Apple has a Will Smith problem.
Mr. Smith is the star of “Emancipation,” a film set during the Civil War era that Apple envisioned as a surefire Oscar contender when it wrapped filming earlier this year. But that was before Mr. Smith strode onto the stage at the Academy Awards in March and slapped the comedian Chris Rock, who had made a joke about Mr. Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith.
Mr. Smith, who also won best actor that night, has since surrendered his membership in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences and has been banned from attending any Academy-related events, including the Oscar telecast, for the next decade.
Now Apple finds itself left with a $120 million unreleased awards-style movie featuring a star no longer welcome at the biggest award show of them all, and a big question: Can the film, even if it succeeds artistically, overcome the baggage that now accompanies Mr. Smith?
The sensitivity of the situation is apparent. According to three people involved with the film who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the company’s planning, there have been discussions inside Apple to release “Emancipation” by the end of the year, which would make it eligible for awards consideration. Variety reported in May, however, that the film’s release would be pushed into 2023.
When asked for this article 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 film based on an important historical subject because its leading man is too toxic? Or does Apple release the movie and watch the outcome unfold? Audiences could be turned off by Mr. Smith’s presence, perhaps taking some gloss off the well-polished Apple brand. Or they could respond positively to the film, prompting an Oscar campaign, which could then upset members of the academy. And the question of how to publicize “Emancipation” will bring scrutiny to a film marketing unit that has already drawn grumbles of dissatisfaction in Hollywood for skimpy ad spends 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 they release it, does it tarnish their reputation?” asked Stephen Galloway, the dean of Chapman University’s Dodge College of Film and Media Arts and the former executive editor of The Hollywood Reporter. “Hollywood likes a win-win situation. This one is lose-lose.”
“Emancipation,” directed by Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day”) and with a script by William Collage, is based on the true story of a slave who escaped to the North and joined the Union army to fight against his former captors. Shot outside New Orleans and troubled by delays caused by hurricanes and Covid-19, the movie is about a man known as “Whipped Peter,” whose scarred back was photographed and became a rallying cry for abolition during the Civil War. It finished filming about a month before the 2022 Oscar telecast in March.
“Emancipation” was already generating 2023 awards buzz, but plans for the film’s release were thrown into question when Mr. Smith rushed the stage and slapped Mr. Rock. Later in the show, Mr. Smith won the best actor award for his work in “King Richard.”
Though Mr. Smith can still be nominated for his work, the reaction to the slap means the Oscar chances for “Emancipation” have dimmed exponentially.
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Indeed, there are some in the film industry who believe that releasing “Emancipation” along with other Oscar contenders this year will only anger academy voters who were embarrassed by Mr. Smith’s actions.
Bill Kramer, the newly installed chief executive of the film academy, said on a recent call with reporters that next year’s show will not dwell on the slap, even in joke form. “We want to move forward and to have an Oscars that celebrates cinema,” he said. “That’s our focus right now.”
The presence of “Emancipation” would make that difficult. Stephen Gilula, the former co-chief executive of Fox Searchlight, the studio behind such Oscar winners as “12 Years a Slave” and “Slumdog Millionaire,” said releasing the film in the awards corridor between now and the end of the year, would put undue pressure on the movie and make the slap the center of the conversation.
“Regardless of the quality of the movie, all of the press, all the reviewers, all of the feature writers, all the awards prognosticators are going to be looking at it and talking about the slap,” Mr. Gilula said in an interview. “There’s a very high risk that the film will not get judged on its pure merit. It puts it into a very untenable context.”
To some, the film may be too good to keep quiet. Apple set up 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 were not permitted to discuss it publicly. They said it generated an overwhelmingly positive reaction, specifically for Mr. Smith’s performance, which one of the people called “volcanic.” Audience members, during the after-screening feedback, said they were not turned off by Mr. Smith’s recent public behavior.
Mr. Smith largely disappeared from public view following the Oscars. But in July, he released a video on his YouTube channel in which he said he was “deeply remorseful” for his behavior and apologized directly to Mr. Rock and his family.
The public mea culpa, which lasted a little more than five minutes and consisted of Mr. Smith sitting in a chair and speaking to the camera, had been viewed more than 3.8 million times since it was posted on July 29. Yet it is unclear whether it has improved the public’s perception of him. Mr. Smith’s Q score, a metric that measures celebrities’ appeal in the United States, plummeted after the Oscars. Before the slap, Mr. Smith consistently ranked among the top five celebrities in the country, alongside Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington, according to data provided to Variety. When his appeal was measured again in July, (before he released his video apology) it dropped to a 24 from a 39, what Henry Schafer, executive vice president of the Q Scores Company, called a “precipitous decline.”
Apple has delayed films before. In 2019, the company pushed back the release of one of its first feature films, “The Banker,” starring Anthony Mackie and Samuel L. Jackson, after a daughter of one of the men whose life served as a basis of the film raised allegations of sexual abuse involving her family. The film was ultimately released in March 2020 after Apple said it reviewed “the information available to us, including the filmmakers’ research.”
Many in Hollywood are drawn to Apple for its willingness to spend handsomely to acquire prominent projects connected with established talent. But the company has also been criticized for its unwillingness to spend much to market those same projects. Two people who have worked with the company, and who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss dealings with Apple, said it usually created just one trailer for a film — a frustrating approach for those who are accustomed to the traditional Hollywood way of producing multiple trailers aimed at different audiences. Apple prefers to rely on its Apple TV+ app and in-store marketing to attract audiences.
Yet those familiar with Apple’s thinking believe that even if it chooses to release “Emancipation” this year, it will not feature the film in its retail outlets like it did for “CODA,” which in March became the first movie from a streaming service to win best picture. That achievement, of course, was overshadowed by the controversy involving Mr. Smith.