Two years ago, Will Smith faced something he'd never experienced before: an unforgiving box office belly flop. Not only did After Earth open in third place with just $27.5 million — a pittance for a sci-fi adventure with a reported $130 million budget — but it opened up Smith and his son and co-star Jaden Smith to a degree of unrelenting ridicule that the elder Smith had astutely avoided since he catapulted to stardom in 1995's Independence Day. The movie did earn a face-saving $183.3 million overseas, maintaining Smith's reputation as a global box office draw. But Smith himself recently told Esquire that After Earth was "the most painful failure in my career."
Focus, Smith's first starring vehicle since After Earth, could not by any stretch be called a failure. But it isn't quite a rousing comeback either. Instead, the movie suggests a kind of new normal for Smith, neither a return to his 2000s height as the world's biggest movie star, nor a collapse into the sad swamp of Hollywood has-beens.
Focus opened this weekend in first place at the domestic box office, with an estimated $19.1 million. That is less than After Earth's U.S. debut, but Focus' budget was reportedly just $50 million, and $19.1 million is a respectable debut for a contemporary romantic caper in which the only notable visual effect is Smith's chemistry with his co-star, Margot Robbie.
Indeed, Focus is the first time Smith has starred in a human-scaled movie in almost seven years, since Seven Pounds premiered in December 2008. If we're tracking movies in which the characters behave like recognizable people in the real world — as opposed to guilt-riddled eccentrics who keep exotic lethal jellyfish as pets — then Smith's last earthbound drama was 2006's The Pursuit of Happyness.
And Focus is the kind of movie that needs a star of Smith's stature to work — creatively, with its glamorous, charismatic lead role, and commercially, with its aforementioned lack of visual effects, superheroes, spaceships, and massive explosions. At the box office, at least, Smith's star power seems to have paid off. Focus' $19.1 million is far stronger than the opening weekends of recent wide-release films that similarly rely on its lead stars and skew to a more thoughtful, adult audience, such as Mark Wahlberg's The Gambler ($9.1 million), Jake Gyllenhaal's Nightcrawler ($10.4 million), Robert Downey Jr.'s The Judge ($13.1 million), Kevin Costner's Draft Day ($9.8 million), and Zac Efron's That Awkward Moment ($8.7 million).
Several of those films, however, had to contend with major box office behemoths, whereas Focus' only significant competition was the opening of the horror film The Lazarus Effect and the third weekends of Kingsman: The Secret Service and Fifty Shades of Grey. And based on Smith's track record, the film could have done even better. Adjusting for inflation, The Pursuit of Happyness — about a man battling his way out of homelessness, a far more difficult story to sell to a wide audience — opened with $33.6 million.
Smith's next film, Concussion, about a real-life physician who discovered a debilitating condition suffered by many NFL players, should at least grab more headlines. (Thanks to the Sony hack, it already has.) But it is telling that Smith's follow-up to that film will be Warner Bros.' Suicide Squad, an ensemble comic book movie that is part of the greater DC Comics cinematic universe the studio is establishing in the wake of Marvel Studios' mega-blockbuster success. It's the kind of movie that doesn't really need a global star to work, and the kind of movie Will Smith has never had to make. Until now.
Here are the estimated top 10 box office figures for Friday to Sunday, courtesy of Box Office Mojo:
1. Focus* — $19.1 million
2. Kingsman: The Secret Service — $11.8 million
3. The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water — $11.2 million
4. Fifty Shades of Grey — $10.9 million
5. The Lazarus Effect* — $10.6 million
6. McFarland, USA — $7.8 million
7. American Sniper — $7.7 million
8. The DUFF — $7.2 million
9. Still Alice — $2.7 million
10. Hot Tub Time Machine 2 — $2.4 million