Apple has a problem with Will Smith.
Mr. Smith is the star of “Emancipation,” a Civil War-era movie that Apple envisioned as a surefire Oscar contender when filming wrapped earlier this year. But that was before Smith took the stage at the Academy Awards in March and slapped comedian Chris Rock, who had made a joke about Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith.
Smith, who also won best actor that night, resigned his membership in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and was banned from attending any Academy-related events, including the Oscars telecast, for the next decade.
Now Apple finds itself with a previously unreleased $120 million awards-style movie that features a star no longer welcome at the biggest awards show of all, and a big question: Can the movie, even if it’s artistically successful, overcome the baggage that now accompanies? Mr. Smith?
The sensitivity of the situation is evident. According to three people involved in the film who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the company’s planning, there have been discussions within Apple to release “Emancipation” by the end of the year, which would make it eligible for award consideration. Variety Reports in May, however, that the film’s release would be delayed until 2023.
When asked for this article about how and when it planned to release “Emancipation,” Apple declined to comment on that or anything else about the film.
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There is no easy answer. Should the company postpone a movie based on a major historical theme because its lead is too toxic? Or does Apple release the movie and see how the result unfolds? Mr. Smith’s presence could turn off the public, perhaps taking some of the shine off the well-polished Apple brand. Or they could respond positively to the film, sparking an Oscar campaign, which could then upset members of the academy. And the question of how to market “Emancipation” will bring scrutiny from a movie marketing unit that has already drawn dissatisfied complaints in Hollywood over poor ad spending and disjointed communication, and parted ways with its head of video marketing this month.
“If they shelve the movie, does that tarnish Apple’s reputation? If you are released, does it tarnish your reputation? asked Stephen Galloway, dean of Chapman University’s Dodge College of Film and Media Arts and former executive editor of The Hollywood Reporter. “Hollywood likes a win-win situation. This is lose-lose.
“Emancipation,” directed by Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day”) and written by William Collage, is based on the true story of a slave who escaped to the North and joined the Union army to fight his former captors. Shot on the outskirts of New Orleans and concerned with delays caused by hurricanes and covid-19, the film is about a man known as “Struck Peter,” whose scarred back was photographed and turned into a scream of war for abolition during the Civil War. It finished filming about a month before the 2022 Oscars broadcast in March.
“Emancipation” was already generating buzz about the 2023 awards, but plans for the film’s release were thrown into question when Smith walked onstage and slapped Rock in the face. Later in the show, Smith won best actor for his work in “King Richard.”
Although Mr. Smith may still be nominated for his work, the backlash to the slap means the Oscar chances for “Emancipation” have dimmed exponentially.
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In fact, there are some in the film industry who believe that releasing “Emancipation” alongside other Oscar contenders this year will only anger academy voters who were embarrassed by Smith’s actions.
Bill Kramer, the film academy’s new executive director, said in a recent call with reporters that next year’s show won’t stop at the slap, not even in joke form. ,” he said. “That’s our focus right now.”
The presence of “Emancipation” would make it difficult. Stephen Gilula, the former co-CEO of Fox Searchlight, the studio behind Oscar-winning movies like “12 Years a Slave” and “Slumdog Millionaire,” said releasing the film in the awards corridor between now and the end of the year would be exercise. undue pressure on the film and make the slap the center of the conversation.
“Regardless of the quality of the movie, all the press, all the critics, all the writers, all the award predictors will see it and talk about the slap,” Gilula said in an interview. “There is a very high risk that the film will not be judged on its pure merit. It puts it in a very untenable context.”
For something, the movie may be too good to keep quiet. Apple hosted a general audience test screening of “Emancipation” in Chicago earlier this year, according to three people with knowledge of the event who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t allowed to discuss it publicly. They said it generated an overwhelmingly positive reaction, specifically because of Mr. Smith’s performance, which one of the people called “volcanic”. Audience members, during post-screening feedback, said they were not fazed by Mr. Smith’s recent public behavior.
Smith largely disappeared from public view after the Oscars. But in July, she released a Video on his YouTube channel in which he said he was “deeply sorry” for his behavior and apologized directly to Mr. Rock and his family.
The public mea culpa, which lasted a little over five minutes and consisted of Mr. Smith sitting in a chair and speaking into the camera, had been viewed more than 3.8 million times since it was published on 29 March. July. However, it is unclear whether the public’s perception of him has improved. Smith’s Q-score, a metric that measures the attractiveness of celebrities in the United States, plummeted after the Oscars. Before the slap, Mr. Smith consistently ranked among the top five celebrities in the country, along with Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington, according to the data. proportionate to variety. When his attractiveness was remeasured in July (before he posted his video apology) it fell from 39 to 24, what Henry Schafer, executive vice president of Q Scores Company, called a “precipitate decline.”
Apple has delayed movies before. In 2019, the company delayed the release of one of its first feature films, “The Banker,” starring Anthony Mackie and Samuel L. Jackson, after the daughter of one of the men whose life was the basis for the film came forward with allegations. . of sexual abuse involving her family. The film was finally released in March 2020 after Apple said it reviewed “information available to us, including research from the filmmakers.”
Many in Hollywood are drawn to Apple for its willingness to spend lavishly to acquire prominent projects connected to established talent. But the company has also been criticized for not being willing to spend a lot to commercialize those same projects. Two people who have worked with the company and spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss dealings with Apple said it typically created a single trailer for a movie, a frustrating approach for those accustomed to the traditional Hollywood way of doing business. produce multiple trailers. addressed to different audiences. Apple prefers to rely on its Apple TV+ app and in-store marketing to attract audiences.
However, those familiar with Apple’s thinking believe that even if it chooses to release “Emancipation” this year, it won’t feature the film in its outlets like it did with “CODA,” which in March became the first film. of an online streaming service. Best photo wins. That achievement, of course, was overshadowed by the controversy involving Mr. Smith.