In PR terms, actor Will Smith’s slap across the face of comedian Chris Rock at the Academy Awards ceremony wasn’t just bad, or really bad, it was “really really bad.”
At least, according to veteran Hollywood publicist Michael Levine, who says Smith’s actions, in the immediate future, have “deeply damaged” his career.
“If you’re buying Will Smith stock right now. let’s agree. Short term run, not good,” said Levine, whose client list has included pop star Michael Jackson, former president Bill Clinton, musician Davie Bowie, and comedian Dave Chappelle.
Smith, 53, has starred in blockbuster hits including film franchises Bad Boys and Men in Black. His films, both live-action and animated, have grossed more than $9 billion globally, according to box office researcher Comscore.
But even as a newly minted Academy Award winner, his assault on Rock raises questions as to whether his actions will significantly impact his prospects.
“This is not a bullet that grazed his tiny left toe. I mean, this is close to the heart,” Levine said. “Who the hell’s going to raise their hand right at this moment in time to say, ‘I know I want to make a Will Smith movie.'”
During the Oscars’ ceremony last Sunday, Smith took to the stage after Rock made a joke about the hair of Jada Pinkett Smith, Will Smith’s wife. Pinkett Smith, whose head is shaved, has spoken publicly about her alopecia diagnosis.
Smith slapped a stunned Rock across the face, went back to his seat, and yelled twice for Rock to “get my wife’s name out your f–king mouth.”
WATCH | Fallout from Will Smith’s slap at the Oscars:
Smith remained at the ceremony, nominated for a best actor Oscar for his portrayal of Richard Williams, the father of tennis stars Serena and Venus Williams in the film King Richard. After winning, a tearful Smith apologized to the academy, but not Rock. The next day, however Smith made a more fulsome apology on social media, and this time included Rock.
Meanwhile, The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences met Wednesday to initiate disciplinary proceedings against Smith for violations against the group’s standards of conduct.
Friday, Smith announced in a statement he had resigned from the academy and “will accept any further consequences the Board deems appropriate” and that his actions were “shocking, painful, and inexcusable.”
Unlikely to avoid repercussions
As for the future of his career, however, crisis publicist Howard Bragman said it’s unlikely he will be able to avoid repercussions.
“Will Smith, who had been Tom Hanks steady, had a Kanye moment at the Academy Awards that has raised all sorts of questions about his judgment and his career and will cause him to be dissected like a frog in a high school science project over the next days and weeks,” Bragman told Rolling Stone magazine.
In a podcast with The Ankler, a Hollywood industry newsletter, Bragman added that Smith’s career may now be defined as “‘pre’ this moment and ‘after’ this moment.”
“It could really change things for him,” he said.
Jeff Bock, senior media analyst at Exhibitor Relations Co., a Los Angeles firm which analyzes box office trends, agreed that Smith will have to take a “Hollywood time out.”
Gibson and Cruise controversies
That time out could be similar to the career ramifications both Mel Gibson and Tom Cruise suffered after their controversial actions.
Gibson was blacklisted for a period following his anti-Semitic comments to a police officer in 2006 and, a few years later, for the racist comments he made on his then-girlfriend’s answering machine that were subsequently released to the public.
In 2006, Paramount Pictures ended its relationship with Cruise after what was perceived to be some questionable behaviour, including his infamous Oprah Winfrey couch-jumping incident.
Cruise also drew negative attention for his condemnation of psychiatry and criticism of actress Brooke Shields for taking medication to deal with her postpartum depression. He was later involved in a tense interview with then-Today Show host Matt Lauer over the issue.
“It will be up to [Smith’s] PR team to rebuild the Will Smith brand. And there’s no doubt that that’s going to take place over the next several months and the next couple of years,” Bock said .
“I doubt any big studio or streamer is going to take a chance in signing Will Smith until those things happen, until that process is under way,” he said.
‘Take time for this to blow over’
Bock said he believes studios will steer clear of Smith, concerned about dealing with someone with potential anger issues, as well as wanting to avoid the onslaught of media focussed specifically on the Oscars controversy.
“It’s going to take time for this to blow over. There’s no doubt.”
Still, Bock said, some producer or studio will eventually take another chance on Smith.
“You don’t become a box office star and just disappear,” he said.
However Scott Mendelson, a box office analyst with Forbes magazine, said the incident may have done real damage in terms of Smith’s worth in non-franchise films by shattering “a carefully crafted 30-year image of approachable, harmless and always-on movie star charisma.”
As Mendelson notes in his piece, How Will Smith’s Assault On Chris Rock Could Hurt His Career, Smith from around 2002 to 2008 was the biggest box office star on the planet.
That box office draw power, however, has dwindled. Although Smith is still a bankable star, but mostly in previously successful franchises (Men in Black 3, Bad Boys For Life) or inherently commercial movies like Aladdin and Suicide Squad. Mendelson wrote.
Other films he has starred in have not fared as well at the box office.
“Will ‘the slap’ cost Will Smith his prestige to the point where he won’t be all that useful in studio programmers and year-end awards flicks,” Mendelson asks. “Smith may have trouble justifying his casting in anything other than surefire IP and sequels to prior glories.”
As for comparisons to Gibson and Cruise, Mendelson suggested that while both have continued to work, their careers were permanently stained. Gibson has mostly been relegated to video on demand films. Cruise, meanwhile, is mostly only bankable for his Mission Impossible sequels, he wrote.
The new normal for Smith could be where he “gets to make movies, even big movies, but nothing akin to King Richard … ever again,” Mendelson wrote.
But, Bock noted, Smith has now won his Oscar. “He doesn’t have anything more to prove.”