Will Smith: Hollywood's most powerful actor?

A few decades ago, paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould developed the theory of punctuated equilibrium, which states, in essence, that evolution doesn't happen at a slow, steady rate. It happens fast, in bursts, after long periods of stasis. Maybe he should be required reading in Hollywood.

For almost as long as there have been power lists, Tom Hanks and Tom Cruise—"The Toms"—have jockeyed for first position, occasionally letting Mel Gibson sneak up on the rail, just to keep things interesting. But just like that, the race has changed. Gibson hasn't starred in a major film in five years. Cruise lost his cool on Oprah's couch, and it's unclear if he can get it back. And Hanks, while undeniably bankable, is, at 50, no longer viable for most leading-man scripts. In the past year, all three men have been eclipsed. With a worldwide career box office of $4.4 billion, Will Smith is now the most powerful actor in Hollywood, followed by Johnny Depp and Ben Stiller. Talk about punctuated (or maybe that should be "punctured") equilibrium. "The industry is going through a sea change, not just with actors, but in every way," says one industry insider who, like others interviewed for this story, asked for anonymity to prevent offending other stars. "Will Smith is the only thing in this business—the only thing—that represents a guaranteed opening weekend." He may be even bigger than that. "Let's put it this way," says one studio head, "there's Will Smith, and then there are the mortals."

An actor's power is determined primarily by opening-weekend grosses. The average cost of a studio film is now $100 million, and to get that back, you need a huge opening weekend. A star who delivers a first-weekend gross of $30 million or more can write his own ticket: $25 million salary, director approval and a two-story trailer with a flat-screen TV. It's a sweet ride, but it's harder to catch than it seems. Real power requires an understanding of the global market, and a talent for finding scripts that suit your persona and directors who can deliver the goods. Once isn't enough. You have to do it every time. NEWSWEEK's power rankings are guided—through interviews with studio heads, agents and producers—by that definition. The choice for the No. 1 spot was unanimous. At 38, Smith's worldwide box office is more than Adam Sandler's and Will Ferrell's combined. He's bankable in every genre, whether sci-fi ("I, Robot"), action-comedy ("Men in Black"), romantic comedy ("Hitch") or drama ("The Pursuit of Happyness"). It was "Happyness," a downbeat film that grossed an astounding $298 million worldwide, that opened the industry's eyes to Smith's reach. "He can do anything," says one top studio exec. "The audience has enormous affection for him—we're talking a Tom Hanksian level of likability." His appeal is so universal that it transcends race. "He's the black Jimmy Stewart," says an industry insider. "He invites the white community in, yet he's credible with the black community. That's a pretty hard trick."

Smith mastered that trick early. Almost every movie he's made since "Independence Day" (total gross: $817 million) has been a global blockbuster. But it wasn't easy. "People don't understand what a struggle it was," says his business partner, James Lassiter. (Smith declined to comment.) "There has always been an obstacle. It's either 'African-Americans don't sell around the world' or 'African-Americans can't have successful romantic comedies' or 'Will is not strong in drama.' It wasn't until recently that people finally looked at his numbers and went, 'Wow'."

Most crucially, that "wow" is coming from overseas. Since 2002, domestic box office has been essentially flat. Foreign markets, meanwhile, are expanding. Last year overseas ticket sales for studio films accounted for 63 percent of theatrical revenue. Black actors have had a tough time appealing to foreign audiences, because the films they're often cast in are specific to African-American culture or history—they are films about African-Americans, as opposed to films that happen to have African-Americans in them. But the roles Smith chooses are rarely race-specific. He plays men faced with obstacles, and moral choices. "Will doesn't do movies because he 'should,' but because they speak to him," says Amy Pascal, chairman of Columbia Pictures, which has released most of Smith's films. "He understands that these stories are global. He caught on to that before a lot of other people did." Starting with "Bad Boys," in 1995, Smith and Lassiter aggressively promoted Smith's movies overseas. Since then, Smith has shattered the ceiling for black actors. His foreign box office is now more than double Denzel Washington's.

Not that everyone is that calculated. Johnny Depp seemed to reach his No. 2 spot almost by accident; he made "Pirates of the Caribbean" for his kids, and it became a $1.8 billion phenomenon. Brad Pitt, ranked fourth, often picks roles that play against his looks, so his box office is spotty domestically, but internationally—especially in films like "Mr. & Mrs. Smith"—he's untouchable. "As much as he'd like to," says one studio head, "even he can't get in the way of being Steve McQueen." The biggest surprise on the list is Ben Stiller. American humor doesn't always translate to other cultures. But Stiller makes relatable comedies that reach beyond borders. In addition to the "Meet the Parents" franchise ($818 million), his latest film, "Night at the Museum," grossed $550 million worldwide.

Which leads us back to "The Toms." While no one debates that Cruise has box-office power, his sprint into the tabloid buzz saw has made studios wary. His last film, "Mission: Impossible III" grossed $150 million less than its predecessor. Most of the loss was in domestic ticket sales. "Even executives and directors want to buy into the movie star's mystique," says one top exec. "Once you've lost the cool, it's hard to get it back." Others believe it's only a matter of time. "Trust me," says one insider. "The minute he does 'M:I4,' everybody's going."

Hanks, meanwhile, didn't fall off the list so much as rise above it, to power emeritus. He can work whenever he wants, and the world still loves him. He can also take pride that Smith seems to be following his path. Both men lead lives that do not invite tabloid coverage, and both make only one movie per year. "The thing that Tom Hanks figured out is that the audience needs to miss you," says a top industry source. Smith will appear in only one film in 2007, the thriller "I Am Legend." He might want to save that title for his autobiography.

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