Will Smith’s Blockbuster Playbook: A Chance to Win Back Audiences

It's been over a year since Smith finally became an Oscar-winner—and some other stuff happened too. Where does his career stand, and what comes next?

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"If you hang on, I promise we'll be able to be friends again."

Those words from Will Smith came in a six-minute apology video in July 2022, four months after he walked onstage at the Oscars and slapped Chris Rock over a joke the comedian made about Smith's wife, Jada Pinkett Smith. That same night, Smith won his first Oscar, meaning his career simultaneously reached an apex and a valley, with many wondering how he would rebound from the jarring and unforgettable incident. It's a topic that has renewed resonance as Smith officially gears up for his next phase. 

Last summer, following Smith's emotional on-camera comments, I was on a second date, watching Hitch, as I do, and my fellow Hitch viewer, an experienced PR and marketing rep, strongly insisted that Smith wouldn't recover. I contended that, because of his three decades as our most charming and inherently likable movie star, he'd be fine in the long run. For example, if he wanted to make Bad Boys 4, he'd be able to make Bad Boys 4. Fast-forward a year, and there was no third date, but Smith and Martin Lawrence are currently filming their fourth Bad Boys installment.

The recently-launched production is significant for Smith, as it marks his first film to be green-lit since the Oscars episode. Apple's big-budget runaway slave drama Emancipation was filmed in 2021, and while it was originally meant to be a noisy, signature awards player for the streamer, it ultimately was met with lukewarm reviews when it was released in December 2022. What conversation there was around Emancipation centered mostly on Smith apologizing for what he did to Rock and sharing his hope that it wouldn't detract from the work that the Emancipation team did.

In discussing Emancipation, Smith said he'd "completely understand" and "absolutely respect" if anyone was "not ready" to watch him. Well, it was a bit of a standoff, but it seems studios are ready to be back in the Smith business. "Everyone was waiting to see who would blink first," a high-ranking studio executive told Variety. And it made total sense for Sony to be the one. Seventeen years after Bad Boys II, the long-awaited Bad Boys for Life arrived at the top of 2020. It made $73 million domestically in its opening weekend and went on to become the biggest January release in box office history. Eventually raking in almost $430 million, Bad Boys for Life finished as 2020's highest-grossing Hollywood film, an accomplishment undoubtedly impacted by the COVID pandemic, which shut down theaters and subsequently led to studios holding back their biggest properties. (For comparison: in 2019, the film would have been in the top 5, but not in the top spot.) But with the franchise still having legs, a bet on Smith was a no-brainer.

Mike (WILL SMITH), Marcus (MARTIN LAWRENCE) on the streets of Miami in Columbia Pictures' BAD BOYS FOR LIFE.
Mike (Smith) and Marcus (Martin Lawrence) in Columbia Pictures' <em>Bad Boys For Life</em>.

Once Sony moved forward with Bad Boys 4, Netflix reportedly re-commissioned Fast and Loose, a big-budget action thriller starring Smith as a man who wakes up in Tijuana with no memories and soon pieces together his past, learning that he's been living two lives, one as a crime kingpin and the other as an undercover CIA agent. News broke in July 2021 that Netflix acquired the vehicle from Smith and director David Leitch, but they subsequently put the project on ice post-Oscars. While Leitch, the premier action filmmaker behind Atomic Blonde and Bullet Train, seems no longer attached, Smith aims to go from production on Bad Boys to Fast and Loose.

Meanwhile, Smith's other upcoming projects are clear IP plays, leaning into storylines and characters audiences have previously turned out to see. He had lined up a Planes, Trains, and Automobiles remake with Kevin Hart (who says they're working to "crack the code" on the script) and a sequel to his 2007 monster hit I Am Legend, in which he'd costar with Michael B. Jordan. Whether either of those comes to fruition, Smith's charted route toward big-screen redemption seems clear. With his goal of winning an Oscar achieved and those within the Academy more likely to hold the slap against him than the viewing public, Smith is returning to the blockbuster playbook that turned him into the industry's most bankable star in the late '90s and early '00s, as evidenced by the fact that 16 of his movies have grossed over $100 million domestically.

"Controversies usually have no impact on box office; it's really about the movie, the marketing, the brand," Comscore box office analyst Paul Dergarabedian says during a discussion about Smith, whom he points out was once "Mr. Summer Box Office." If TikTok users are any indicator of the general viewing public, Smith's popular viral video from February 2023, in which he poked fun at himself and the Oscars messiness, shows his enduring fan base. The comments, while including some criticism, were generally forward-looking and enthusiastic.

"Certain types of movies or franchises carry so much sway with audiences that that becomes the overriding factor in whether or not they want to see a movie," Dergarabedian added. "It's been proven over the years that the audience clearly loves the Bad Boys franchise, and so go with your strengths and the safe bet because that's going to be where you find the path of least resistance."

Will any of these be Independence Day and Men in Black? (Or, dare I say, Hitch?) Only time will tell. But with Smith not that far removed from fronting the successful third Bad Boys and a billion-dollar smash in Aladdin (and, of course: that Oscar-winning turn in King Richard), another No. 1 opening and a splash on the Netflix charts tend to turn any tempests into water under the bridge. 

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