san diego comic-con 2017

Will Smith on Jumping to Netflix: ‘You Almost Can’t Make New Movie Stars Anymore’

Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Comic-Con’s biggest stage used to be dominated by movie blockbusters, though lately, it’s been reserved far more often for high-profile TV titles. It’s fitting, then, that today in Hall H we got a project that controversially straddles the line between the two.

That would be Bright, which is rumored to be the most expensive film Netflix has ever commissioned. It walks and squawks like the sort of summer-movie tentpole that would play in 3,000 theaters: Directed by David Ayer, who is coming off the biggest hit of his career with Suicide Squad, it stars Will Smith as a human cop paired with an orc (Joel Edgerton) to solve crimes in an effects-laden, magic-infused version of Los Angeles. But despite costing upwards of $100 million to make, it will debut on the streaming service this December, foregoing any kind of exclusive theatrical window.

Will Netflix begin to cannibalize the theatrical experience if it can offer comparably big-budget films? For that matter, does it dent Will Smith’s big-screen career if his action movies, which once reliably set box-office records every Fourth of July weekend, now debut on a streaming service that doesn’t even offer viewership figures? The Netflix film Okja recently got this conversation rolling, but Bright will offer a far more mainstream test of whether a movie is still treated the same when it’s streaming. After Bright’s Hall H panel, Smith and Ayer gathered nearby to debate the matter with press.

“I have a 16-year-old, a 19-year-old, and a 25-year-old at home, and their viewing habits are almost anthropological,” said Smith, who proposed that Netflix and theaters can and should co-exist. “It’s a great study to see how they still go to the movies on Friday and Saturday night, and they watch Netflix all week. It’s two completely different experiences.”

“For me, it’s pretty simple,” said Ayer. “This movie, I got to make in a way and at a level that otherwise, I may not have been able to make.”

I pressed Ayer on that point. For as successful as Suicide Squad was, it was critically drubbed and subject to plenty of studio interference: Warner Bros. reportedly hired the company that cut the trailer to re-edit and re-score the director’s cut Ayer submitted, and the final version of the film leaves all sorts of intended story lines hanging in the wind. Had Ayer made Bright at a big movie studio, how much would he have had to compromise his vision for it?

Smith quickly covered Ayer’s microphone. “Objection, your honor,” he joked. “I’m not gonna have my client answer that.” After a huddle with Ayer, Smith relented: “I’ll allow it.”

“It’s hard to speak for what could have been,” said Ayer, delicately. “I can say that this is the movie that should have been. I got to shoot in Los Angeles, we weren’t chasing a rebate. We got the equipment we wanted, we were able to shoot practical stunts. As a filmmaker, to spend more time working on the creative [instead of] working on the spreadsheet that supports the film is a true pleasure. I think that changes how you come at the movie and it changes how the cast comes at the movie because you feel that freedom.”

“The rating would have been different,” added Bright producer Eric Newman. “This is a rated-R movie, but at a studio,” with the big budget it had, “it wouldn’t have been.”

“There’s a lot of orc nudity,” joked Edgerton.

“Once you go orc, you never go back,” said Smith.

At the Hall H panel before the press conference, Smith admitted that a theatrical release still has a certain magic to it. “There’s something about the big screen that does something to people’s minds,” said the 48-year-old star, recalling the “ecstasy” of seeing Star Wars in a movie theater as a kid. (“I had sex a few years later. It was close, but no Star Wars,” he said.) Though Smith had plenty of success as a rapper and TV star before transitioning to movies, his first big-screen success changed the way people treated him. “I was on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and people would see me on the street, like, ‘Will, Will, Will!’” said Smith. “And that Monday after Independence Day came out was the first time anybody referred to me as ‘Mr. Smith.’ [It] penetrates people in a very different kind of way.”

But Smith, who once studied Tom Cruise’s country-hopping promotional playbook in order to launch himself as a bona-fide global superstar, is paying just as much attention to the cultural shift that’s happening now. “It is such a new world,” he said. “I released my first record in ’86, so I’m over 30 years in the business. I’m seeing that transition of, essentially, the fans being more and more involved in the creative process. In terms of movie stardom, it’s a huge difference: You almost can’t make new movie stars anymore, right?”

Smith wondered out loud if Hollywood’s trouble with minting new A-listers might be related to how accessible today’s stars are on social media. Back in Smith’s heyday, “There was a certain amount of privacy and distance that you had from the audience,” he said, “and ‘only on July Fourth’ did you have access. That [limited] amount of access gave you a bigger-than-life kind of thing, but this shift into this new world is almost like a friendship with the fans. The relationship is less like the time that you could make Madonna, Michael Jackson, Tom Cruise into these gigantic figures. You can’t create that anymore. The shift is to, ‘We’re best friends.’”

If Netflix offers a more intimate experience with the man who used to rule the movies, Smith is okay with that. He wants what you want. “I love trying to make that shift and that transition,” he said. Still, Smith flashed a little of that old-school ambition when a reporter asked how he felt about Christopher Nolan’s comments that Netflix, in its refusal to grant its films an exclusive theatrical window, was pursuing a “mindless” strategy.

“Well,” said Smith with a grin, “I think Mr. Nolan is a wonderful director and I will not say anything that will keep me from being in his next movie.”

Will Smith: ‘You Almost Can’t Make New Movie Stars Anymore’