"After Earth" isn't the Smith family's first showbiz collaboration, but it's one that will test Jaden's box office mettle as one of Hollywood's future leading men
Will Smith has been one of the biggest movie stars on the planet for two decades, but this weekend he'll take a back seat for one of the first times in his career – to his own son.
"After Earth" is Smith's first non-sequel since "Seven Pounds," but the actor actually conceived the story as a potential franchise that would spawn its own sequels.
Yet unlike "Bad Boys" or "Men in Black," in which Smith was the star, the franchise was designed to ensure the ascent of Jaden Smith, not Will. It's just one of the projects the rapper-turned-movie-star has developed for his children with actress Jada Pinkett Smith and her brother Caleeb Pinkett through his Overbrook Entertainment production company.
Will Smith, who first became Hollywood royalty in "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" before moving over to film, has a much smaller part in "After Earth" than his progeny. According to an individual familiar with the planning of the movie, "After Earth" was envisioned as a trilogy.
By the time a third installment arrives in theaters, "Will will be too old to be an action star and Jaden will be just entering his prime," the individual told TheWrap.
Almost every element of the movie's website, from its trailer to its explanation of this futuristic world, begins with Jaden. The marketing campaign for the M. Night Shyamalan directed movie bears a striking similarity to earlier campaigns for Will Smith movies.
In 2008, Will Smith appeared in two movies, "Seven Pounds" and ‘Hancock," that grossed a combined $792 million. Both of their posters consisted of nothing more than Smith's mug, his name and the movie's title. His visage, inscrutable yet familiar, distant yet desirable, was all it took to bring fans to the theater.
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Now check out the poster for "After Earth." (pictured: above)
"You walk away thinking it looks like a great action movie starring Will Smith and his son and that his son is a legitimate star," a former marketing executive at a major studio told TheWrap. "They did a great job of legitimizing him as a star without starting a conversation about why he should be legitimate. They show him flying through the air with this futuristic wing suit and people forget that is the same kid who was in 'Pursuit of Happyness.'"
Yet if Jaden is the focus of "After Earth," Will is the supportive parent — literally. It is the second films in which he plays Jaden's father and the third he has produced, the third being none other than the hit "Karate Kid" remake starring Jaden.
"Overbook exists for the greater glory of Will and Jaden," one individual with knowledge of the company told TheWrap.
Overbrook acquired the rights to turn musical "Annie" into a film from Jay-Z's film company, and the initial plan was for Will's daughter Willow (near left with Jaden) to star as the titular orphan. Already a successful singer who appeared with her father in "I Am Legend," she was deemed a natural fit after the success of her song "Whip My Hair."
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Yet Willow eventually decided that she wanted to be a kid, practicing ballet and playing baseball. "Beasts of the Southern Wild" star Quvenzhane Wallis replaced her in the lead role.
Smith's brother-in-law Caleeb is the lead producer on "After Earth" and has assumed a growing role at Overbrook, which is run by Smith and his long-time producing partner James Lassiter. Pinkett co-wrote and developed the movie — "The Legend of Cain" — as the next act of the elder Smith's career — the "Clint Eastwood part."
Smith would have starred in and directed "Cain," one of several movies where he began to relinquish his action hero belt and pursue more diverse films. The project, like so many in Hollywood, is still in development.
Caleeb's gradual ascension within Overbrook comes at the same time that many key employees have departed the Sony-based outfit, including partner Ken Stovitz – who now represents Jada and Jaden Smith as an agent at Paradigm – COO Guy Primus and Black List founder Franklin Leonard.
Though Smith's representatives declined to comment on the record for this story or about dynamics at Overbrook, one individual close to the company suggested that anyone who says his ascension and those departures are related is merely bitter.
Overbrook declined to comment for this story, as did many of the people TheWrap contacted for this story. Smith is both powerful and well-liked, but guards his privacy; case in point, departing Overbrook employees must sign a non-disclosure agreement. People speak when permitted.
Privately, people said they feel Smith's efforts to work with his family and develop projects for them have been unobtrusive and sincere, contrasting his efforts favorably with certain reality show families.
(Cough *Kardashians* Cough).
When New York magazine asked Smith about one such showbiz family — that would be the Kardashians — he said that fame was not the name of the game in his family.
"We are trying to put great things into the world, we're trying to have fun, and we're trying to become the greatest versions of ourselves in the process of doing things we love," he told the magazine. "So the idea of fame or exploitation or orchestrating the media is sometimes even less than desirable for us."
He pointed out that Willow decided to bow out of "Annie" after they acquired the property for her, and they supported that decision.
"It may seem like we have pushed our kids into the business, but that is absolutely insane," he told the magazine. Jaden, he added, is making an informed decision to take on these high-profile roles.
Yet even Smith acknowledges that he approaches his business like a family business, and his business is one where celebrity and fame come whether you want it or not.
Jaden has embraced stardom with the same relish his father does, and became one of the youngest stars to court a following in the booming Chinese market when he starred in "The Karate Kid." The Smiths spent a great deal of time traveling through the country, aware of the all-important international box office.
With "After Earth," Overbrook again tried to tap into an emerging part of the business, even hiring someone to do transmedia specifically for the film.
"Jaden can get things done in this town," one manager who works with younger stars told TheWrap. "People like him and 'The Karate Kid' did so well internationally that he means something. Because of that, if 'After Earth' does any kind of business, he's golden."
Jaden has not booked the next film on his schedule, which could range from various projects in development at Overbrook to a sequel to "After Earth" – if it performs.
Few expect the movie to be a huge hit domestically (factoring in its hefty budget), but Smith will use his enduring appeal overseas to make the movie profitable. Will that be enough to spawn a sequel, er, dynasty?
Video by Rebecca Rosenberg