Analysis: Did Will Smith Leave Apple Stuck With A Toxic 'Emancipation'?

Zinger Key Points
  • Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K. and Woody Allen saw their works pulled over controversies
  • Mel Gibson made an Oscar-nominated comeback after being unofficially blacklisted

Apple Inc. AAPL came away from last week’s Academy Awards ceremony in equal states of euphoria and agita. On the positive side, the company’s Apple TV+ made history as the first streaming service to secure a Best Picture Oscar winner with “CODA,” a surprise victory over rival Netflix’s NFLX “The Power of the Dog,” which many film industry observers pegged as a sure-bet for the top prize.

But on the negative side, the continuing resonance from the ceremony is not about “CODA” but Will Smith’s violent behavior after award presenter Chris Rock made an unscripted joke about Smith’s wife, actress Jada Pinkett Smith.

Apple unexpectedly found itself in a major dilemma — Smith is the star of “Emancipation,” a major production that the company was positioning for next year’s Academy Award competition. “Emancipation” is now in post-production, which gives Apple three uncomfortable choices: should the plug be pulled on “Emancipation,” or should the release be delayed until the Smith controversy blows over, or should it stay on course with a late-2022 release?

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A Problem Production: “Emancipation” is a Civil War-era drama inspired by the story of Peter, an enslaved man who escaped to freedom and became widely known through a photograph that detailed the hideous scars on his back created by excessive whipping. The film, which Smith co-produced and Antoine Fuqua directed, was in the planning stages since 2018 but became a hot property in 2020 after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody sparked a renewed consideration of race relations.

In July 2020, the rights to “Emancipation” went up for auction during the pandemic-induced virtual version of the Cannes Film Festival. At the time, Deadline reported Apple secured the largest film festival acquisition deal in film history, with a price tag of more than $120 million that covered both co-production and distribution rights. Apple beat AT&T’s T Warner Bros., Comcast Corporation’s CMCSA Universal, Lionsgate (NYSE: LGF-A) and MGM for the rights.

However, “Emancipation” began to run into trouble once the cameras were being readied. The production was originally planned to be shot in Georgia, but Smith and Fuqua announced in April 2021 that they would not work in Georgia after the state legislature updated the voting law in a manner that they considered to be restrictive to non-white voters. “Emancipation” shut down for several months while new locations were set up in Louisiana, but shooting was paused in August 2021 when several members of the production tested positive for COVID-19.

Last month, the production was in the news when Apple was sued by Alicia Kelly, a COVID testing coordinator who claimed she was sexually harassed by a male supervisor. According to a Bloomberg report, Kelly also sued Lionsgate and Jerry Bruckheimer Inc. for alleged sexual harassment she said that she experienced on the set of the series “Hightown.” Apple and the other companies did not publicly comment on the lawsuit.

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The Axe Or The Shelf: “Emancipation” is now in the post-production stage, but the backlash from Smith’s behavior at the Oscars ceremony turned the once-hot property into a toxic entity. Other studios found themselves in similar situations when faced with popular creative artists whose off-screen behavior made them pariahs.

In 2016, Amazon AMZN signed a four-film deal with Woody Allen and paid him a $10 million advance. But when Allen’s estranged adopted daughter Dylan Farrow revived claims he sexually abused her as a child, Amazon shelved Allen’s first film, the 2018 “A Rainy Day in New York,” and canceled the other three films. Allen sued for breach of contract, claiming he was owed $68 million, and the parties settled out of court. Allen recovered the rights to “A Rainy Day in New York,” which played in global markets before getting a brief U.S. release by MPI Media Group — and, amazingly, the film turned up in 2021 on Amazon Prime Video.

In 2017, Louis C.K. was preparing to release his feature film “I Love You, Daddy” when his distributor The Orchard, a division of Sony Group Corporation SONY, canceled its release one week ahead of its premiere after the comedian was accused of sexual misconduct. Although Louis C.K. bought the rights to the film back from The Orchard, it was never theatrically released.

In 2018, Netflix pulled the plug on “Gore,” a biopic on controversial writer Gore Vidal starring two-time Oscar winner Kevin Spacey. The status of “Gore” was uncertain — some sources stated it was in post-production, others said it was completed — but Netflix believed it had no commercial viability following news reports that Spacey was accused of sexual assault. To date, none of the “Gore” footage has surfaced.

In 2020, the Walt Disney Co. DIS reportedly halted work on the Blue Sky Studios animated feature "Nimona" that was three-quarters completed out of concern over LGBTQ content. This story resurfaced last month when the company became embroiled in a controversy surrounding Florida's so-called "Don't Say Gay" legislation.

The Waiting Game: Another option for Apple to pursue would be to let the controversy surrounding Smith to play out before bringing “Emancipation” to audiences. Sometimes, this can be a lengthy process. For example, with Spacey three years passed before he would be cast in a film after the “Gore” fiasco, and only then it would be in an Italian film that has yet to be scheduled for a U.S. release.

A lengthier waiting game was played by Mel Gibson, whose multiple controversies during the early 2000s put him on an unofficial blacklist for years until Jodie Foster cast him in a leading role in the 2011 drama “The Beaver.” Although the film was not commercially successful, Gibson began to work more regularly, and by 2016 he directed the war drama “Hacksaw Ridge” that received Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Director. Gibson can be seen next week opposite Mark Wahlberg in the Sony biopic “Father Stu.”

On the other hand, Allen moved beyond “A Rainy Day in New York” to write and direct “Rifkin’s Festival,” which had a brief U.S. theatrical distribution in January through MPI Media Group before going into a streaming release on Amazon Prime Video, iTunes and Google Play.

If Apple were to hold “Emancipation” for a 2023 release, it would hardly be without an Oscar candidate — the company is teaming with Paramount Global PARAA on Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon,” which is being positioned for a November release, and it is also setting up a modern-day musical revamp of “A Christmas Carol” called “Spirited” starring Will Ferrell as Scrooge, with Ryan Reynolds and Octavia Spencer adding to the holiday season viewing cheer. By 2023, Smith's Oscar ceremony debacle would be considered old news, and he could resurface with his film with far less negative attention.

Photo: Will Smith, courtesy of Gage Skidmore / Flickr Creative Commons

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