There May Never Be Another Movie Star As Big As Will Smith

Photo: Kelly Chiello and Photo by Getty Images

Will Smith's con-man drama Focus opened to a mild $19 million this past weekend, and the fact that this figure was received with such a shrug tells you all you need to know about the industry's diminished expectations not just for Will Smith, but for movie stars in general. Certainly, the 46-year-old Smith has been on a career downswing as of late, but if you swapped him and his co-star Margot Robbie for another set of actors — say, Ben Affleck and Kristen Stewart, or Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, just to name two pairs previously attached to the project — would they really have been able to bring in more viewers for an original R-rated drama released at the ass-end of February?

This sort of thing used to be the litmus test that separated true-blue movie stars from the merely well-known: Back in the day, audiences were compelled to see a movie simply based on who was in it, and a real A-lister could open just about anything at any time. Certainly, Will Smith used to have that magic touch — hell, a mere ten Februarys ago, his humble Hitch became one of the highest-grossing romantic comedies ever made. But times are different now. When the Fresh Prince became a bona-fide leading man in the mid-1990s, he felt like the first of a brand-new class of megastars, and yet today, with star power diminished all over town, it seems like Smith was actually the last of his kind. Here are three reasons we're unlikely to have another star as big as Will Smith used to be.

Franchises Now Matter More Than Movie Stars
It's worth noting that Focus was far outgrossed by another February romance, Fifty Shades of Grey, which took in more than four times as much money over its opening weekend despite starring two virtual unknowns. Of course, people aren't rushing to see that film because they want to see Jamie Dornan or Dakota Johnson; they're going to Fifty Shades because they're curious about the adaptation of the erotic EL James book trilogy, a series more famous than nearly anyone they could have cast in it. More than ever before, the source material is the star attraction, and actors have become truly secondary to the power of a strong franchise.

Just look at Marvel Studios, where actors like Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, and Scarlett Johansson star in some of the most successful movies of all time, yet are paid next to nothing. Evans has intimated that he'd like to leave Captain America behind as soon as his six-film Marvel contract is over, but when your lead actor still has awfully low awareness ratings with the general public, who'd quibble much if someone else took over the mask? Even studio superstar Robert Downey Jr. recently proved amenable to adding Captain America: Civil War to his bulging Marvel portfolio after his earthbound drama The Judge crashed and burned.

Once upon a time, Will Smith was able to create his own superhero movie with Hancock, and he reaped massive financial rewards for it. Now even he is slinking aboard someone else's comic-book property: Smith will next film Suicide Squad, an ensemble movie full of supervillains, where his character Deadshot vies for screen time with Jared Leto's Joker and Margot Robbie's hotly anticipated Harley Quinn. Profit-driven execs have been beholden to major star salaries since the 1990s, but now that we're in the superhero era, they can finally have their revenge, knowing that actors will settle for a peanuts-level pittance for the peace of mind that a comic-book franchise can provide.

There's Too Much Competition
When Will Smith was at his peak, he could stake out a movie release date far in advance — the July Fourth weekend was his preferred playground — and know that no other studio would dare to challenge him. Why would anyone release their film opposite Smith's, when he could command levels of hype and attention that no one could match?

Those days are long gone. Focus wasn't blowing up social media this past weekend; instead, Twitter was abuzz with reactions to the new season of House of Cards, your Facebook friends chatted about this week's episode of The Walking Dead, and everyone kept nattering on about #TheDress. When Men in Black came out in 1997, your dad knew all about it. Your dad has no idea that Focus came out this past weekend because he doesn't even know what Focus is: The movie didn't manage to penetrate the scrum of pop-cultural conversation.

A Will Smith movie used to be the only game in town, especially if it came out in the summer, when first-run TV programming was in recess. Now, though, there's always something else to do, watch, or live-tweet. When Titanic debuted in 1997 — the same year Smith solidified his stardom with Men in Black, a long-running summer movie that continued making millions each weekend until the very end of September — it was a populist transformer, with the room and muscle to dominate the national conversation for years. I'm not sure that's possible anymore: Titanic's all-time box-office crown was usurped 12 years later by Avatar, a movie that grossed nearly $3 billion yet left nearly no cultural footprint, lost in the churn of more channels, more websites, more new reality shows, and more viral clips all vying for our time.

Movie Stars Have Lost Their Mystique
Hollywood hasn't quite managed to produce a new Will Smith, but in Channing Tatum, they at least came close. Charming, multi-talented, and agreeable to both men and women, Tatum was handed his supposed coronation vehicle in 2013's White House Down, which mimicked Smith's breakout Independence Day right down to the director (Roland Emmerich), the release date (mere days before July Fourth), and besieged West Wing iconography. Positively preordained to be one of the summer's biggest smashes, White House Down flopped instead, grossing a meager $73 million that didn't even amount to half its budget. If Tatum couldn't open a movie like that, placed so squarely in his wheelhouse, what hope did any new star have? Hell, even one of Smith's famous misfires, Wild Wild West, managed to gross $40 million more than White House Down — and that was in 1999, when a movie ticket barely cost five bucks.

In today's topsy-turvy world, then, movie stardom offers no more guarantees. Look, for example, at two of the biggest new stars that Hollywood has managed to cultivate, Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper. The former topped the box office last year with The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1, while the latter is about to surge past her with his juggernaut American Sniper, which will officially become 2014's highest-grossing movie after this weekend. The two of them have a new movie coming out this spring called Serena, which marks their first team-up since the hit Silver Linings Playbook, the film that won Lawrence her Oscar. And here's the crazy thing: No major (or even minor) studio wanted to distribute Serena, which will shortly slink into video-on-demand before a meager theatrical release. Lawrence and Cooper were literally our biggest box-office stars last year, and their combined might still couldn't secure Serena a real rollout.

Make no mistake: Lawrence, Cooper, Tatum, and Smith are all very famous people, it's just that their fame is less important to us than it used to be, and requires constant tending. Gone are the days when a movie star could disappear from theaters and headlines for a year or two; Smith tried it, taking almost four years off after 2008, and his career has never recovered. We now expect our biggest names to always be available, whether they're giving interviews, updating their Instagrams, pushing away the paparazzi, or even appearing in the movies, and that constant social scrutiny ensures that some stars will burn out or mess up, the tinge of scandal now an inevitable and often career-denting rite of passage. Smith spent many of his years off trying to turn his son Jaden into a movie star, but he was using the old playbook: Jaden's oft-derided tweets get far more views than his 2013 movie team-up with dad, After Earth, and they've made him a popular punch line, not a bulletproof big-screen star. It's fitting that Focus has the elder Smith pulling analog cons and then disappearing into a sea of people; these days, you might feel a slight tug from movie stars as they make a play for your wallet, but by the time you've turned to look, there's no guarantee you'll be able to find them in the crowd.