If you ask any critic to comment on Will Smith’s acting chops, they’ll generously say “he is not bad.” He oozes charisma but he is nowhere near being one of the greats. And yet, Will Smith became a huge superstar. He is the only actor in the world to have 11 consecutive movies in a row earn over 150 million dollars! How did he achieve that?
Will Smith is in Los Angeles working on the TV show “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” when he decides he wants to become the world’s biggest movie star. But Smith is not a dreamer. He is a planner. And so, he sits down with his manager James Lassiter and starts sharpening his axe.
Lassiter and Smith compile a list of the 10 biggest hits of all time, adjusted for inflation and total views. And they start looking for common patterns in them. The list includes films like Jurassic Park, Terminator 2, Star Wars, and ET.
“10 out of 10 movies had special effects. 9 out of 10 movies had special effects with a creature in it. 8 out of 10 had special effects with a creature and love interest!”
And so Will Smith started looking for movies with special effects, weird creatures, and a love interest in it. He rejected everything else that came his way, even though not a lot was coming his way. He stuck to the formula.
That’s how he ended up doing Independence Day and Men in Black! Those two movies back to back gave him superstar billing and made him a household name!
The hit making strategy
It’s the hit making strategy that works almost every time. Find the patterns in the past successes. And adapt them.
A little more than a decade before Will Smith settled on special effects and aliens, two comic book nerds did a similar exercise. Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird ask themselves a question: what comic could they create that would be impossible to fail?
They started analyzing recent comic successes and hot trends.
- Cerebus the Aadvark. A comic about a misfit pig as a superhero. Cerebus is foul mouthed, has a temper, loves getting drunk, but is very smart.
- Frank Miller’s Ronin. A story filled with martial arts and samurais.
- Daredevil. It’s about a blind mutant whose other senses are heightened beyond normal human ability because of radioactive exposure.
- The New Mutants. It’s about teenage mutant superheroes undergoing training.
Kevin and Peter combined the 4 trends. And came up with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
It may seem like you are cheating the world. But this strategy works. Why? Because as author Derek Thompson says: most people like familiar surprises. People love discovering new things, but are afraid of anything that’s too new. Surprise them with just the right dose of novelty and you will do well without being ahead of your time!
Will Smith’s resurgence
Will Smith started having a string of flops from 2013. Movies like After Earth and Concussion bombed. And he was doubting himself. When Smith decided to go back to finding the roots of success again.
But this time, instead of finding patterns from movies that succeeded, he started searching for people who had more success than was expected of them. And started finding common patterns in what they did.
When Smith realized that actors like Dwayne “the rock” Johnson were being paid a few million beyond their acting fees – simply for promoting their movies on their social media profiles, something switched for him.
Smith pivoted from a product centric outlook to a people centric outlook. And got Creative Artists Agency to help him build a social media team. He took his social media more seriously than making a movie. Worked with Ellen Degeneres to launch his instagram profile on her show. Got other celebrities who were on instagram to mention his new account. And in 67 days, he built a following of 10 million people on Instagram!
And it worked. When his movie Aladdin came out, even though it was just an OK movie, it grossed more than any critics or analysts had predicted. And became a billion dollar blockbuster. Because Will Smith’s social media profiles drove a 20% increase in the number of people who watched its trailers!
Evolution vs revolution
The downside of this strategy is that you only end up with evolutionary changes. The risks of failing are minimized. But the chances of revolutionizing the industry is also lower. Elon Musk could not have studied the last 10 spaceships and built SpaceX to become a success that it has become. But Elon Musk also almost went bankrupt when SpaceX was still growing as not many believed in him.
What you’ve got to do is combine the two. Start with pattern matching to have fewer failures. And then parlay into doing riskier things that have higher chances of paying off.
Having hits like Independence Day behind him, Will Smith could now make movies like Ali and the Pursuit of Happyness. Movies that had no special effects and that he did simply because he loved the story.
- Make a list of top 10 successful products in your field and find common patterns in them. Work on these patterns and your chances of success will be very high.
- Look for things that have succeeded beyond what they should. And find common patterns in them.