Smith, Lassiter bent on world conquest

Overbrook co-founders globe-trot for grosses

Overbrook Entertainment partners Will Smith and James Lassiter were not the first producers to look beyond the domestic box office as the key to their success, but they might be the most tenacious in courting the worldwide moviegoing audience — one territory at a time. Call it Will power.

As the globe’s top box office draw, a mantle he inherited from his good friend Tom Cruise, Smith has always been a team player, willing to rack up the frequent-flyer miles to promote his movies no matter how remote the junket or how many red carpets he’s expected to tread.

“Tom and I always battle (about) who can spend the most time on foreign red carpets,” Smith admits. But there were other action heroes who taught Smith that flexing one’s muscles was a global exercise. “Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis were the first people that actually explained it to me,” Smith explains. “We were in Australia for the opening of Planet Hollywood. Arnold said, ‘No matter how big your movies are in America, you are not a movie star until your movies are big around the world.”

In the company’s Beverly Hills headquarters, Smith gears up for his latest promotional trek in support of Overbrook’s upcoming “Seven Pounds” with no less than evangelical zeal, ready to journey to far-flung lands to spread the word.

“Our mission statement for Overbrook is two-pronged: extraordinary entertainment art delivered to all people of the world,” explains the former hip-hop star, still wearing golf shoes from an early-morning outing on the links and sipping black coffee with Equal. “Since we were young, we had a fascination with traveling. That’s almost what we used the music (career) for, just to be able to travel and see places and meet people.”

The music industry instilled Smith and fellow West Philadelphia native Lassiter with a sense of the power of an international fanbase. Long before toplining tentpoles, Smith recorded his first album in London, which proved to be an eye-opening experience for both the star and Lassiter; they never anticipated that Smith’s brand of hip-hop would be so embraced by the Brits.

“It started with (Will’s) records,” says Lassiter, a married father of three who now calls L.A.’s Hancock Park home. “You go to the territories, and you see a direct response to the sales of the records by being in the territory. We understood that. … But we were told that it didn’t apply to movies. We didn’t believe it.”

Smith proved otherwise with “Bad Boys,” a film whose expectations outside the United States were minimal. Despite two black leads — a proposition once considered unpalatable to international audiences — “Bad Boys” more than exceeded its U.S. box office haul in foreign territories (by $10 million) for a worldwide take of $141 million, small potatoes compared with later hits like “Independence Day” and “Men in Black,” which generated far north of a half billion dollars each.

Smith credits “Bad Boys'” two producers, Jerry Bruckheimer and the late Don Simpson, with teaching the star how to sell a movie overseas.

To this end, Smith isn’t above learning just enough of the native tongue of every country he tours to make a speech of about 10 to 15 sentences.

“It is a lot of work, but to Will’s credit, he is willing to start at zero for each territory,” the sneaker-clad Lassiter explains while nursing a bottle of sparkling water. “In Russia, he is not ‘Will Smith.’ He is some guy showing his movie. After going back time and time again, people finally begin to say, ‘Hey, you’re the guy from ‘I, Robot.'”

The fruit of Smith and Lassiter’s labor is hard to ignore. For example, the most recent Overbrook-produced Smith starrer, “Hancock,” earned $228 million domestically while reaping $396 million internationally. The wry actioner, which Overbrook made for Sony, with which it is partnered, disproved another adage: that superhero pics don’t play as well overseas. Similarly, the apocalyptic thriller “I Am Legend” took in $256 million at home and $328 million abroad for Warner Bros.

Those kinds of returns have made Smith the world’s highest-paid superstar, by far, and have helped fuel Overbrook’s operations. For example, Smith reaped $20 million against 20% of the gross on “Hancock,” with Overbrook’s coffers padded to the tune of $1.5 million. On the more modest “Pursuit of Happyness,” he was paid $10 million against 20% of the gross, plus a hefty backend for his company.

Though Smith and Lassiter seem to have a preternatural sense when it comes to marketing movies, they admit they weren’t always so savvy about developing bigscreen projects.

In fact, Overbrook almost never got off the ground. In 1998, Smith formed the company with Lassiter, whom he met through Jeff Townes, aka DJ Jazzy Jeff, Smith’s former music partner. Earlier in the decade, Smith had become a bona fide TV star thanks to his lead role in “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” but he was relatively new to the world of film, with only a handful of credits including “Six Degrees of Separation” and “Made in America.” But by 1998, Smith was coming off two huge box office hits: “Independence Day” and “Men in Black.”

The duo named the shingle after their shared alma mater, Philadelphia’s Overbrook High School, and inked a first-look deal at Universal. Despite three years with the studio, the pair had nothing to show for their efforts.

“The two reasons why it didn’t happen: Number one, we didn’t know how to produce movies. That’s probably the big one,” says Lassiter with a laugh. “I could place the blame on a lot of things, but the truth of the matter is, we were novices, and we hadn’t learned the business. We hadn’t learned what it really means to produce movies.”

Further complicating matters was the fact that the two principals who championed the deal — Casey Silver and Ron Meyer — were replaced six months later by Stacey Snider.

“Casey left, and Ron went upstairs, and I think the new regime really didn’t embrace us,” Lassiter recalls. “We weren’t good enough yet to make it happen. But it was a good experience in that we bought material, and I think it was the genesis for us to learn how to develop material.”

For the pair, everything changed after seguing in 2002 to Sony, a Japanese-owned studio that was perhaps better suited to help Overbrook realize its global ambitions.

“Will and James have always understood that the United States is a country, but it is not the only country,” says Sony Pictures co-chair Amy Pascal, who has worked with Overbrook on such films as “Hitch,” “The Pursuit of Happyness,” “Hancock” and the upcoming “Seven Pounds.” “(Smith) understands what it means to be a movie star unlike many other stars. … And (Lassiter) is the man who makes everything happen. They are two of the most collaborative, involved producers when it comes to every aspect of filmmaking.”

Developing projects with universal themes has become a strong suit of the Overbrook team. To Smith and Lassiter, there is no such thing as black movies or comedies — two so-called genres that typically don’t work overseas; there are only stories that resonate across all quadrants.

“The idea behind ‘(Finding) Nemo’ works in almost any language, anywhere in the universe,” Smith says of the animated hit. “So if you have that germ, it becomes that much easier to deliver it to all the people of the world. … ‘The Pursuit of Happyness’ is for everybody. Everybody is either a son or a father or a child or a parent, and the parent struggles to feed the child. That’s a universal idea, so if there’s a thing that we did aggressively in our development, it is to keep people on track with the universal idea of the film. … (With) ‘I Am Legend,’ in every language, in every corner of humanity, the fear of being alone is real. So you can sell that anywhere.”

Despite its macro view of entertainment, in a way, Overbrook is very much a family business. Access its Web site and you’ll find no less than five members of the Smith clan listed as “clients.” Jada Pinkett Smith, Will’s actress wife, is an executive producer on “The Secret Life of Bees” and just made her directorial debut on “The Human Contract,” which she also wrote and stars in. And the couple’s 10-year-old son Jaden starred with his father in “Happyness” and is slated to play the title role in Overbrook and Sony’s remake of “The Karate Kid.”

Up until recently, Overbrook’s business plan was to alternate one Smith vehicle with one non-Smith feature. But looking forward, Smith and Lassiter say they want to lean less on Smith for their slate, like they did with Overbrook’s recent “Lakeview Terrace” and “The Secret Life of Bees.” Ken Stovitz — the third partner in Overbrook who joined the fold two years ago after serving as Smith and Lassiter’s agent at CAA for almost two decades — while not drawing an exact map of the future, notes that “last year we made five movies, this year we’re probably going to be making four movies. I guess the headline is that we have just as much development as studios; we make as many movies as any major does; that would be the story.”

While that might seem an exaggeration, it reflects a company that is long on ambition and willing to do the work to back it up. “Workaholic” might not come close to describing the kind of prep that goes into development at Overbrook. “There is an addictive element to it,” Smith admits. “Especially for me. Akiva (Goldsman, the screenwriter behind “I Am Legend” and “Hancock”) and I have literally sat in a meeting for 14 to 15 hours working on a script idea. … I work hard to allow my mind to focus on other things.”

Sony — which has built its annual slate in recent years to include a film from Smith and Adam Sandler, interspersed with James Bond and Spider-Man installments — is so pleased with its Overbrook partnership that it recently reupped their first-look deal for another five years.

Columbia Pictures co-president Matt Tolmach says Smith is a natural when it comes to interacting with fans.

“We had a recent test screening for ‘Seven Pounds,’ and (as we were getting the audience’s reaction), all of the sudden you hear from the back of the theater, ‘I’m glad you liked it because that would have been really awkward,” Tolmach recalls. “And people were like, ‘That’s Will.’ They went nuts.”

Although a “Hancock” sequel seems a no-brainer, Smith says he likely next will dive into “The Last Pharaoh” for the studio, which will find him portraying Taharqa, the ancient Egyptian king who battled Assyrian invaders.

“Will doesn’t want to do anything too safe or that doesn’t challenge him,” says Columbia Pictures co-president Doug Belgrad. “He wants to continue growing as an actor. He’s not going to do action comedies for the rest of his career.”

Still, no matter how unconventional, Smith pics seem as safe a bet as a studio can make. Films toplined and/or produced by Smith have generated $2.9 billion at the box office for Sony alone.

One area in which Overbrook has clearly taken risks is the selection of filmmakers and leading ladies.

Italian helmer Gabriele Muccino was not at the top of any Sony executives’ wish lists for “Pursuit of Happyness.” But Smith, who became a fan of Muccino’s Italian-language films while promoting “Hitch” in Europe, lobbied hard for the director.

“Will had to defend me as a choice to the studio; I could barely speak English and I could barely express my vision,” explains Muccino, who teamed with Smith again on “Seven Pounds.” “I felt protected and that I could push my ideas even when they weren’t totally conventional. The reason why I found respect, and respect for my ideas, was because of Will and James.”

The choice of Muccino seems less unusual when considering that part of Smith and Lassiter’s strategy is to inject an international component into every film.

“There is always this secret desire to work with someone who is in touch with a market that we are weak in,” adds Smith, whose office is peppered with family photos, Bombay motifs and Buddhist iconography. “(‘I Am Legend’s’) Alicia Braga is really strong in Brazil. We were really weak there, and we needed to break that.”

After all, there is still territory to annex and souls to be won over. For the Overbrook brain trust, China, Eastern Europe and the Middle East — with their growing economies and increasing receptiveness to Western fare — are the new frontiers.

“And the truth of the matter is, if we can conquer those territories successfully, it’ll be right around the time that Africa is going to explode,” Lassiter says. “It will be a viable market for us in the next decade.”