Will Smith has Found the Magic Formula

The biggest star on the planet is sucking his thumb.

"Damn," Will Smith says on the set of Hancock, trying to shake the pain of a thumbnail that split in two as he was thrown through a mock wall. "All these crazy stunts we're doing, and this is how I get hurt. I didn't see that coming."

Which is strange for Smith, who is nothing if not calculating.

For all the on-screen charisma that has made him a Hollywood ATM, Smith is, at his core, a statistician with social skills. He breaks down the films he's considering into sub-categories — are there enough special effects, a love story? — to calculate their commercial or Oscar viability. Most Mondays, he pores over box office reports the way sports nuts read box scores, even when he doesn't have a movie in theaters.

That knack for cinematic algebra makes studios the kind of money once reserved for white men named Tom.

All of which makes his recent career choices a bit of a puzzle. Where once Smith saved the world from aliens with a grin and laser gun, lately he has been, well, surly.

On Wednesday, he opens Hancock, a superhero story about a crime fighter who loves his whiskey, hates his job and doesn't mind chucking children a few hundred feet in the air. Think Superman as a hobo on a bender.

Before that, he anchored I Am Legend, an apocalyptic drama in which he played one of New York's last survivors. While the movie was a smash, it took some fans aback with its gloomy tone and a scene in which Smith is forced to kill his dog bare-handed.

But Smith says it's time to break out and find real success. Seriously.

"I don't feel like there's anything I can't do, no movie I can't make," he says. "I feel like the next 10 years are going to be my sweet spot."

That's a frightening prospect, considering that the guy has two Oscar nominations and has eclipsed Tom Hanks and close friend Tom Cruise as the most bankable man in the industry.

And, if Hancock does as well as projected, he'll become the first actor in Hollywood history with eight straight movies to rake in more than $100 million.

"He's one of the last true leading men," says Alex Proyas, who directed him in I, Robot. "There's a connection he has with audiences who will see him in anything he does. I don't quite know how you explain that kind of magic."

Smith does it with integers.

"I study patterns," he says. "Nine out of the top 10 biggest movies of all times have special effects; eight out of 10 have creatures in them; seven out of 10 have a love story. So if you want a hit, you might want to throw those in the mix. I just study patterns and try to stand where lightning strikes."

'The only true movie star'

That would make Smith the key on Hollywood's kite. Since 2002, he has been flop-less; his lowest-grossing movie was Bad Boys II, a critically assailed film that still brought in $138 million.

But don't be fooled, analysts say, into thinking of Smith as just a popcorn star.

Consider The Pursuit of Happyness, a dark, 21/2-hour drama Smith describes as "a black guy trying to get a job." The movie was meant more to give Sony Pictures a fall prestige film than stuff its coffers. It grossed $163 million — and earned Smith an Academy Award nomination.

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