects that were already in development under their previous partnership, notably the Bad Boys threequel (Bad Boys For Life as it’s currently titled); yes it’s still in the works. There’s also an adaptation of the graphic novel, The Harlem Hellfighters by Max Brooks. It’s an interpretation of the real-life story of the 369th Infantry Regiment of the United States Army that saw action in World War I and World War II. The 369th Infantry is known for being the first African American regiment to serve with the American Expeditionary Force during World War I and was nicknamed “The Harlem Hellfighters” (hence the title of the graphic novel), as well as the “Black Rattlers,” in addition to several other nicknames.
Overbrook and Sony are also collaborating on a YouTube Red Karate Kid series titled Cobra Kai.
Other projects in the works at Overbrook, although not with Sony, include The City That Sailed, which is set up at 20th Century Fox, and follows the director of Homeland Security in New York City whose daughter, because of family circumstances, lives in Spain with her mother. Apparently, mother and father are divorced. Wanting to reunite her father and mother, the little girl makes a wish that both will get back together, while holding a magical snow globe, causing the island of Manhattan to break away and sail across the ocean towards Spain.
There’s also the very long-in-development remake of Uptown Saturday Night, which is currently set up at Warner Bros. It’s been 16 years since the project entered development limbo. In 2002, Will Smith, via Overbrook, secured the rights to the original Sidney Poitier-directed trilogy (including Let’s Do It Again, 1975; and A Piece of the Action, 1977), with interest in remaking the films, starting with Uptown Saturday Night, in what sounded like a possible all-star African American Ocean’s Eleven-style romp, starring Smith, Denzel Washington, Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence, and others who were said to be part of the conversation at the time. The project, which has been touched by several different writers since the initial announcement, is still in development hell. Our last update on it was in 2014, when yet another a new writer was hired to work on the script – Nicholas Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshall). Also, Adam McKay (The Big Short) has been attached to direct since 2012.
As I said at the time of the announcement of Stoller’s hiring, it’s baffling to me that, throughout the long rotation of writers and directors the project has seen, not one of the names mentioned has been African American, despite all the more than capable black writers and directors in Hollywood, and even outside of it, who would love to tackle this project. For a number of reasons, these are jobs that really should go to a black writer and a black director, if only to keep it somewhat in the spirit that the first trio of films were made: all 3 directed by Sidney Poitier, a black man; 2 written by African American playwright Richard Wesley; the other by Charles Blackwell, also African American. At a time when words like diversity and inclusion are cause célèbre, and we lament the fact that black talent (in front of and behind the camera) isn’t being cultivated within the Hollywood studio system, here’s a perfect opportunity for some of Hollywood’s most powerful black figures (Will Smith, Denzel Washington, and whoever else might be involved) to affect change by giving this opportunity to talented black writers and directors. It’s one of those films that would be sold mainly on its big-name stars anyway, and not on who’s directing or writing it, so why not give a brotha or sista a shot? Of course, I’m assuming that Will Smith and Denzel Washington, individually or combined, are powerful enough within the industry to have some influence on who gets to write and/direct films they are starring in.
Other Overbrook projects in the works include the indie drama Life in a Year starring Jaden Smith, and Hala, from writer-director Minhal Baig, which is a feature film adaptation of Baig’s short about a Muslim American teenager’s struggles to reconcile desire with family obligations. The short caught the attention of an executive at Overbrook, who then took it to Jada Pinkett Smith, who watched it and fell in love with it, and decided that they should come on board to produce the film. It’s currently in post-production.
A sequel to Bright is also in the works at Netflix, with Will Smith reprising his role, suggesting that he just may be considering returning to favor the brand of Will Smith movies that launched his pre-I Am Legend blockbuster years (special effects, action/adventure, creature features).
Although maybe what he said in the above 2015 quote is what we should instead focus on – that he has essentially stopped worrying about whether or not his movies are great, or commercial hits, and he’s going to do what feels right for him in the moment, everything else be damned.