In Richard Matheson’s novel “I Am Legend,” the apparent last man on earth is described as “born of English-German stock” with bright blue eyes. When the latest movie version of the 1954 sci-fi thriller opens Friday, Matheson’s hero will be played by the notably not English-German Will Smith.
It wasn’t always destined to be that way. Over the course of “I Am Legend’s” 13 years of development, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Cruise and Michael Douglas were all at one point slated to star. But Smith may be the most bankable of the bunch.
“He’s the youngest, biggest star in the world,” says Todd Black, who produced Smith’s “The Pursuit of Happyness.” “Globally he’s more popular than Leo or Brad Pitt.”
At a time when the world is growing more multicultural by the minute, movie studios cling to the notion that black performers cannot sell as many overseas movie tickets as their white counterparts. But Smith is shattering that perception: He’s become Hollywood’s biggest post-racial movie star.
“It doesn’t matter what the genre and it doesn’t matter what date the movie opens -- people just want to see him,” says Amy Pascal, whose Sony Pictures released Smith’s hits “Hitch,” “Men in Black” and “Bad Boys.”
Dawn Taubin, the marketing chief at Warner Bros. which is releasing “I Am Legend,” believes that “you’d be hard-pressed to find anybody with this kind of appeal. He transcends race, gender and age.”
Indeed, audience tracking surveys indicate that “I Am Legend” is generating the level of moviegoer interest normally associated with a summer blockbuster. Competing studios say they are astonished not only by the enthusiasm, but also by the breadth of the film’s appeal, most of which they attribute to Smith. “I Am Legend” is showing strong interest from both men and women, both young and old -- in Hollywood jargon, across all four quadrants. Equally noteworthy, “I Am Legend” is attracting both black and Latino moviegoers. While Warner Bros. is trying to manage expectations downward, the film seems poised to sell $60 million or more in tickets over its opening weekend.
As domestic revenues rarely cover a film’s production and marketing costs, the movie industry relies on international sales for profits. But certain kinds of films -- especially those featuring black actors -- don’t always travel well, particularly in Asia. When Warner Bros. released some of its “Lethal Weapon” movies overseas, the likeness of Danny Glover was nowhere to be seen on the movie posters.
But just as Smith’s character Robert Neville lays waste to vampire zombies in “I Am Legend,” Smith is killing off that way of thinking. Two years ago, the actor’s romantic comedy “Hitch” sold $177.8 million in tickets domestically, but an even more impressive $189 million outside North America. Last year’s “The Pursuit of Happyness” grossed $162.6 million in the United States and $141.5 million internationally. “I, Robot” and “Men in Black II” both sold far more tickets overseas than they did stateside.
Smith is aware of the history he’s making and has conscientiously worked to establish himself around the world. To support “I Am Legend,” Smith already has traveled to Japan and Hong Kong and will soon head to Madrid, Paris, London, Berlin, Rome, Mexico City and Rio de Janeiro.
Earlier this year, Smith’s production company and Sony formed a movie production and distribution company in India.
“He is everywhere for the movie, and he does it without complaint,” says Sue Kroll, the head of international marketing for Warner Bros.
While many stars run for their trailers as soon as cameras stop rolling, Smith seems to revel in the public eye.
His on-set demeanor provides a primer in model movie star behavior, and recalls an earlier era when stars would court their fans. During recent filming for Sony’s postmodern superhero thriller “Hancock” at the intersection of Hollywood and Highland boulevards, spectators lined up five-deep along the sidewalks. Between takes, Smith signed scores of autographs, shook hands and mugged for video cameras to the delight of the screaming hordes.
On the “Hancock” set, Smith said, “If I say, ‘I’m black, so I can never be the biggest movie star in the world, a black person could never be the biggest movie star in the world,’ I wouldn’t try to be the biggest movie star in the world. I’d be creating a barrier for myself. It rarely crosses my mind -- purposely.”
Smith’s attitude toward fans and stardom sets him apart, observers say.
“Will has this persona that allows everybody to think he’s their friend. He’s the most accessible star -- but in a real way,” says Taubin.
“He is just different from everybody,” Pascal says. “He just understands his job. When you decide to be that movie star, you are that movie star, you are that movie star 24 hours a day. He takes nothing for granted.”
While Denzel Washington’s movies have not grossed as much as Smith’s, Washington also has a remarkably strong international following. Last year’s time-travel thriller “Deja Vu” took in $64 million domestically but $117 million overseas. And his “Inside Man” sold $88.6 million in tickets here but $96 million outside the United States. (While “I Am Legend” will dominate this weekend’s box office, it faces formidable competition next Friday, when Disney’s potent “National Treasure: Book of Secrets” debuts).
In some ways, Smith is Hollywood’s equivalent to Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama -- someone for whom message and personal magnetism are more important than skin color.
To hear it from producer Black, who’s also working on the actor’s upcoming romantic drama “Seven Pounds,” the race of the characters Smith depicts is only incidental in determining which roles the actor chooses to play.
“His stardom has nothing to do with color. There’s just two guys who can do that, Denzel and Will. Smartly, they both have taken on, since the beginning of their careers, roles that are about character. Not about race, but morality.”