I'm Matt Holzman with The Business Brief, a look at what's happening in and around show business this week.
As the nation celebrates the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, the name of President Obama is coming up an awful lot. But the folks in Hollywood are not talking much about the remarkable fact that their most bankable movie star these days is also black. They're just not sure what to do with that reality.
Ten years ago, there were a handful of a-listers who the studios could count on to bring folks into theaters. If you look at the top movies of 2000 for instance, you will see movies starring George Clooney, Mel Gibson, Tom Cruise, Russell Crowe. But as the decade progressed, star vehicles slowly but surely were replaced by the likes of Harry Potter, comic book movies and Pixar-animated films, where the movie itself was the main attraction and not the actors in them. Stars were no longer a sure thing, especially considering what the studio had to pay them.
But one star has continued to be worth his paycheck in movie after movie. In Men in Black and I, Robot and I Am Legend even in The Pursuit of Happyness a serious grown-up film even though serious grown-up films aren't supposed to work any more.
Yes, I am talking about none other than the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, the get-jiggy-with-it guy, Will Smith. Year after year, film after film, genre after genre, the man who sang parents just don't understand just keeps ‘em coming back for more. Even when he swings and misses at the box office here, as he did with Seven Pounds in 2008, overseas movie-goers flock to see him and save his perfect batting average.
So why isn't Hollywood puffing itself up with pride over the fact that they're so colorblind that they've made a black dude their go-to guy? Well, one of the reasons has nothing to do with race; another has everything to do with it. Put them together, and you have quite a conundrum for an industry filled with liberal guilt.
The fall of the movie star is one of Hollywood's most perplexing problems. When established stars can no longer open movies, and no new stars seem to be emerging, one of the studios most effective and reliable tools has been taken from them a tool that has been a foundation of the business since their was a business. If Hollywood doesn't know anything as they say with stars, then what do they know without them? Add to that the fact that the guy who still sells tickets is black, and you have executives refilling their Xanax scripts faster than ever. The studios have never understood the black thing they've stuck to urban action films and broad comedies and let Tyler Perry do everything else. They just can't figure out what Will Smith's continued success means for them.
And that is because they're hung up on the fact that he's black. Instead, they should ask themselves the question: and what do Avatar's Na-Vi, Spider-Man, teen vampires and Will Smith have in common? Everybody loves them, regardless of whether they're black or white or blue. Can the same thing be said of Tom Cruise or Russell Crowe?
Will Smith is imminently likeable across race, demographic and culture. And just as important, he's made solid movies time after time. You know a Will Smith movie is going to pretty darn good, no matter what. On this day that we celebrate his life, perhaps Hollywood should take a tip from Dr. King: don't judge stars by the color of their skin, but the content of their movies.
I'd love to know what you think. Comment about this or any business brief at KCRW.com/TheBusinessBrief. For KCRW, I'm Matt Holzman.