The Future is Global: On Will Smith, the Power of Movie Stars, and the Rise of the International Audience

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It looked like a pretty good idea on paper: Will Smith, the star of summertime sci-fi blockbusters like Independence Day and Men in Black, teams up with his real-life son Jaden in a sci-fi action film from the director of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable.

Over the last 10 years as movie stars have become an increasingly endangered species, Smith has stood tall as one of the last of a dying breed. Put his name on a poster along with that $20 million smile, and watch the dollars roll in (case in point: 2005’s Hitch). Not to be outdone by his dad, Jaden showed some real acting chops in 2010’s Karate Kid remake, which was also a box office hit. And although M. Night Shyamalan hasn’t had a bona fide smash since Signs in 2002, he’s still a director of undeniable skill – now is a good time to remember that the American Film Institute has voted The Sixth Sense one of the 100 greatest films ever made. Combine Will Smith’s savvy at giving audiences what they want with Shyamalan’s raw filmmaking talent, and a hit seemed likely to result.

But it was not to be.

When the box-office estimates rolled in on June 3, After Earth finished at #3, behind the 6th installment of a car racing franchise, and a magician heist movie starring Jesse Eisenberg and Woody Harrelson. The verdict appeared clear: After Earth was Will Smith’s first summertime bomb in almost 15 years.

When you look at the numbers, it seems like Will Smith’s star has been on the wane for some time. Since 2008, Smith has top lined just 3 films: Seven Pounds, Men in Black 3, and After Earth.

Seven Pounds was Smith’s second collaboration with director Gabriele Muccino, who had previously worked with Smith on 2006’s The Pursuit of Happyness. Happyness was a major success for Smith, generating about $170 million at the domestic box office, and garnering Smith an Oscar nomination in the process. However, Seven Pounds opened to mixed reviews, and made a mere $70 million in Canada and the US.

When MIB 3 came out in May 2012, it was Smith’s first starring role in 4 years. Although not exactly original, MIB 3 was a well-produced slice of summer box-office junk food. It was certainly better than 2002’s MIB II, which had been little more than a charmless rehash of the first film. Nevertheless, audiences weren’t enamoured with MIB 3. Whereas MIB II had made $190 million domestically in 2002, MIB 3 made about $180 domestically, despite inflation and the advantage of 3D ticket prices.

Now that After Earth has crashed and burned, it seems a fit time to declare that the man who played Ali is no longer a box office heavyweight. That’s the conventional wisdom, anyways. But conventional wisdom has a way of being wrong.

Seven Pounds reportedly cost $55 million to produce, although that figure likely doesn’t take into account marketing costs. The film topped out at $70 million domestically, but the worldwide figures tell a different story. Seven Pounds made about $100 million outside of North America, for a worldwide total of $168 million. That may not be ID4 money, but it was more than enough to make Seven Pounds substantially profitable for Sony Pictures.

The worldwide numbers for MIB 3 change the story even more drastically. Internationally, MIB 3 took in $445 million, making it the highest grossing installment of the series outside of North America to date (and making MIB 4 all but assured).

So in a year that included Batman, Bond, Bilbo, and the Avengers, Will Smith still managed to star in one of the top 10 films of the year. And unlike Batman and Bilbo, Smith’s success had nothing to do with wildly popular source material. No other actor could play Agent J, because Agent J’s only identifiable quality is Being Will Smith. While North American audiences may be growing tired of Smith’s cocky hero shtick, internationally, “being Will Smith” still counts for a hell of a lot, and Sony banks an international dollar just the same as an American dollar. The message from the international box office is clear: don’t write the Fresh Prince off just yet.

The recent reporting of the supposed demise of Smith’s star power shows how oddly myopic and North American-centric coverage of the weekly box-office horse race can be. Despite its post-2008 financial decline, America, and Hollywood in particular, remains the untouched leader in exporting popular culture around the globe. Global audiences also have their own quirky tastes that are sometimes out-of-sync with their North American counterparts. For one thing, they still like star power. Take a few recent examples:

With a domestic gross of $67.3 million, Bruce Willis’s 5th turn as John McClane in A Good Day to Die Hard looked like a bad day for 20th Century Fox. Well, not exactly. Although the back-to-back domestic disappointments of Jack Reacher and Oblivion suggest that Tom Cruise is in need of yet another comeback, internationally he never left. And while the domestic take for 2011’s Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides suggested that Jack Sparrow had lost some of his lustre with audiences, Johnny Depp managed to sail Sparrow’s 4th voyage to the highest international total in the history of the franchise.

It’s nothing new to see Hollywood blockbusters make more money internationally than domestically, even though they appear to cater primarily to a North American audience. Back in 1993, for example, Jurassic Park was a domestic juggernaut, but it made over 60% of its $924.5 million worldwide total abroad. What is somewhat new is Hollywood’s willingness to make explicit overtures to the global film community in order to maximize the bottom line.

Generally speaking, major Hollywood franchise films (with the notable exception of U.K.-centric James Bond) have been released in North America first, and then gradually roll out overseas over a period of months. This format allows buzz to build, and gives stars the opportunity to promote their films around the world (in 2005, Smith himself was entered into the Guinness Book of World Records for attending 3 premieres of Hitch in the U.K. in one day). However, there are signs that this format is changing, and perhaps permanently.

In 2012, at the culmination of literally years of hype, audiences in 39 countries got to see Marvel’s The Avengers before American audiences did. This year, international audiences were similarly first to see Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Into Darkness. In the age of instant communication, not being first has implications for North American audiences – how many North American Trek fans do you suppose went into Darkness already knowing Benedict Cumberbatch’s true identity because they had seen it discussed on a message board, or mentioned on someone’s Twitter feed? If studios are willing to give this kind of crucial information to international audiences before domestic audiences, the message is clear – studios don’t hold domestic audiences in any sort of special esteem, and are just as likely (if not more likely) to make creative decisions with a Beijing audience in mind as they are with a Kansas or New York audience in mind.

China is a particularly interesting case. Despite restrictions on content and on the number of foreign films that are permitted to be exhibited in the country, China has become one of the largest film markets in the world, and Chinese audiences are willing to pay premium prices for a 3D movie experience. Marvel recently took the unprecedented step of creating a special version of Iron Man 3 that was produced specifically for Chinese audiences. The Chinese version, which contains about 4 minutes of extra footage, includes an expanded role for a minor character in the regular version of the film, as well as appearance by Chinese actress Fan Bingbing.

Marvel isn’t the only studio casting local international actors in supporting roles to boost the international appeal of their films. Bollywood legend Amitabh Bachchan can currently be seen on screens around the world as Meyer Wolfsheim in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby. Although Bachchan performs well in the role, from a purely creative standpoint, it’s not a role that cries out for a Bollywood star – in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, Wolsheim was allegedly based on the real-life Arnold Rothstein, a Jewish-American gangster. However, as a major Indian film star, Bachchan gives the film an undeniable level of appeal to a significant global audience.

In addition to populating their works with names from the global films community, studios are expanding their global reach by using tentpole films as opportunities to showcase international locations. When the Fast & Furious franchise began in 2001, the films were steeped in urban American street racing culture. Fast Five moved the action to Rio de Janeiro and became the biggest installment of franchise – that is, until Fast & Furious 6 came out, and moved the action to London. This July, The Wolverine will chronicle the adventures of Hugh Jackman’s Logan in Japan. Wolverine’s Japanese storyline is one of the most revered storylines in the character’s history, so this decision is an easy sell artistically – but it also happens to be good business.

And when one thinks about good business, the strange, mechanical joylessness of After Earth starts to make sense. While North American critics are busy writing Will Smith’s movie star obituary, I can’t help but wonder if, like those magicians who so ignominiously defeated Smith and Son at the domestic box office, he’s playing the long game. Smith has publicly discussed his belief in the power of patterns. The story goes that early in his career, Smith and his manager sat down to devise a path to Hollywood superstardom. They looked at a list of the highest grossing films of all time, and saw a pattern: a majority of films on the list were sci-fi action films that had been released during the summer. Smith went on to star in films like Men in Black and I, Robot, and became the biggest star in the world.

Whereas the elder Smith had carefully mapped out a path to Hollywood dominance, After Earth plays like a similarly calculated attempt to make a global star out of Jaden. In After Earth, the two Smiths are presented as members of a futuristic melting pot society; they are nationally, ethnically, and culturally ambiguous. The action takes place on an Earth that has been overrun by nature, so as to look foreign but slightly familiar to any viewer on the planet. The film isn’t heavy on dialogue, and the dialogue bounced between father and son is terse, stoic, and short. This ain’t Kevin Smith – the story is told by the images of Jaden Smith fighting CGI creatures. Anyone can understand it.

And perhaps most importantly, Will Smith is in it. Though that may no longer mean what it used to in North America, North America is just one piece of the pie. The fact is, if a person sat down and tried to design a film for the specific purpose of appealing to the broadest, most inclusive global audience possible, it would look a lot like After Earth.

While internet movie talkbackers chortle over a perceived failure for the former king of Hollywood, Smith will be rolling out After Earth to a global audience of fans who have come to pay tribute. After almost 20 years on top, Smith is still seeing the patterns that others are catching up to. This time, the pattern shows that being the king of Hollywood is overrated – because who wants a kingdom on the Pacific, when the entire world awaits?  – The Sarcastic Squirrel