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While it seems clear that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will take steps to discipline Will Smith in the wake of the infamous slap, the predominant opinion in Hollywood is that the incident will at most prove to be a minor road bump in the star’s long acting career.
“He’s not kryptonite yet,” says one studio executive. “He has to sit in the penalty box for a bit. He’s going to do some interview with someone like Gayle King and it will kind of wash away.” Smith’s long history in the business will help, this person continues: “He has never been violent on set. He has been extra accommodating. And you read about what he did on the King Richard set.” (Among other gestures, Smith gave the film’s cast bonuses to compensate for the film’s day-and-date release on HBO Max.)
Another longtime studio exec agrees there are still shoes to drop in how Smith manages going forward. If he could publicly reconcile with Chris Rock, for example, that might help bolster his image. But this top industry veteran is a bit more cautious, saying anyone casting Smith in a movie or series would have to weigh the challenge of trying to promote a project knowing that reporters inevitably would ask Smith and fellow castmembers about the incident. “I think [studios] would think twice — do they need the aggravation?” he says. “Everyone would do the equation, ‘I’ve got Will Smith, but now I’ve got this baggage and they’re going to reshow the slap. Do I need that, and is so-and-so available?’ The other side is, ‘I’ve got Will Smith, and he needs a comeback, and I’ll restore his luster.’ You would weigh factors — what the movie is, what the cost is. If [his reps] say, ‘Will really wants to do this and it’s important to him,’ there are ways for him to say, ‘I’m cutting my price but not [permanently] cutting it.'”
But a marketing executive says she thinks Smith will face more lasting damage. She feels that he revealed a dark side and that the whole sequence of events — the slap, the self-justifying acceptance speech, the dancing at the Vanity Fair party and an apology on Instagram that struck her as shallow and disingenuous — will inflict lasting damage. She also thinks Smith’s long career has left him overexposed. Some of his more recent projects, including 2019’s Gemini Man and Collateral Beauty in 2016, have been poorly reviewed and underperformed, she points out.
Smith now has Apple+’s slave escape drama Emancipation in postproduction. The streamer had planned a 2022 debut but has not dated its release. Apple declined to comment. Otherwise, Smith has a few projects in preproduction, including Bad Boys 4, but no start dates are set. One studio executive wonders whether Smith will be eager to work in front of the camera again now that he has an Oscar, or whether he will focus on producing.
An area where Smith may be challenged is the awards space. Actors branch member Rutanya Alda told THR that Smith “made me wish I hadn’t voted for him. It changed the whole tone of the evening. I will never, ever vote for anything Will Smith is in again.” A media professional who votes on awards agrees that he would not cast a ballot for Smith in the future. “To assault a man and then finish the evening dancing at the Vanity Fair party — talk about getting it all wrong,” he said. As Emancipation would appear to be an awards play, such feelings could well hamper its prospects in that respect.
One studio believes the proper response from the Academy is to expel Smith permanently — which might actually be doing him a favor. “It won’t affect his career, but people will think he got his punishment and we can forgive him,” he says. “And he can say, ‘That’s what I deserve. I disrespected the Academy and that’s what I deserve.’” (Smith would still be eligible for awards.)
In fact, this person thinks the Academy could end up with more lasting reputation damage than Smith if it “wimps out” in disciplining the star. Tim Solberg, a professor of business of the arts at the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis, also says he believes Smith won’t face any consequences from the incident, but “the Academy itself may suffer damage if it does not take action.”
Smith’s own business ventures could also be impacted by the moment. He is a brand ambassador for Fitbit, who told THR, “We are evaluating the situation and do not have any information to share at this time.”
Westbrook Inc., the production company controlled by the actor and his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, raised $60 million at a $600 million valuation in January from the Blackstone-backed Candle Media. The rich valuation was justified in part by Smith’s immense stardom, with seemingly everyone in town eager to work with him, and with Westbrook securing a piece of every project starring the couple (as well as other projects like Bel-Air and Cobra Kai).
If Smith is no longer welcomed by studios or fellow stars, it would be all but certain to have an adverse impact on Westbrook and its potential business, fresh off its cash raise, when it should be in expansion mode.
Alex Weprin and Danielle Directo-Meston contributed to this report.
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