An actors career is kind of like a story in and of itself; full of twists, turns, surprises, victories, highs, lows, it can be as compelling as any given film an actor can take part in. A good example of this is Chris Pratt, a scene stealer from Parks & Recreation who went on to appear in three Best Picture nominees in a row, then star in two $250 million movies in 2014 and solidify himself as the go to movie star of the modern movie era. Now that’s the kind of rags-to-riches story anyone can find interesting!
Will Smith is similarly fascinating, though he’s certainly had more low points than Pratt’s work (Smith has also been a working actor for longer than Pratt of course, making that an inevitability). Taking a gander at his career’s box office, the focus of this editorial, it’s kind of interesting to see what’s worked for him, what hasn’t. Of course, everything was working for Smith in the early 90’s considering the huge success of The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air, and though the movie containing his first major starring role, Six Degrees Of Separation, bombed, a little Michael Bay feature titled Bad Boys turned things around, big time.
When it opening on April 7, 1995, Bad Boys didn’t even have the widest theater count of the movies opening that weekend (A Goofy Movie beat it out by 27 locations), but Bad Boys did have stamina in the marketplace (it wound up making $65 million overall) and stuck around in wide release until Memorial Day weekend. That film was a solid moneymaker, but it was Independence Day that took things to the next level. This was the first feature to star Smith after Fresh Prince ended, and it confirmed once and for all that this guy was a movie star to be reckoned with financially.
Now of course, ID4 (as it’s posters dubbed it) had more than just Will Smith to thank for it’s fantastic performance that made it the sixth biggest movie of all-time in 1996. But it didn’t hurt to have the rising star along for the ride, and the following year’s Men In Black, which grossed $250 million, ensured Will Smith’s place in the A-list, a position only reinforced by the actors Thanksgiving 1998 hit thriller Enemy Of The State.
Once After Earth (which I’ll discuss in greater detail later) bombed in 2013, everyone acted like it was the end of an era for Smith. It’s true that it was his biggest dud in a while, but it’s actually not the first time Smith struck out in the realm of summer blockbusters. 1999’s Wild Wild West was likely a much more costly dud thanks to it’s larger budget ($175 million, which adjusted for inflation is a whopping $241 million cost, which makes it more expensive than any Marvel Studios film) and more limited international box office.
What’s fascinating is how that film looked like a guaranteed hit from afar; a 4th of July opening that worked wonders for ID4 and Men In Black, a comedy/action combination in the marketing etc. that all wound up not only losing tons of cash, but started a new financial cold streak for Smith that wouldn’t let up for three more years. That kind of streak likely wouldn’t have occurred if he his follow up to Wild Wild West wasn’t The Legend Of Bagger Vance, a film I hadn’t even heard of until a few weeks ago. Upon watching the trailer, I was convinced it was one of those fake parody trailers from Tropic Thunder. Not a shocker it became his lowest grossing wide release ever.
2001’s Ali brought another box office disappointment, but this one at least brought a Best Actor nomination for Will Smith, who managed to break his losing streak with 2002’s Men In Black II. That film not only reversed his financial fortunes, it started an eight movie long streak of $100+ million grossing movies for Will Smith. That kind of success made him a legendary movie star, and even the film that brought that streak to a close (Seven Pounds, which only made $69.9 million) couldn’t counteract his incredible string of hits like Hancock or The Pursuit of Happyness, the latter of which secured another Oscar nomination for Smith.
But then something happened after Seven Pounds….Will Smith vanished. In 2009, Will Smith would not appear in a motion picture, the first time since 1994 that had occurred. He remained off the radar for two more years, finally returning in 2012 with MIB3. The film plagued with problems and controversies (one of which was Smith’s massive trailer that had been disruptive to New York citizens), but wound up making a decent amount of cash domestically and did excellent overseas, reaffirming Smith’s international box office pull.
Of course, the following year brought After Earth, the cataclysmic dud that wound up making less money than all but two of Smith’s movies domestically. It earned disastrous reviews and put Smith’s career in a tailspin for the first time ever. Tomorrow, his first feature since that failure, Focus, arrives, and while it’s hard to say how it’ll do (it’s quite different from his conventional movies, being a smaller scale con artist film and his first R-rated venture since Bad Boys II in 2003), it does offer a good opportunity to look over Smith’s career as a whole.
There’s no denying things have changed since he started out as a leading man. Will Smith started out as a comedic, engaging actor who showed off those aspects of his acting by stealing the show in Independence Day and having a humorous buddy-cop dynamic with Tommy Lee Jones in Men In Black. He went serious for different roles (notable The Pursuit of Happyness), but he mostly kept things light and with a one-liner handy, using his confident personality to launch films like Hitch and Hancock to the next level at the box office.
In recent years though, he’s tried to be weirdly more serious, with his performance in Seven Pounds not generating any quality or financial reward. That desire to be more composed in his roles may be a major reason why After Earth was such a dud in every way imaginable; a Will Smith summer blockbuster, at it’s best with Men In Black and I, Robot, was zippy, compelling and memorable. After Earth settled for Will Smith sitting and babbling M. Night Shyamalan dialogue, a sharp contrast to the kind of high quality summertime fare Smith usually gave audiences. That sort of drop-off led to his worst box office yet, and is likely why ads for Focus are emphasizing Will Smith as having more of a comedic and scoundrel like personality in that feature.
Even if that film underwhelms financially, it’s unlikely Hollywood is done with Will Smith. Not only does he have two movies coming out over the next 18 months (Concussion and Suicide Squad), but with the kind of box office history he has, it’s doubtful he won’t ever once again sit on his throne as the prince of Bel-Air, er, the box office.