Apple has a problem with Will Smith.
Smith is the star of “Emancipation,” a film set during the Civil War that Apple envisioned as a surefire Oscar contender when it wrapped filming earlier this year. But that was before Smith took the stage at the Academy Awards in March and slapped comedian Chris Rock for making a joke about Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith.
Will Smith, who also won best actor that night, has since resigned from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and has been banned from any Academy-related events, including the Oscar telecast, for the next decade.
Apple is now left with an unreleased $120 million awards-style film, the star is no longer wanted at the biggest awards show of all, and the big question is whether the film, even if it succeeds artistically, can overcome the baggage it now carries Smith?
The sensitivity of the situation is obvious. Apple is in discussions to release “Emancipation” before the end of the year, which would make it eligible for the award, according to three people associated with the film, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the company’s plans. However, Variety reported in May that the film’s release will be pushed back to 2023.
When asked how and when “Deliverance” is planned to be released, Apple declined to comment on that or anything else about the film.
There is no simple answer. Should a company shelve a film based on an important historical subject because its lead character is too toxic? Or does Apple release the movie and watch the results? Smith’s presence could alienate audiences, perhaps taking some of the shine off Apple’s well-polished brand. Or they could react positively to the film, sparking an Oscar campaign that could upset academy members. And the question of how to promote “Emancipation” will draw the attention of the film’s marketing department, which has already caused grumblings in Hollywood over meager ad spending and disjointed communications — and this month parted company with its head of video marketing.
“If they delay the movie, doesn’t that tarnish Apple’s reputation? If they release, won’t it tarnish their 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 loves a win-win situation. This one is win-win.”
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 against his former captors. Filmed outside New Orleans and plagued by delays caused by hurricanes and COVID-19, the film tells the story of a man known as “Beated Peter,” whose scarred back was photographed and became a call for abolition during the Civil War. Filming ended about a month before the Oscars 2022 telecast in March.
Emancipation was already buzzing in 2023, but plans for the film’s release were thrown into doubt when Smith ran on stage and slapped The Rock. Later in the show, Smith won Best Actor for his work in King Richard.
While Smith could still be nominated for his work, the backlash means the Oscar chances for Deliverance have diminished exponentially.
Indeed, there are some in the film industry who believe that “Emancipation” being released alongside other Oscar contenders this year will only anger academy fans who were confused by Smith’s actions.
Bill Cramer, the newly appointed CEO of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, said during a recent call with reporters that next year’s show will not stop at slapstick, even in a humorous way. “We want to move forward and have an Oscar that celebrates cinema,” he said. “That’s our focus right now.” The presence of “Deliverance” would make this difficult. Stephen Gilula, the former co-CEO of Fox Searchlight, the studio behind Oscar winners like 12 Years a Slave and Slumdog Millionaire, said the film’s run in the awards corridor between now and the end of the year will prove unwarranted. pressure on the film and make the slapstick the center of the conversation.
“Regardless of the quality of the film, all the press, all the reviewers, all the screenwriters, all the award prognosticators will look at it and talk about slapping,” Gilula said in an interview. “There is a very high risk that the film will not be evaluated on its merits. It puts it in a very inappropriate context.”
For some, the movie may be too good to pass up. Apple held a public test screening of “Emancipation” in Chicago earlier this year, according to three people familiar with the event, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss it publicly. They said the response was overwhelmingly positive, especially for Smith’s performance, which one person described as “volcanic.” Viewers during post-screening feedback said they were not put off by Smith’s recent public behavior.
Smith has largely disappeared from the public eye since the Oscars. But in July, he posted a video on his YouTube channel saying he was “deeply remorseful” for his behavior and apologized directly to Rock and his family.
The public mea culpa, which lasted just over five minutes and featured Smith sitting in a chair and speaking into a camera, has been viewed more than 3.8 million times since it was posted on July 29. However, it is not clear whether he has improved the public perception of him. Smith’s Q Score, which measures the attractiveness of celebrities in the United States, fell sharply after the Oscars. Before the slap, Smith was consistently among the country’s top five celebrities, along with Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington, according to data provided by Variety. When his appeal was measured again in July (before he released his video apology), it dropped to 24 out of 39, which Henry Schafer, executive vice president of Q Scores Co., called a “dramatic 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 alleged sexual abuse involving her family and. The film was eventually released in March 2020 after Apple said it had reviewed “the information available to us, including research by the filmmakers.”
Many in Hollywood are drawn to Apple because of its willingness to spend big to acquire big-name projects with big-name talent. But the company has also been criticized for its reluctance to spend heavily to deliver these same projects. Two people who worked with the company, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss Apple’s relationship, said it typically produces just one trailer for a movie — a frustrating approach for those accustomed to the traditional Hollywood way of producing multiple trailers. designed for different audiences. Apple prefers to rely on its Apple TV+ program and in-store marketing to attract audiences.
Still, those familiar with Apple’s thinking suggest that even if the company decides to release “Deliverance” this year, it won’t show the film in its retail outlets, as it did for “CODA,” which debuted in March movie from a streaming service to win best picture. This achievement was, of course, overshadowed by the controversy involving Smith.