Could 'After Earth' End Will Smith's Box Office Domination?

After Earth Will Smith Jaden Smith - H 2013
Columbia Pictures

After Earth Will Smith Jaden Smith - H 2013

The sci-fi epic marks the actor's worst summer opening in two decades, putting intense pressure on the film's performance overseas.

If there's anyone whose been a sure-fire tentpole star, it's the affable Will Smith.

Until After Earth, that is. Over the weekend, the Sony sci-fi epic -- in which Smith stars opposite his son, Jaden -- crash-landed in North America with a dismal $27 million opening to come in at No. 3 behind holdover Fast & Furious 6 and new entry Now You See Me.

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Directed by M. Night Shyamalan, After Earth was Smith's passion project from the beginning. He came up with the idea for the story and was a guiding force in hiring Shyamalan. Sony, Smith's home studio, gladly ponied up $130 million for the budget.

For nearly two decades, every one of Smith's summer event films have opened at No. 1 in North America, from Independence Day to the Men in Black pics to Hancock, among others. Last year, Men in Black 3 debuted to $54.6 million domestically, preceded by Hancock's $62.6 million in 2008 (both films were Sony titles). And in December 2007, I Am Legend opened to $77.2 million.

Those aren't the only impressive statistics. Smith, 44, is the only actor to have eight consecutive films gross north of $100 million at the domestic box office and 10 consecutive films gross north of $150 million internationally. His top global earner is Independence Day ($817.4 million), followed by Hancock ($624.4 million) and MIB 3 ($624 million).

All told, Smith's movies have grossed north of $6.4 billion worldwide, making him part of an elite male actor's club whose upper echelons include Tom Hanks ($8.1 billion) and Tom Cruise ($7.6 billion) in terms of sheer dollars.

But, as has already happened to both Cruise and Hanks, Smith is suddenly finding his status as leading man challenged. Because Sony decided to open After Earth in primetime summer months, it raised the movie's exposure.

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Three of the actor's fall and winter dramas opened lower than After Earth, but the stakes weren't as high. Seven Pounds debuted to $14.9 million in December 2008, while The Pursuit of Happyness took in $26.5 million in December 2006. Ali, opening on Christmas Day in 2001, bowed to $14.7 million.

Ali was considered a mild box office disappointment for Smith, grossing $87.7 million worldwide. Seven Pounds went on to earn north of $168 million worldwide, while Pursuit of Happyness -- also co-starring Jaden Smith -- took in $307.1 million.

Commenting on After Earth's troubling domestic opening, Sony president of worldwide distribution Rory Bruer said the studio has always considered the movie a "world play," in reference to Smith's standing overseas, where he is an even bigger star (last year, MIB 3 grossed $445 million overseas, compared to $179 domestically).

After Earth opens in 60 countries later this week, looking to get a jump on the international rollout of Superman pic Man of Steel. The only foreign market where After Earth debuted day-and-date was South Korea, grossing a so-so $2.7 million to come in at No. 2 behind the $5 million opening of Star Trek Into Darkness. As a way of comparison, I Am Legend debuted to $5 million in South Korea.