Once in decline, the ‘Gemini Man’ star has quietly become one of the most diversified (and wealthy) talents thanks to everything from working with Netflix to maintain his quote, investing in eco-friendly water and growing his digital footprint: “He’s unbelievably methodical.”
In March 2016, Will Smith was at a crossroads. After three decades in show business, he was coming off the coldest streak of an otherwise stellar career. His previous three movies — Concussion, Focus and the much-maligned After Earth — had posted relatively anemic box office numbers, earning a collective $451 million worldwide. Although the release of David Ayer’s ensemble tentpole Suicide Squad was looming, Smith’s next star vehicle would be the three-hanky drama Collateral Beauty, which he was shooting in New York and would mark his worst opening ever.
Just as things looked bleak (and with pressure building on CAA, his longtime agency), Smith made perhaps the riskiest move of his career, reteaming with Ayer for the big-budget human-orc (sort of) buddy comedy Bright. At Netflix no less. Though eyebrows were raised across town, in hindsight, the choice was bold. Sources say Smith pulled down a $27 million upfront salary — double what Warner Bros. would have paid him for the package — while extending his global brand thanks to the streamer’s reach into more than 190 countries (at the time, Bright held the distinction of Netflix’s biggest-ever budget at $100 million). In doing so, Smith also paved the way for so-called “theatrical-only” A-list talent from Sandra Bullock to Martin Scorsese to make movies for the streamer — and kept his $20 million quote intact.
What may have looked like a dicey move has been part of a savvy strategy to remake the 51-year-old star’s career for the digital age. During the past two years, Smith has reinvented his brand via shrewd product picks and cheeky web videos, earning 122 million followers across platforms. And following the blockbuster success of Disney’s Aladdin — which shocked virtually everyone by taking in $1.05 billion globally — Smith now stands near the apex of Hollywood’s star hierarchy. “If he’s not the highest paid, he’s tied for first,” says one top agent, placing him alongside Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert Downey Jr.
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