”His brand is permanently tarnished,“ one top talent agent said
Will Smith’s status as one of the world’s biggest movie stars is likely to take a significant hit in the wake of his slapping Chris Rock at the Oscars, Hollywood experts said, even if he continues to find work and appeal to his fans.
“I think he’s mortally wounded,” one top talent agent told TheWrap of the Smith fallout, calling the onstage assault and his subsequent speech in accepting the Best Actor Oscar an “almost unbelievable level of narcissism.”
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A second talent agent agreed. “He just cost himself a premium,” the agent told TheWrap. “His brand is permanently tarnished.”
What went from a shocking TV moment-turned-meme has now become a full-blown crisis for the newly minted Oscar winner. The public has not been shy in calling Smith’s slap what it is — an assault — and he has now drawn stiff rebuke from other stars and top Hollywood players, suggesting potentially serious consequences for his career.
The first big test of Smith’s perceived star status will be Antoine Fuqua’s “Emancipation,” a runaway-slave drama starring Smith that Apple Studios bought for $120 million. The film, currently in postproduction, was expected to be released later this year as a likely Oscar contender. But Apple may decide to hold the movie depending on if the Academy chooses to suspend or expel Smith. (A rep for Apple did not respond to a request for comment.)
But many top Hollywood agents and producers are not terribly optimistic about Smith’s near-term prospects to bounce back from this very public misstep — especially given his recent track record at the box office.
Exhibitor Relations analyst Jeff Bock noted that prior to the Oscars, Smith was already seeing his box office returns follow “the typical trajectory of an aging movie star.” Without a consistent franchise like Tom Cruise’s “Mission: Impossible” to support him, Smith was appearing in films like the panned Netflix sci-fi thriller “Bright” and Paramount’s 2019 box office bomb “Gemini Man,” which got a tentpole-level marketing spend on top of its $138 million budget but only grossed $175 million worldwide.
The exceptions to Smith’s box office decline came from IP-driven films either from his past or from the Disney behemoth, with the 2019 remake of “Aladdin” starring Smith as Genie topping $1 billion worldwide. And just before the pandemic in January 2020, Smith’s “Bad Boys for Life” grossed $206 million domestic and $426.5 million worldwide for Sony Pictures, standing only behind “American Sniper” as the second-highest grossing January release in box office history.
One producer behind studio franchises said that Smith will still find work at the studio level, but wondered if his biggest franchises are behind him. The producer noted that Tom Cruise managed to bounce back from the public relations disaster when he manically jumped on Oprah Winfrey’s couch in 2005, but that same path may not be available for Smith.
“Post-couch jumping incident, Tom Cruise had a solid, guaranteed successful ‘Mission: Impossible’ franchise with the four films in that franchise that followed the incident,” the producer said. “None of Smith’s franchises are nearly as solid. ‘Men in Black’ didn’t come back after the last one.”
Another agent said Smith has opened the door for other actors to fill what would’ve been his roles.
“This just became his Tom Cruise/Mel Gibson moment, where he’s always going to be a star, but he just went from A+ to A and gave people like Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart and Tom Holland a clearer lane,” this agent said.
A-list movie stars like Smith command huge salaries — Smith earned $20 million for “Aladdin” in 2019, and $17 million for “Bad Boys For Life” in 2020 — and are expected to deliver massive box office to justify those salaries. According to box office database The Numbers, Smith’s lifetime box office grosses is $6.5 billion worldwide in 29 films.
Some crisis PR experts told TheWrap they were more optimistic about Smith’s prospects, even while arguing that his reputation has changed overnight. Though Smith took nearly a full day after the Oscars to publicly apologize to Rock, they called his apology “well done” and something that “checked the boxes” for a response to a scandal such as this.
“He’s unquestionably a very talented entertainer and actor, and he’s built a whole lot of good will throughout his career, so people are going to be open to forgiving him and redeeming himself,” Evan Nierman, founder of Red Banyan crisis PR firm said. “He is going to work again, he’s going to continue to get acting jobs, and if he handles himself properly in the coming weeks and months, this will be a stain on his career, but it’s one that will be surmountable, and his future still looks bright.”
Nierman added: “He’s not going to get canceled because of what happened at the Oscars that night. Because Will Smith is too big to fail.”
Mark Macias, owner of Macias PR and a crisis consultant, noted that Smith had done irreparable damage to his public image — and make it less likely for him to be cast in certain kinds of projects. “This is going to be sticking in front of people for a long time,” he said. “I can’t get over how quickly he ruined his reputation. He was always speaking about love.”
Beyond “Emancipation,” Smith is attached to sequels to both Netflix’s “Bright” and Sony’s “Bad Boys for Life,” neither of which have shooting scripts, as well as an STX project from David Leitch called “Fast & Loose.”
Other projects are even earlier in the development process, including a movie that his Westbrook Entertainment is producing at Sony’s Screen Gems about his song “Summertime” and the just-announced “I Am Legend” sequel for Warner Bros. with Michael B. Jordan attached.
“Other than ‘Bad Boys 4,’ I think those will all die,” the first agent told TheWrap of Smith’s list of upcoming projects. “The key to any movie star, regardless of era, gender, race, etc. is that the audience finds them relatable and in some sense, that they want to be the star. I think that is no longer possible with Smith.”
Still, the agent noted that Smith could follow a path similar to Gibson’s in seeking out non-studio projects. “He’s going to continue to work, but more in the foreign sales model,” the agent said.
What about Smith’s business dealings? In January, Smith’s Westbrook Inc. landed a $600 million valuation and sold a minority stake to Kevin Mayer and Tom Staggs’ media company Candle Media — an investment that may have been hurt by Smith’s current career prospects. While Smith has been attached to many of the company’s hits, Overbrook has also produced dramatic reboot Peacock’s “Bel Air,” Netflix’s “Cobra Kai” and the YA “To All the Boys” film franchise that are less tied to Smith’s personal brand.
One talent manager told TheWrap: “It definitely hurt the Westbrook value and that capital raise won’t be worth the same. That valuation is based on a clean image, and that’s not the same anymore.”
A rep for Candle Media did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
While some argue it’s too early to tell how Smith’s company on the whole might be impacted, others say he’ll have a hard time setting up new projects for at least the next few months as he works to rehabilitate his image.
“I’m not giving Westbrook any projects. And I may even blow up the ones that I have that are currently in negotiations. What’s Westbrook without Will? Nothing,” one agent told TheWrap. “I think he’s not setting up many — if any — new projects at least until the fall.”
Bock was more optimistic about Smith’s long-term prospects, particularly in familiar franchise projects. “There’s still enough of a widespread interest to see Smith in another ‘Bad Boys’ film or another ‘I Am Legend’ for studios to move forward on those projects, though they might wait a little longer before moving it into active development,” he said. “At least for the next six months or so, Smith’s going to go on an apology tour all over Hollywood, but I could see in a couple years a lot of moviegoers deciding to let it go if the trailers start coming out for ‘Bad Boys 4.'”
And as part of that comeback effort, many expect Smith to do a sit-down with someone like Oprah Winfrey as part of the long tradition of regaining public acceptance. It’s widely expected that he’ll address the issue on his own turf with wife Jada Pinkett Smith’s “Red Table Talk” show on Facebook Watch. (Reps for Smith did not respond to requests for comment.)
Any rehabilitation efforts may have to wait until after the Academy determines what disciplinary measures it will take against the star, a process that the organization said on Tuesday could take “a few weeks.” That may prolong the coverage and commentary on the slap, as everyone from Oscars hosts Wanda Sykes and Amy Schumer to stars like Jim Carrey and Kareem Abdul-Jabaar have now condemned his actions.
“If I were advising him, I would get him on TV as soon as possible to create new images of Will Smith on film,” Nierman said. “He’s going to have to come prepared and humble himself and show people that he truly regrets what he did.”
Jeremy Fuster contributed to this report.
Film Reporter • email@example.com • Twitter: @brianwelk
Umberto has been covering the fanboy beat & breaking scoops for 20 years with numerous Hollywood trade, newspaper, & magazine mentions to his credit. Umberto has been profiled in such publications as The Washington Post, Variety and Grantland.