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‘Concussion’ Adds to Will Smith’s Growing List of Recent Box Office Disappointments. What’s Going On?

'Concussion' Adds to Will Smith's Growing List of Recent Box Office Disappointments. What's Going On?

“Concussion” is on track to become maybe Will Smith’s weakest box office performer (films in which he’s the star specifically). The film has been in theaters for almost 3 weeks, and has grossed just under $31 million as of this weekend. It holds the title of the lowest box office opening weekend for any Will Smith movie (again, films he’s specifically the star of), with $10.5 million. You’d have to go back to 1993 to “Six Degrees of Separation” which opened with just $53,000, although it should be noted that the film debuted on just 2 screens nationwide, while “Concussion” opened on over 2800 screens – more than a significant difference.

At this rate, I seriously doubt that “Concussion” will gross anywhere near $100 million. Reviews have been ok, so it’s not that it’s a bad movie. Unfortunately, I just couldn’t get through it without chuckling almost every time Will Smith spoke with his “Nigerian accent” and put on the kind of earnestness on his face that screams, “I’m a serious actor; this is a serious scene; I want that Oscar.” I just didn’t *believe* his performance, and ultimately wished he’d cast someone else in the lead role, and played a supporting character. But the film’s Rotten Tomatoes score is at a decent 62%, with the consensus stating: “‘Concussion’ lands a solid, well-acted hit on its impressively timely subject matter, even if its traditional sports drama structure is a little too safe to deserve a full-on dance in the end zone.” 

I read that sentence and immediately remembered Adam Thompson’s piece on this blog 3 years ago on Will Smith’s “strategic aversion to controversial roles.” Although “Concussion” presented an opportunity at controversy, given the subject matter, and the attention it received from the NFL for obvious reasons. However, it’s still a very “safe” movie, and very much in keeping with Smith’s usual appetite.

It’s been years since he’s starred in what you’d call a blockbuster movie. For an actor whose name was long synonymous with $100+ million grossers, Smith’s most recent offerings have been disappointments, relatively speaking: “Concussion,” “Focus,” “After Earth,” and “Seven Pounds.” Although there was “MIB 3” in 2012 which did do well, but I’d argue that it was already an established franchise that was going to draw audiences anyway.

But Smith had a very good run for several years with box office smash after smash, which officially began with the first “Bad Boys” movie in 1995; “Independence Day” is usually what most think of as his big screen box office breakout, since it was such a massive hit. But I’d credit “Bad Boys” which came before it by a year, as the start (although he’d already charmed his way into America’s hearts and minds as the Fresh Prince (the rapper) and of “Bel Air”). That is not to say that he’s in any way done. I think Will Smith’s name is still a veritable international brand that will continue to draw attention, but some are of course wondering whether his best days as a Hollywood sure-thing are behind him.

Smith himself isn’t at all worried; why should he be? He’s made truckloads of money over the years, and has cemented himself as a bona fide international movie star earning his way into the history books, especially as a black actor – something that’s still very rare. But maybe more importantly, his so-called “decline” could be all by design.

To wit, check out this quote from Smith lifted from an interview he gave to Digital Spy, while doing press for “After Earth” in the UK a few years ago, which maybe telegraphed to the audience what was to come in terms of the kind of work he would do: “There’s something about making movies that just really gets me excited… I love people being wrapped in a story and being able to deliver that emotional punchline at the end. It’s been an absolute necessity that the movie be a blockbuster, but I think I’m going to start moving out of that and finding more danger in my artistic choices.”

He suggested that he’d start making films more for himself, than for the audience he has long entertained, and that his choices would essentially reflect that. So we can assume that what followed (films like “Focus” and “Concussion” and the bit part he had in “Winter’s Tale”) were all a reflection of a changed Will Smith strategy – one that’s counter to what he’s previously said were his early plans when he first entered the movie business (in short, he surveyed the highest grossing movies up until then, realizing what kinds of films tend to do well at the box office, and then sought out projects that were similar).

And more danger in his artistic choices is something we here at S&A have been hoping for, for some time. I remember when it was announced that he was Quentin Tarantino’s first choice to play Django, and all the discussion that followed about whether Will was *courageous* enough to take on such a controversial project like that.

Although I should note that he has since revealed what his reasons were for not taking the part, and they had nothing to do with fear of controversy, which I thought was a good sign of things to come.

So, here we are. Will Smith, per the above quote, is/has been ready to make a shift from primarily family-friendly action adventure fare, to more “dangerous” if personal, adult-oriented projects.

Although, looking at his upcoming slate, I can’t say there’s anything on it that I would consider especially different than what he’s done in the past. There certainly could be a project or two being packaged right now that has yet to be announced.

I suppose the reported vampiric twist on the Cain & Abel story from the bible, “The Redemption of Cain,” could be controversial, if only because it’s based on a story from the bible. The vampiric twist, if it turns out to be true, might be considered sacrilege by some. But there’s been no movement on that project for a few years, and it may be dead.

There is also a thriller called “The Accountant,” which follows a government accountant who doubles as an assassin. At one time, when it was at Warner Bros, the Coen brothers were being considered to direct. But the project now sits at Media Rights Capital, with Sony attached to finance and distribute. It’s not clear where the project stands as of today (Smith became attached to it in 2013), but if the Coen brothers were once interested in it, I’d say that it’s probably as close to “dangerous” as Will has ever gotten. When it was set up at Warner Bros, Mel Gibson was to direct, but he’s no longer involved. In it, Smith would play a government accountant who doubles as an assassin. Could be “dangerous.”

There is also film that was initially announced 6 years ago, when Sony Pictures and Smith’s Overbrook Entertainment picked up the movie rights to the story of an ex-Marine who orchestrated the rescue of hundreds of his neighbors during the Hurricane Katrina disaster. John Lee Hancock was to write and direct the project, titled “The American Can.” At the time of the initial announcement, I fully expected Will Smith to star in the film, although it wasn’t stated. 2 years later, it was reported that Smith would instead be working behind the camera, with an offer to Denzel Washington to star instead. At the time, I wondered about that choice, since the lead character would have be aged to accommodate Denzel, who was in his 50s at the time (Keller is closer to Will Smith’s age); also, Denzel isn’t 6-ft-7 and 260 pounds (which Keller is), but I assumed that they’d make changes to the script to accommodate Denzel. Skip ahead another 2 years, to the announcement that Will Smith was back in the lead role, and was courting Ed Zwick (“The Last Samurai,” “Blood Diamond”) to direct the film, from a script penned by both John Lee Hancock and Adetoro Makinde – a multi-hyphenate (actor, director, writer, producer, casting director, more) who co-produced Dennis Dortch’s feature film debut, “A Good Day to Be Black & Sexy.” She’s also listed as producer on “The American Can.” IMDB still lists them all as attached to the project. But no updates.

Smith also has a drama titled “Collateral Beauty” in which he stars alongside Helen Mirren as a New York ad man on a downward spiral after a tragic event. David Frankel, director of “The Devil Wears Prada” is directing.

There was the film adaptation of “Flowers for Algernon,” a science fiction story written by Daniel Keyes. Although that might be dead. It’s a project that was first announced in 2009, so it’s been a while. The novel was published in 1966 and was joint winner of that year’s prestigious Nebula Award for Best Novel. The titular Algernon is a laboratory mouse that has undergone surgery to increase its intelligence by artificial means. The story is told as a series of progress reports written by Charlie, the first human test subject for the surgery, and touches upon many different ethical and moral themes such as the treatment of the mentally disabled.

Essentially, a man surgically accelerates his own IQ levels, based on his mouse research, ultimately making himself a genius, but then becomes a social outcast for that reason; and unfortunately, what he didn’t count on was that Algernon, the mouse he used in his research, would eventually experience significant decelerated IQ levels, a result of the experiment, as he himself experiences the same mental deterioration.

“Flowers for Algernon” has been adapted several times since it was originally published, most famously Ralph Nelson’s “Charly,” which won Cliff Robertson (the star) an Academy Award in 1969. And I’m sure Will would eventually like to have his own Oscar as well. But the project is likely dead.

Of course there’s “Suicide Squad” which will be out this year, but it’s not a Will Smith movie per say; he’s part of an ensemble cast, and it’s based on a comic book series. It’s rare that he’s part of an ensemble cast, which maybe is in keeping with his new strategy, breaking away from the past – although not entirely, because the rest of his upcoming slate comprises of mostly sequels – “Bad Boys 3” and “Bad Boys 4”, and there has even been talk of a “Men In Black 4,” which I pray doesn’t happen.

So maybe he’s attempting to make a transition and enter a new stage in his career (as he suggests in the above quote), but, ultimately, profits still do matter to Hollywood studios, and, despite his wide appeal, they may be less and less willing to cough up the big dollars for Smith to take on more personal and “dangerous” projects, especially if the films themselves aren’t box office hits. Maybe that explains all the sequels – essentially do one for them; do one for himself, as he ages to become one of our so-called elder statesmen.

One thing I’d love to see Will Smith do more of is get behind up-and-coming black filmmakers who have demonstrated that they have talent. His name still carries weight after all. He could produce.

Also, will Smith attaching himself to star in a film that’s to be directed by a young black filmmaker is something that just doesn’t happen enough! In fact, it’s never happened! Actually, outside of a few episodes of “Fresh Prince Of Bel Air,” throughout his movie acting career, Will Smith has never worked with a black director – whether up-and-coming, or veteran.

Does he have to? Depends on who you ask, I suppose. But given his position as one of a small handful of mega-watt stars with power and reach, who, by the way, also happens to be black, as well as the dearth of black filmmakers working consistently within the Hollywood studio system – especially on tent-pole projects – accompanied by the annual onslaught of articles lamenting the industry’s lack of diversity, I think it’s quite unfortunate that he’s never been directed by a black filmmaker on any film.

He was attached to Universal’s adaptation of Marcus Sakey’s novel “Brilliance,” which Julius Onah (a young black filmmaker) is tapped to direct and is currently still in the scripting stage. But Smith exited the project. A matter of timing/scheduling was the reason given.

Reviews of the novel call it a “breakneck thriller” with “shrewd social commentary;” a “gripping tale of a world fundamentally different and yet horrifyingly similar to our own, where being born gifted can be a terrible curse.”

The project is said to have “tent pole potential,” which will of course be a great thing for Onah. There aren’t exactly a lot of black directors helming tent pole movies; and there aren’t exactly a lot of black directors helming tent pole movies with black actors starring in them. So “Brilliance” would’ve been an exception.

All that said, I’m not at all worried about Will Smith; I’m sure he’ll be just fine, blockbusters or not.

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