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Hollywood Needs Will Smith. Why Doesn’t It Make Another One?

Aymar Jean Christian October 27, 2011 uncategorized 4 Comments
Hollywood Needs Will Smith. Why Doesn’t It Make Another One?

In yet another great exclusive report on the industry, New York‘s Claude Brodesser-Akner writes today that Fox has been having a bit of trouble starting production on two possible sequels to Independence Day, in part because Will Smith is not yet signed on to star. Money problems.

Smith, who’s been absent for years but is coming back with the plagued Men in Black III, wants $50 million for both, which is the kind of salary nobody gets anymore! Except Will Smith. Because, as Brodesser-Akner points out, Smith’s last movie blitz in the mid-2000s generated $2 billion in gross revenue (and ID made close to one billion). Smith isn’t being too unreasonable. A source tells NYMag: ”The delay wasn’t about whether they both wanted to make the movie…It had more to do with ‘Whose dick is bigger?’” It looks like those problems might get fixed if the script is right, and that’s how it should be.

Whichever way the deal goes, the bigger picture is getting lost:

Hollywood needs a more diverse crop of leading men and women

Smith is frequently cited as the most — and, according to Brodesser-Akner, the last – bankable actor in Hollywood, after stars like George Clooney, Mel Gibson, Harrison Ford, Tom Cruise, Bruce Willis, etc. have either gotten too old, stopped doing big budget movies or become embroiled in controversy. The younger crop of leading men (Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio, and the lot) don’t appear to be on the same bankability track.

Hollywood needs fresh blood. So why are they pumping out a stream of boring, blond, bad actors?

I’ve been quite shocked at the deluge of mediocre and occasionally obscure white male actors the historically risk-averse industry has been supporting with big budget movies. See: Thor‘s Chris Hemsworth, Captain America‘s Chris Evans, Green Lantern‘s Ryan Reynolds, The Hangover‘s Bradley Cooper (warming up to him), I Am Number Four‘s Alex Pettyfer (I’d forgotten his name!), Transformers‘s Shia Labeouf. The list goes on.

Of the new crop of big star hopefuls, only artsy Europeans like Michael Fassender (X-Men) and Andrew Garfield (Spiderman) have anything in the way of real ability and charisma. In times of stasis, the industry looked abroad for star quality. And it did find some.

Of course in the “new summer blockbuster economy,” stars matter less. Special effects, 3D and franchise properties — books, comic books, remakes — will do.

But ultimately everyone knows another “Will Smith” will need to emerge. So do I need to mention Smith is, you know, black? Part – a small part — of Hollywood’s problem is its persistent inability to diversify its casts. The issue is part of a larger problem of giving audiences something new, which is why Christoper Nolan’s films have done so well.

The reason why is simple. When profits become harder to scare up, doing something interesting or different is hard for development executives to sell to their bosses. Donald Glover for Spiderman?  That sounds too risky for a four-quadrant film. Giving Anthony Mackie anything to do in The Adjustment Bureau? That would take the focus off Matt Damon, who we know people like.

Of course it is not only that Hollywood isn’t investing in young black actors and entertainers. It’s the similar lack of Latino and Asian actors, the too-small crop of young actresses and virtually no gay actors to speak of (not even Neil Patrick Harris has grabbed an attention-getting film role yet).

There is a supply chain issue, to be sure. Will Smith got into film from television and music. But the music industry is fragmenting, and television has similar diversity issues — though because of the film shut out, many older, female and black actors are heading there. Cable is proving a great breeding ground for acting talent, but all the shows on television are far less popular than The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and other 90s series that created a lot of stars (Clooney anyone?).

None of this is new, really. But in light of the continuing threats on the film industry, which isn’t doing that bad compared to other media, it seems to me Hollywood needs to change its strategy, at least from time to time.

There’s some hope in the independent film market, which continues to churn out fantastic movies even if the audiences aren’t necessarily growing. The new realist trend — from Precious and Medicine for Melancholy to Pariah, Gun Hill Road, Weekend, I Will Follow, Tiny Furniture, etc. — could also breed some stars, but I’m not sure to what degree the industry is really paying attention. Certainly a little bit.

I get a little exasperated when I read about the search for the “next Will Smith” and all I see are Alex Pettyfers and Aaron Johnsons, who are plucked from obscurity and given wide release blockbusters with little proof of talent, likability or bankability. Meanwhile a growing number of talented directors and actors make stellar independent films released in 10-30 theaters (if they’re lucky) and adventurous web series with tens of thousands of fans (if they’re lucky).

The next Will Smith is around the corner! I think Donald Glover may be free next year.

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About The Author

Aymar Jean Christian is assistant professor of communication at Northwestern University. He writes about media and society for a number of publications. For more information, click the "About" tab at the top of the page.

4 Comments

  1. aintstudyingyou October 30, 2011 at 12:23 pm

    Absolutely excellent. This is why you are Televisual!

  2. Aymar Jean Christian October 30, 2011 at 3:41 pm

    As always, happy to see you reading!

  3. Jared Michael Lowe November 9, 2011 at 2:12 pm

    Such a great piece!

  4. Aymar Jean Christian November 9, 2011 at 2:13 pm

    Thanks!

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