You might not be able to take the schadenfreude out of the town – some in Hollywood love to root for a competitor’s heartaches – but you can take a bit of the town out of the man.
Will Smith said he will emotionally, and even physically, remove himself this weekend from the chatter over box office results for “Focus,” his first star turn since critics scoffed and most fans dodged 2013’s “After Earth.”
“I’m probably going to leave town for a week or so, so I don’t get sucked back into the machine,” Smith said before the premiere of the grifter pic this week. “I can’t allow the box office success, or the lack thereof, to determine my self-image.”
That’s no commentary on his feelings for Warner Bros. release “Focus,” which Smith touts as a genre-busting romp, with humor, drama and multiple plot turns. Projections suggest a solid opening of $21 million on an estimated production budget of $50 million.
But Smith said he learned his lesson following “After Earth” that it’s not wise to rely on the bottom line for happiness. The sci-fi action film, co-starring Smith’s son Jaden, drew almost universal derision and made an anemic $60.5 million domestically on a $130 million budget. (It brought in a much healthier $183.3 million overseas.)
“I am probably going to get out and, you know, not get the hourly update from Cleveland…’It was up 10%!’ ” Smith said. “I am just going to completely stay away from it.”
Conveniently, Smith does not have to look far for a distraction. He has begun training for “Suicide Squad,” the David Ayer-helmed tentpole based on the DC comicbook. In the ensemble cast, Smith will play the Batman villain Deadshot and be reunited with “Focus” co-star Margot Robbie, who will play the Joker’s maniacal girlfriend Harley Quinn.
Coming soon for Smith is another star vehicle that could be in the awards conversation. Christmas Day release “Concussion” looks at the medical crisis facing pro football, with Smith as the steadfast brain specialist who refuses to bow to pressure that would bury findings about traumatic brain injuries.
Still, Smith can blame himself for the focus on his box office power. Few stars can approach the $2.7 billion his 21 films have accumulated. And the star admitted in a recent Esquire interview that he had made the bottom line the ultimate measure of his work.
“I think there is a real question as to who his audience is,” one top studio executive said this week, declining to be identified for fear of alienating Smith. “At one time he had a younger audience. They either mature with you, or you have to put yourself in big movies with a younger demographic.”
One of Smith’s earliest mentors cautions against such doubts. Andy Borowitz, the writer who created TV’s “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” recalled that Smith had hit big in the music business with hits like “Parents Just Don’t Understand.” But at just 20, his happy brand of rap as half of “DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince” had been deemed “soft…and bubblegum and suburban,” Borowitz recalled.
Though barely out of his teens, some dubbed Smith a “has been,” Borowitz recalled, only to have his humor and charm help turn “Fresh Prince” into a long-running TV hit.
“We like to root against people and call ‘game over,’ ” said Borowitz, whose political satire is now featured in the New Yorker. “It was done once before. I am in the camp of ‘Don’t bet against Will Smith, because it has been a losing bet so far.’ ”
Smith laughed when he said he would steer clear of this weekend’s box office results. But he also said he meant what he said.
“My art has to be an offering,” he said. “It’s ideas and concepts and things I believe in that I want to offer for the possibility of improving lives. And I can’t allow the box office success, or lack thereof, to determine my self-image.”