This probably isn’t the summer Will Smith expected. The undisputed king of summer box-office mega-hits experienced a first in his highly successful Hollywood career this past weekend. A flop.
His new film, After Earth, in which he costars with his 14-year-old son, Jaden, brought in a dismal $27 million, chump change for Smith and his $130 million film. Smith’s summer offerings over the last 20 years traditionally rank No. 1 and usually bring in close to $40 million on opening weekends.
So what went wrong?
Many theories abound on why After Earth failed to bring in Smith’s usual big box-office bucks. Some blame it on the blatantly obvious Scientology elements in the sci-fi film. Smith has repeatedly denied he’s a member of the highly controversial religion favored by Tom Cruise and John Travolta. Others say the choice of M. Night Shyamalan as director did the film little justice. Shyamalan, best known for The Sixth Sense, hasn’t delivered box-office gold in years.
But a few others in the industry wonder if the problem is much closer to home. They question if Smith’s all-consuming desire to have his son follow in his footsteps as “the next big thing” in Hollywood is the real culprit.
In a recent New York Magazine article, Smith suggested he’d like his wife, Jada; sons Trey and Jaden; and daughter Willow to echo the success of the legendary Barrymore family of Hollywood. The Barrymores were a multigenerational dynasty that included film and theater actors John, Lionel, Ethel, John Drew, and Drew.
“I think people see it as a sense of entitlement on Smith’s part,’’ said one industry heavyweight. “His son can become a star simply because of his last name and that he has the right to be a big star because of his last name is a lot to assume. I’m not sure people like that attitude. There is a sense of an arrogance in that move that I’m not sure Will anticipated.’’
Another Hollywood producer who asked not to be identified thought Smith’s comparison to the Barrymore family was over the top and ill-advised.
“For one thing, the Barrymores had a huge share of pain and suffering that I suspect no one wants for their own family,’’ said the producer. “Let others say that about your family. That should be someone else’s observation. Not your own.’’
Smith has long been thought of as a true “nice guy” in Tinseltown. He’s charming and smart enough to flow with ease between black and white audiences and savvy enough to broker major deals with Hollywood heavyweights for major bucks in big-time projects. Smith became a breakout star in the late ’80s with a rap career and then in the early ’90s with his popular sitcom, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
‘Will is a big mainstream star, and he doesn’t like rocking the race boat if he doesn’t have to.’
The Philly native’s pleasant smile, good looks, and easygoing persona made him a favorite on late-night talk shows and a regular on magazine covers for the past two decades. Films such as Independence Day, Men in Black, and I, Robot, made him the most profitable male movie star in the world—a feat never attained by an African-American movie star before.
Smith carried the mantle well, choosing politically correct films that offered little controversy or debate. The actor recently revealed that he turned down the main character in last year’s big hit Django Unchained because he didn’t feel Django was the lead role. Others suggest the film’s plot of a slave taking revenge on his white slave owner was much too racially divisive for Smith’s liking.
“Will is a big mainstream star, and he doesn’t like rocking the race boat if he doesn’t have to,’’ said another well-known African-American actor. “Anything that does that isn’t in his comfort zone. Django wasn’t in his comfort zone.’’
In his mid-forties and seemingly satisfied with his own storybook Hollywood success, Smith has spent the last few years focused on the careers of his children Jaden and Willow. His oldest son, Trey, from his previous marriage, is pursuing a music career.
Smith first co-starred with Jaden in the critically acclaimed 2006 film The Pursuit of Happyness. The story showcased him as a down-on-his-luck and homeless father struggling to survive with his son. Smith received an Oscar nomination for the role, and Jaden would later gain more success with a remake of The Karate Kid.
Jaden’s movie career and Willow’s fashion and singing style have kept both Smith children constantly in the Hollywood spotlight. Each is regularly featured in weekly celebrity magazines, and that attention will surely increase with Jaden’s recent announcement that he is dating Kylie Jenner, the younger sister of Kim Kardashian.
“I think his kids are seen now as being very, very Hollywood in a way that not many kids are these days and certainly not many children of African-American celebrities,’’ said an industry agent. “They are seen as these overly privileged children that are getting an easy way in the backdoor of success. Back in the day you saw stars like Henry Fonda and Lloyd Bridges put their sons and daughters in movies that made them movie stars but that was a different day. Today with shows such as American Idol and The Voice, people believe everyone should have a shot. Not just children of celebrities.’’
African-American celebrities such as Samuel L. Jackson and Denzel Washington reportedly encouraged their children to explore various areas of employment both inside and outside the worlds of entertainment. Washington has said in past interviews that he’s insisted all his children receive a college education before entering any job market.
Still, many of Smith’s diehard fans say there is a more obvious reason for After Earth’s bad box-office showing. It wasn’t very good.
“I didn’t like the ads for the movie, and I didn’t get what it was about it from seeing the commercials,’’ said longtime Will Smith admirer Sasha Alexander, a 30-year-old hairdresser based in Atlanta. “And the critics killed it, which really made me stay home and save my money. I love Will, but that movie wasn’t the one for him or his son.’’