The process by which movie A gets made while movies B-Z end up as so much shredded paper and shattered dreams is an arcane and mysterious one. While it seems as though most scripts, if they’re not just ignored, are simply fed into the enormous, clogged-up machine of the Hollywood system to be pawed over, derided or defended by the assistants to various junior executives at endless meetings about meetings, the accepted wisdom still runs that if you can get your script in front of one of maybe twenty or thirty specific pairs of eyes, the odds tip dramatically in your favor. These godlike beings with ”greenlight power,” however, are fewer now than in previous eras, in part because of a shift in the type of movies that make the big moneys these days (it’s not like “The Hangover Part III” or “Fast And Furious 6” were little sure-to-be-overlooked gems in need of a Selznick-type saviour to rescue them from the turnaround pile.) This casts the opening weekend disappointment of “After Earth” in an interesting light in a couple of ways.
Firstly, how will this be interpreted in terms of the Hollywood tentpole club’s already well-documented aversion to “original” ideas? As rote as the premise may have seemed, “After Earth” wasn’t based on a comic or a video game and had no pre-existing fan base, aspects which, when applied to something like “Inception” seem risky and brave, but somehow when applied to the Shyamalan film, seem risky and foolish (yes, the director may be a factor there.) Secondly, what does this do to Will Smith’s previously unassailable standing? When we talk about the pool of individuals with greenlight power getting smaller, that’s especially true of the subset of that number who are actors, if you compare it to even a few years ago, when not every big release had to cost $130 million to make. In “After Earth” we have a clear example of a film that simply wouldn’t exist in any form without its star: it was a “passion project,” conceived of as a big-budget, sci-fi spectacular with monsters! Spaceships! And peril! It was marshalled into being purely by Smith, shot by the director he chose, starring himself and his son, and released in a prime summer weekend slot against what should have been easy competition (the second weekend of a sixquel; an ensemble magician heist movie.)
Had the “After Earth” gamble paid off, it would have looked like a brilliant use of Smith’s greenlight power. However, it now it looks like it won’t, because while Smith’s movies tend to perform well overseas, something remarkable would have to happen for this not to end up a disappointment, and let’s not forget that your power as an actor in Hollywood is largely predicated on how big you can open a film domestically in its first weekend. Add to that the fact that the film really isn’t very good (our review here) and the whole endeavor starts to feel a lot like hubris -- a cynical and rather smug attempt to parlay his own success into a blockbuster career for his son that audiences saw through and were put off by (it's mean, but we love The Onion's take on same.) It got us to thinking about Smith and the few other actors who are in the rare position of being able to greenlight a film -- by which we mean not simply increase its bankability by signing on but actually get it into production from a standing start -- and whether they use their privilege for good or evil ends. Essentially; do they choose projects that have no chance of getting made elsewhere because they are attracted by the story or the director (good) or do they simply leap onto whatever looks most likely to give their profiles, bank balances and egos a boost (evil.) Here are six individuals who currently have that power, and how we think they wield it.
If “After Earth,” purely in opening weekend numbers, is Smith’s first stumble in a long period of box-office infallibility, it really throws into high relief just how impressive a job he had done at translating his likable persona and broad-based appeal into the kind of massive stardom that maybe on this list, and in the whole wide world in general, only Tom Cruise could rival. It’s especially remarkable considering how few really great films Smith has been associated with (you can check out our rundown of his 5 best performances here, and take note how we were kind of reaching to get to 5.) From “Independence Day” to the “Men in Black” franchise, “I Robot,” “I Am Legend” and right through to comedies like “Hitch” and “Hancock” Will Smith has proved time and again that he can pull in all sorts of audiences to all sorts of genres, domestically and, importantly, internationally where his bankability is such that even Sony’s statement about the to-date disappointment of “After Earth” mentions their hopes for an overseas bump. In fact, we can believe that if Smith had simply continued in his established vein ad infinitum, he’d have had the same ongoing success. However, perhaps showing that even his stretchy appeal has a limit, it’s possible he's just spread himself too thinly of late.
The Way He Wields His Power for “Good”: Smith has made a few slightly left-of-field, non-tentpole choices, even if they do feel like fairly obvious bids for Award recognition and actor credibility. It’s hard to think of anyone else who could have done “Ali” justice in Michael Mann’s uneven but occasionally great film, but Smith did a fine job of interpreting the great man without resorting to impersonation. If his first go-round with son and “After Earth” co-star Jaden, “The Pursuit of Happyness” was just too po-faced in its sincerity to really be a good film, he was great in it, and it was refreshing to see him use his everyman charm to actually play an everyman (albeit an immensely unlucky one.) “Seven Pounds” felt more like an attempt to replicate that formula than anything else, “The Legend of Bagger Vance” was sweet but forgettable and other than that it’s been all-tentpole all the way.
The Way He Wields His Power for “Evil”: Smith's energies recently have been directed into creating careers for his children -- acting for Jaden, first in ‘Happyness,’ then in the actually-quite-fun ‘Karate Kid’ remake, now in “After Earth.” Same goes for generating singing and acting opportunities for daughter Willow, with her short-lived recording career and once-mooted starring role in the upcoming “Annie” remake (which will now be filled by Quvenzhané Wallis, because, according to Smith in this Vulture piece, Willow no longer wants to do it.) As much as it feels like Smith earned his spot at the top, we’re not sure the halo effect of our goodwill towards him can extend over his whole brood. Otherwise he seems content to go back to the wells that have served him in the past, with “I, Robot 2,” “Bad Boys 3” and even a “Hancock 2” apparently in the works. This, of course, after his big chance to shake things up a bit, in the form of Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” was served to him on a platter, only for him to reject it. Now, we might in the end agree with his mooted reasons for passing on ‘Django,’ and we have mixed (or in this writer’s case, negative) feelings on the finished film, but there’s no denying that to have taken it would have piqued our interest in Smith immeasurably.
Future Projects: Aside from those sequels, Smith has a list of development titles as long as your arm, though we did feel a flutter of potential interest in “Focus” which, while by no means a game changer, is at least an original property that looks like it might tax Smith’s acting chops just a little more than running around shooting things. Also in that category are the Oscar-baity Ed Zwick Katrina movie “The American Can” and possibly the Black List script “The Accountant.” Oh and a remake of "The Wild Bunch," which has been through so many incarnations now that we're not holding our breath for it, if we ever were.
In Summary: It’s early days for “After Earth,” and who knows what kind of overseas numbers it could pull in to make “After Earth 2” a possibility (it’s actually kinda hopefully listed on Smith’s IMDB page at the moment, but we’ll see.) Either way, perhaps a little tarnish on that halo will be a good thing for the star, who has some interesting productions lined up and who perhaps will therefore concentrate more on those and less on future Family Smith Brand Extension Projects.
Leonardo DiCaprio is arguably the outlier of this pack in that his trajectory is pretty clear, but he is one of the few A-list stars on the planet that can get almost any movie he wants made. Ever since “Titanic” when DiCaprio launched into the stratosphere of biggest actors on earth he’s made wise, well-intentioned choices (and he did so before.) DiCaprio is the one actor on this list who not only hasn’t taken a franchise role, he’s never even seemed interested in one. So the “good” and “evil” are very relative here and maybe the evil is more “how he can and should improve.”
The Way He Wields His Power For “Good”: Perhaps the distinction that DiCaprio has over all these actors is taste. While he’s struggled to fit into grown-up roles because of his boyish good looks, his intentions to work with some of the best directors on earth has always been sound. Becoming Martin Scorsese’s new DeNiro-like muse and starring in every film Marty wanted him to even though he might have been too young and therefore not convincing enough for the role (see “The Aviator.” Although this is arguably Marty’s miscalculation.) Since 2000 DiCaprio has worked with Danny Boyle, Steven Spielberg, Scorsese (four times,) Sam Mendes, Ridley Scott, Christopher Nolan, Clint Eastwood, Quentin Tarantino, and Baz Luhrmann. It is auteurs-only in the DiCaprio household and regardless whether you like the films or his choices, this is commendable and shows that he is a champion of quality cinema (albeit a slightly safe one, who rarely takes a flier on someone not already well-established.)
The Way He Wields His Power For “Evil”/The Ways He Could Improve: The problem is that is DiCaprio is essentially always playing the lead and some variation of the damaged protagonist or anti-hero (see “Revolutionary Road,” “Inception,” “J. Edgar,” “Shutter Island” etc.) While the actor’s been nominated for three Academy Awards thus far, it took a delicious villain turn in “Django Unchained” (which he was ironically not nominated for) to demonstrate just how safe and boring DiCaprio’s choices have become of late. Yes, he’s working with the best. But DiCaprio desperately needs to try new things and stretch his wings. Yes, it’s nice to be the center of attention and to greenlight big projects made by auteurs, but if he’s truly going to make his mark, then it’s high time he started switching things up a la ‘Django’ before his routine becomes too stale. While it's not "evil" per se, DiCaprio is also notoriously becoming the Ridley Scott of actors. That is to say he has 24 projects in development on his IMDB page and that’s probably 24 projects that those poor writers and producers are likely never going to see out in the light of day. Granted, DiCaprio is only a producer on some, but the actor, like Scott, has the bad habit of developing dozens of projects at the same time hoping one of them will be to his liking. What ends up happening is they simmer forever and then a hot new tasty dish comes along and takes up all his attention. It’s sort of the way DiCaprio dates; why buy the cow when there’s so much milk out there to taste?
Future Projects: A fifth collaboration with Martin Scorsese (“The Wolf Of Wall Street”) illustrates that DiCaprio isn’t about to drop the damaged dramatic protagonist role any time soon. Please Leo, stretch your wings a little.
In Summary: Kid could stand to be much less safe in his choice of collaborators, but otherwise he’s got his heart in the right place. Bear in mind though, as Johnny Depp has proved, there’s plenty of time to sell out in your forties and fifties.