LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Will Smith waltzes into the press conference as if he were the living embodiment of his character in his latest film, “I Am Legend” -- here to save Hollywood from a bad case of the box office flu.
Smith shakes every hand, shouts “WHEE” several times and declares “I‘m excited to see me!”
In fact, the opposite is true. Hollywood is excited to see him and expects a big holiday present from the science-fiction movie that debuts in a few cities on Wednesday and nationwide two days later.
“This is the movie we need at this time, the right movie in the right place with the right star,” said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box office tracker Media by Numbers.
Some experts think “I Am Legend,” in which Smith portrays a scientist who is the only survivor of a virus that wipes out the population of New York City, will gross as much as $50 million by the end of its first weekend in theaters.
That figure would fall short of the U.S. December opening of 2003’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” with nearly $73 million. But it would bring glad tidings to theater owners who have seen ticket sales slump 7 percent this holiday season compared to last year.
Last year Smith was an Oscar contender with his serious drama, “The Pursuit of Happyness,” and in 2001 he fought for Academy Award gold playing boxer Muhammad Ali in the biopic “Ali.”
But his 2007 big-budget holiday film is not about winning awards so much as doing what he does best in action adventure films -- delighting movies fans and helping box offices, too.
If similar movies such as “I, Robot” ($144 million) and “Independence Day,” ($306 million) are any indication, theater owners should feel confident.
Based on Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel of the same name, “I Am Legend” gives Smith the type of role that has inspired many a science fiction film. Robert Neville (Smith) is oddly immune to the virus that has devastated New York City.
Neville believes he may be the only man left in the world until he becomes stalked by mutant victims of the virus. Then, the noble scientist tries to develop a vaccine.
Kirk Honeycutt, film critic of the Hollywood Reporter, said “Smith ... delivers an extraordinary performance as a man slowly coming unglued under the strain of no human contact and a constantly alternating role of hunter and prey.”
For more than half the film, Neville walks around a desolated New York City talking to himself and to his dog, so the movie’s success rests squarely on Smith’s shoulders.
With good early reviews, Smith seems to have earned another success, but that should surprise no one. He is Hollywood’s symbol of likability.
Honeycutt also raves about “the knockout production design,” camera movement and musical score that combine to “create a New York City that is a literally an urban jungle.”
But re-creating the city in shambles raised the hackles of a lot of New Yorkers who did not like to see their streets closed just because someone could make a movie.
“It was the most amount of middle fingers I ever gave or received,” Smith told reporters at his news conference. “I am used to people liking me.”
But by the end of shooting he was thinking he may have lost his popularity. This weekend, he will find out.
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte and Xavier Briand