Will Smith and the Death of Hollywood’s Box Office Superstars
Business + Economy

Will Smith and the Death of Hollywood’s Box Office Superstars

Warner Bros. Pictures

This past weekend was meant to be a big one for Will Smith. Following the failure of the overblown vanity project After Earth and the stale Men in Black 3, his new movie Focus was meant to return Smith to the roll of “actor” and not merely a special effect in a sci-fi extravaganza.

Focus is a straight forward con-man movie in which Smith is paired with “next big thing” Margot Robbie. The film did top the weekend box office, but it took in a disappointing $19.1 million and just barely beat out The Kingsmen and Fifty Shades of Grey, both of which have been in theaters for multiple weeks.

For Smith, it must have been immensely disappointing, but for Hollywood, it must have seemed like déjà vu all over again.

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Smith catapulted out of the late ‘80s/early ‘90s with an almost unequaled hot streak. After fronting what was one of the first Billboard-friendly hip-hop acts, Smith made the transition to television (a decision at least partially influenced by his need to pay back taxes) and became a star in American living rooms almost immediately. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air became a cultural touchstone for ‘90s kids and one of the first depictions of hip-hop culture (no matter how watered down and sanitized) to go mainstream.

His transition to film was equally seamless. Between 1993 and 1997, Smith garnered serious critical acclaim for his role in Six Degrees of Separation and proved his bankability as the marquee name in two of the defining blockbusters of the decade, Bad Boys and Men in Black. He followed that up with the brainy techno-thriller Enemy of the State. Smith was on top of the world and seemed poised to stay there.

The film industry for its part was entering into a phase where it relied more and more on “Star Power.” Actors like Smith, Tom Cruise and Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Denzel Washington, Meg Ryan, John Travolta, Sandra Bullock, Brad Pitt and comedians Adam Sandler and Jim Carrey began to command eight-figure pay checks just to appear in the films. It no longer mattered what the film was about or if it was any good, only that one of these names was attached. Meanwhile, the Indie Film movement and the revival of auteur theory bubbled under the surface.

Things began to fall apart for Smith around the turn of the millennium (Willennium, indeed). He famously rejected the Neo role in The Matrix. Wild Wild West, the project he did instead, was a spectacular bomb. His role in Ali was well regarded but little seen. His only real hits, I, Robot and I Am Legend, were both genre fare that were only moderately successful.

Now, despite Smith’s dutifully hitting the talk show circuit and showing off his rap skills and his pride in his sitcom past, Focus has flopped, and with it the idea that Smith’s name alone can sell a film. The thing is, for the other names on that star list, this is old news. Smith was the last torchbearer of an old idea.

Of the group that was the original $20 million club, Hanks has largely taken serious acting roles and producing jobs, with only the flop Larry Crowne (also featuring Julia Roberts) really demonstrating the collapse of his star power. Roberts and Bullock have followed similar paths as Hanks (and it’s worth noting that Bullock had to share billing with George Clooney on her most recent blockbuster, despite having way more screen time). Denzel Washington has largely done genre work in the violent middle-aged revenge fantasy that Liam Neeson has made his own. Travolta has made bad choice after bad choice, both personally and professionally, and Meg Ryan should act as a warning for women like Jennifer Lawrence and Emma Stone of exactly how coldly the industry can dismiss vivacious women when their ages start to show.

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The comedians, meanwhile, have suffered overexposure to the point of becoming grating. Sandler repeats the same formula over and over, while Carrey has dialed down his appearances, only really re-emerging to revisit past glories.

But no one epitomizes the plight of the end of the movie star quite like Tom Cruise. By the mid ‘90s, Cruise was the movie star. His carefully constructed persona married steely intensity with roguish charm, and from Top Gun through Mission Impossible he was Hollywood’s royalty. But decades of naked self-regard and increasingly weird revelations about his personal life have all left fans with an odd reaction to the actor. His last three films were all decently reviewed failures at the box office. The word of mouth, particularly on Edge of Tomorrow, was that these were good films, if only they didn’t star Cruise. He was actually having the opposite effect to what was intended: Audiences were staying away from good films specifically because Cruise was the star.

As troubling as these trends might be for Cruise, Smith or any other recent superstar, the biggest problem for Hollywood is that these actors have not been replaced by the industry’s assembly line. The actors next in line, the generation now hitting 40, have largely taken different career paths. Leo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Reese Witherspoon and Christian Bale have taken their blockbuster successes and used them to do serious work with acclaimed directors. None of their names alone can ensure a hit film. (Elysium, anyone? Shutter Island?) Bradley Cooper has followed the Redford/Clooney model of a “pretty boy” that had to get some wrinkles to be taken seriously. Angelina Jolie and Ben Affleck have both largely stepped behind the camera. Robert Downey, Jr. is now the highest paid actor in Hollywood, but he’s never had a hit where he wasn’t playing Tony Stark or Sherlock Homes (or a supporting role in which he’s wearing blackface). Joaquin Phoenix has become increasingly weird, as have his choices.

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Now consider the age of the actors from that last generation when they played the role that made them stars. Smith was 27 in Independence Day. Cruise was 25 (as was Meg Ryan) in Top Gun. Hanks and Pitt were 28, Sandler and Bullock were both 29, Julia Roberts was only 23. Bruce Willis was the grand old man at 32 — and how in the world was he only 32 in Die Hard!?

Looking at that age range, only a handful of women and fewer men who fit the bill to be the breakout superstars of tomorrow: The aforementioned Jennifer Lawrence and Emma Stone, plus Anna Kendricks maybe. Channing Tatum has proven to be smarter than his meathead appearance would suggest. The various denizens of the Marvel, DC, Hunger Games and Harry Potter universes have all shown their share of humor and charisma, but at the end of the day, audiences are going to see Steve Rodgers and Katniss Everdeen, not Chris Evans or Jennifer Lawrence.

Naturally, then, Hollywood is shifting its focus to franchises of a different sort. As audiences have more and more entertainment options, and are increasingly unwilling to gamble with their time and money, the movie business no longer relies on famous names to sell tickets. It relies on famous characters. It is not a coincidence that Smith’s next big role is as a Batman villain in an ensemble cast…

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