Will Smith has been deemed “too big to cancel” as image management experts weigh in on the aftermath of the star slapping Chris Rock at Sunday’s Oscars—though they have cautioned that his brand is now “forever tarnished.”
Screen star Smith is currently facing disciplinary action from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences after he struck Rock onstage during the live telecast in reaction to a joke the comedian had made about his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith‘s close-cropped haircut. Pinkett
Smith has publicly discussed her hair loss due to alopecia.
Smith later returned to the stage at Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre to accept a Best Actor Oscar for his role in King Richard. During his speech, he apologized to his fellow nominees and the Academy. On Monday, he apologized to Rock via an Instagram post.
And while Smith has faced condemnation from the Academy, a host of celebrities and the public for his actions on what should have been the crowning moment of his decades-long career, industry experts have told Newsweek that he will likely continue to be one of Hollywood’s biggest stars.
“Will Smith is too big to cancel, even after committing assault on live television in front of tens of millions of people,” Evan Nierman, CEO of crisis PR agency Red Banyan, told Newsweek. “Already, he has been given special treatment because of his A-list celebrity status including being allowed to stay at the awards show despite his violent outburst.”
Amid conflicting reports on the series of events following the incident, the Academy has stated that Smith was asked to leave the Oscars but “refused.” Oscars producer Will Packer has also stated that Los Angeles Police Department officers were prepared to arrest Smith on the spot, but Rock insisted against it.
Still, said Nierman, Smith has a chance of rehabilitating his public image if he shows true contrition for his actions, particularly as it may serve to replace the constantly replayed imagery of the actor slapping Rock across the face.
“The single best thing that Will Smith could do right now is appear on TV with a sympathetic or easygoing host and issue a clear throated apology while demonstrating true remorse for his actions.
“The public is accustomed to seeing Smith, so he should use that to his advantage and start trying to replace the image of his slap with footage of him expressing genuine contrition.
“Until he does so, the picture that will remain painted in the public’s mind is the one of him physically attacking Chris Rock.”
Professor Jonathan Shalit, chairman of InterTalent Rights Group, has branded the reaction to Smith’s actions as a “storm in a teacup,” insisting that while his behavior should not be condoned, it has been given more attention than necessary.
Branding the moment a “massive error of judgment” and “absolutely a bad example to set for young people,” Shalit told Newsweek: “Is it really going to affect his box office value? No, he’s still going to get great roles, and the next film he does will get an incredible amount of PR.
“So I think in terms of the value of Will Smith, yes, briefly some endorsers might not work with him because he doesn’t reflect family values. But in the greater scheme of things, I think this will all disappear quickly.”
In the days since the incident, the Academy said that disciplinary action against Smith could include suspension, expulsion or other sanctions.
Shalit supports the Academy disciplining Smith for his “out of order” behavior at the ceremony, though he has compared it to the actions sports players have faced over the years while still continuing to thrive in their careers.
“I’m not sure what disciplining really means [in this case],” Shalit told Newsweek. “He gets suspended for a while or gets expelled. It’s no different to a football player at a club, they get suspended for a period of time.
“So absolutely, you should be suspended or banned from the Oscars for three years or whatever. Whatever penalty they feel is appropriate. But beyond that, what does it mean?”
However, he cautioned the Academy against coming down too hard on Smith, explaining: “If they penalize this guy too much for what he did and they let [convicted sex offender] Harvey Weinstein keep his Oscars it’s pretty hypocritical, isn’t it?”
The road to any sort of career redemption will require patience, said Shalit.
“Well, first of all time is the biggest healer ever,” he noted. “I think my advice to him would be go back to being a good family man, continue doing the good work you do and just keep low for a while.
“Just come back when you’ve got something positive talk about and be contrite. I think there’s not much he can do beyond that… But does it mean that the next time Will Smith releases a movie they won’t go and see it? Of course they will.
“In fact, they will be be all the more interested to know more about the movies. So I don’t think it’s harmed him. I don’t think he’s harmed his value in any way whatsoever.
“I think, if anything, it’s totally enhanced the value of his brand, because people weren’t aware of [Smith are discussing him]. Even my mom, who’s 87, asked me about Will Smith [since the incident].”
While Nierman, author of Crisis Averted, agrees that Smith’s career won’t be brought to a screeching halt, he believes his brand has been “forever tarnished.”
“Ironically, had Will Smith managed this crisis properly, then he might already be well down the road to recovering his image,” Nierman told Newsweek. “That’s because it is much easier for actors in general to find redemption, since they have devoted fans willing to forgive and forget.
“Don’t expect Will Smith’s career to come crashing down, but he has certainly forever tarnished his brand.”
He went on: “This issue is not going anywhere, in part because of the failure by Will Smith’s team to properly manage the crisis, and also because he is facing the possibility of serious punishment from the Academy.
“Until they complete their investigation and decide what course of discipline to pursue, this story will remain in the headlines. It’s a real shame that this ugly, violent incident detracted from so many positive moments in the show and overshadowed the accomplishments of many others.
“The public is not going to move quickly past this because it was so shocking and because it has brought to the fore serious questions about special treatment for famous people. This act of violence represents another low point in America at a time when our society is increasingly combative and violent.”