Oscar Actors: Smith, Will–Fallout from Slapgate

It’s hard to say just how much Best Actor winner Will Smith will lose from the crisis of last Sunday night–labeled as Slapgate. But his reputation is already damaged, and his career will–and should–suffer.

The actor doesn’t have endorsement deals, though he does serve as an ambassador for FitBit through his YouTube Originals docuseries, “Best Shape of My Life.”

As an actor, he’s been linked to high-profile projects.

He headlines Emancipation, a historical thriller about a runaway slave that scored a $120 million sale from Apple Original Films. The film will play during the fall festival circuit.

Smith is also expected to appear in sequels to “Bright” and “Bad Boys,” though neither film has a shooting script yet.

Smith was linked with Netflix’s The Council, a biopic of drug kingpin Nicky Barnes, but he will no longer appear in the project for reasons unrelated to the Oscars incident.

Though the altercation will certainly be a topic of conversation while he promotes future projects, industry insiders do not believe the incident will completely derail Smith’s career provided he does the necessary damage control. He’s already relatively selective in his work in front of the camera and, through his multimedia company Westbrook, he has recently taken a larger interest in producing movies and shows. Now that he secured an Academy Award, insiders suggest, he may be less interested in seeking out starring vehicles.

“I can’t see a world where filmmakers don’t want to work with Will Smith,” said one top executive, “but he may have alienated some of his audience.”

Even though most studio executives and insiders expect that Smith will continue to be in demand, his days as a reliable box office draw were waning even before slap-gate. At 53, Smith is past his action hero heyday and some of his recent efforts have faltered at the box office, with the likes of “Focus,” “Collateral Beauty” and “Gemini Man” failing to ignite commercially.

He has had blockbuster hits, however, such as “Aladdin,” “Suicide Squad” and “Bad Boys For Life,” many of which have all been part of pre-existing franchises or widely known intellectual property. “Bright,” a sci-fi adventure, was a major streaming success for its backer Netflix, but it’s fair to say that Smith’s name above the title hasn’t consistently guaranteed ticket sales the way it once did during the late 1990’s and early aughts.

“In terms of his box office success, this is the artist formally known as Mr. Fourth of July. He’s used to be fireworks at the box office,” said Jeff Bock, a media analyst with Exhibitor Relations. (Starting with 1996’s “Independence Day,” several of Smith’s biggest blockbusters — 1997’s “Men in Black,” 2002’s “Men In Black II” and 2008’s “Hancock,” among them — were released in theaters around July 4 weekend.

But his box office decline was already happening.

But Smith is more than just a movie star. Through Westbrook, the media company he launched with his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, Smith produces hit shows such as “Cobra Kai” and “Bel-Air.”

Last fall, he scored a $60 million investment from Candle, a media venture run by former Disney executives Tom Staggs and Kevin Mayer, that values the company at just under $600 million. That means that Smith, if his image is severely damaged, can be the less public face of the endeavor.

Some studio executives expect Smith to do some kind of sit-down interview with an Oprah Winfrey-like figure as a way of rehabilitating his public persona.

Although the Smith family has its own in-house talk show, “Red Table Talk,” on Facebook Watch, the actor needs to venture outside his comfort zone or risk being accused of being self-promotional.

Smith’s Abusive Father

There is also historical trauma in Smith’s past that would make for fodder in such an interview. In his 2021 memoir “Will,” Smith details how he witnessed his father Willard Carroll Smith Sr. physically abuse his mother. The star discusses the pain of failing to intervene on her behalf as a child.

When he does re-emerge, Smith should expect to have every word and action dissected and analyzed. The margin for error will be perilously slim.

“Will is not only going to have to be on his best behavior, he’s going to have to be a saint,” Bock says. That doesn’t mean salvation is out of reach. “Hollywood loves nothing more than a redemption story. That may be the most challenging role of his career.”

Smith Hurting Smith

Hollywood loves a comeback, but Howard Bragman, a crisis PR expert, notes that the impact is more complicated because it wasn’t self-directed. Other celebrity scandals, such as Tom Cruise’s infamous couch-jumping or Robert Downey Jr.’s battles with substance abuse, didn’t result in collateral damage.

“People have been comparing it to Tom Cruise, but that was Tom Cruise hurting Tom Cruise,” Bragman said. “This hurt other people.”

No doubt, Smith needs to show he knows how to make amends–the sooner the better.