The $4 Billion Man; Hanks, Cruise and Gibson Used to Be the Top Guns, but Not Anymore. Meet the New Most Powerful Actor on the Planet-Will Smith

Article excerpt

Byline: Sean Smith

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. …