This story first appeared in the June 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
The danger turned out to be very real as Sony Pictures’ After Earth crashed at the box office in third place, the first time in two decades that a summer event film starring Will Smith failed to open at No. 1.
Given the low $27.5 million domestic bow and 12 percent Rotten Tomatoes score, top executives at several rival studios estimate that if the film doesn’t score big overseas, it could lose tens of millions. Sony insiders put the loss at about $20 million but rivals, not surprisingly, are guessing much higher. That puts a lot of pressure on the rest of Sony’s summer, including Roland Emmerich‘s White House Down, Grown Ups 2, the comedy This Is the End, Smurfs 2 and Matt Damon‘s Elysium.
So who suffers most from the fallout? Competitors and talent representatives concur that faltering director M. Night Shyamalan will take the biggest hit, but Smith — who conceived the project, produced it with wife Jada Pinkett Smith and cast son Jaden Smith as its co-star — has the most to lose. Insiders agree that Smith’s bulletproof image could be dinged by several factors:
? Lack of Focus: A source who has worked with the CAA-repped Smith — arguably the world’s most bankable star — says he has been less attuned to his movie career recently. Nearly four years passed between Seven Pounds and last summer’s Men in Black 3. “One thing you’ve got to do as an actor is portfolio management,” says this person. “Will went through a place where he didn’t do a lot of movies, and none has been great.” The bottom line: “He could still be highly successful, but it was automatic before. Now audiences will look more carefully.”
? Off-Message Media: Smith, 44, and his 14-year-old son gave a joint interview to New York magazine that one prominent producer describes as “a jaw-dropper.” Will Smith described himself as “a student of patterns,” adding, “At heart, I’m a physicist.” Even as the elder Smith described how visitors to his household would be surprised to find that it is “simple and basic,” Jaden declared: “I like Cartier,” noting “before that, it was Louis” (as in, Vuitton). And that type of coverage leads to …
? Less Fresh Prince and More Royal Prince: This began with buzz about Smith’s behavior (and his gigantic trailer) during the making of MiB3. Says a prominent film exec who has worked with Smith: “That aw-shucks, incredibly charming, self-effacing spirit doesn’t seem to play anymore. You can see it on talk shows. He’s got that energy and positive attitude, but it doesn’t have the same contagious quality.” Another Smith associate believes such behavior takes a creative toll. “The control-freak stuff hits you,” says this person. “You’ve got to listen to people. Movies don’t do well when there’s a hermetically sealed environment.”
? Family Issues: The Smith family’s efforts to make stars of daughter Willow and Jaden might be too much, too soon. “The Barrymores got really close to what I see in my head for my family,” Smith told the Associated Press. But execs and talent reps say making Jaden the lead in After Earth — conceived as the first in a trilogy — was a mistake. “What are you doing, putting your kid out there like that?” says a source. “Just because it’s your DNA?”
? Scientology Taint: Smith has kept his links to the religion much quieter than has buddy Tom Cruise. But with After Earth, media reports and reviews, including The New York Times‘ pan of the film, described perceived Scientology themes. Smith told New York that he and his son are “students of world religion,” but a prominent producer says After Earth “opened the door to this generally well-hidden [connection with] Scientology.”
? He’s an Expensive Taste: No one is writing off Smith, though some say he may have to accept lower fees. “His deal is an absolute impediment to making money for the studios,” says a knowledgeable source, adding that for MiB3, he collected about $100 million of its $624 million gross. Warner Bros. chief Jeff Robinov, who has Smith in the upcoming Winter’s Tale and the in-development Focus, says he is “really confident about Will. We all have movies that don’t work, but at the end of the day, Will is incredibly talented.”
? Shyamalan Fallout: He was damaged before After Earth; he left CAA for WME in 2011, apparently partly in response to CAA’s efforts to dissuade Smith from hiring him. One source says Shyamalan will have to try “very, very small, under-$10 million movies” and “just try to rebuild.” He still has the Fox limited series Wayward Pines with Matt Dillon and Melissa Leo set for spring 2014.
? Sony’s Damage: Most don’t think After Earth will affect the thinking of the studio’s parent, despite pressure by investor Dan Loeb to spin off assets. As for studio heads Michael Lynton and Amy Pascal, a producer calls After Earth “a justifiable decision.” Smith goes back to Bad Boys in 1995 with Sony, and whatever his share of the MiB3 money, the film was the the highest grosser in the franchise. And Jaden’s Karate Kid grossed $359 million in 2010. Says this producer: “You’re backing a relationship [with Smith] that’s been hugely successful.”