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Will Smith’s $600m empire

Will Smith’s movie career took a hit last week when both Netflix and Apple TV abandoned bids to secure the film rights to his life story. After Smith slapped Chris Rock at the Oscars for telling a dodgy joke about his wife, Hollywood executives are nervous about future dealings with the 53-year-old star – even though he did win the best actor award for his role in King Richard.

Does he deserve his treatment?
Oh please, says Camilla Long in The Sunday Times. The whole sorry affair was a “hilarious comeuppance for the insufferable clowns of Hollywood”. What a joy to discover that the “glossy bedwetters” and “painted twerps” of Tinseltown, who spend their lives pretending they are better than other people, “are, in fact, worse”. The real scandal was that Smith won an Oscar at all for his “schlucky role”. But I couldn’t have sat through another second of that “boring, bland, self-congratulatory, content-free, box-ticking ceremonial pap” without an outbreak of serious violence, “so for that at least I am grateful to Smith”.

So his career isn’t toast?
Not exactly. Smith’s forthcoming projects (minus the biopic) include the $100m prestige drama Emancipation, the Netflix action thriller Fast and Loose, a remake of the classic comedy Planes, Trains and Automobiles, and the second series of a National Geographic travel documentary. All these are being produced by Westbrook Studios, the film and TV company he started with his family in 2019. When an investment firm bought a 10% stake earlier this year, Westbrook was valued at a cool $600m.

How did he become so prosperous?
After starting out as a goofy, no-swearing teenage rapper in Philadelphia, and winning the first ever Grammy award for hip-hop, Smith was cast as the title character in the hit NBC sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Since then, says The New York Times, every step in his career has been plotted out “with actuarial zeal”. He and his business partner mapped out the common features of hit movies – “special effects, aliens, a love story” – and set about getting him cast in films that fitted the bill. It worked. With sci-fi romps like Men in Black and Independence Day, he quickly became “the face of summer blockbusters”. In his memoir, he provides a “handy, if boastful”, chart of his success: from 2002 to 2008, he had eight consecutive films that grossed more than $100m at the US box office. The 34 movies in which he’s played a leading role have raked in more than $8bn.

What’s his home life like?
On the surface, there’s much to envy. Take his 24-year marriage to the actress Jada Pinkett Smith, 50, who he met on the set of Fresh Prince back in the 1990s. But cracks have emerged in recent years. In a 2020 episode of her online chat show Red Table Talk, Pinkett Smith acknowledged that she had been involved in an “entanglement” with August Alsina, an R&B singer 21 years her junior. Comedian Rebel Wilson ribbed Smith for this while hosting last month’s Baftas: “Personally, I thought his best performance in the past year has been being ok with all of his wife’s boyfriends.”

What about the kids?
Willow, 21, is a bisexual, polycurious pop star who sits in on her mum’s chat show, and Jaden, 23, is a weapons-grade dingbat who gets cast in his dad’s movies and waxes moronic on Instagram. Jaden is also credited with “founding” a water company when he was 17, which is now worth around $100m. After learning that the ocean was full of rubbish, young Jaden decided he wanted to replace all those single-use plastic bottles with something more sustainable. The firm launched by nearby grownups to solve this problem – Just Water – sells spring water from upstate New York in a recyclable carton. “I knew that it was going to be really hard to create, like, a new soda,” Jaden told the business magazine Fast Company. “And I knew that the recipe for water all over the world is pretty much the same.”

Where do the Smiths live?
When they first moved to California in the early 2000s, the Smiths bought a $3.4m mansion in Hidden Hills, a celeb-filled gated community just outside Los Angeles. The couple still own the 6,000 sq ft Mediterranean-style villa, but it’s now lived in by Jaden, who is notorious for tearing around the quiet streets in his $85,000 Tesla. Will and Jada live nearby in a $42m, 150-acre compound in Calabasas, which includes an “outlandishly spacious” 25,000 sq ft main house, according to Architectural Digest, with a “monumental” front door that once provided entry to a fort in northern India. The property, so big it has its own postcode, also includes a full recording studio, where their daughter Willow laid down her first track, Whip My Hair, when she was nine. Credit where it’s due: it reached number two in the UK charts.

Is that it?
No. The couple still own at least two homes near Philadelphia, and in 2004 Will shelled out $2.5m on a custom-built double-decker trailer, dubbed The Heat, to hang out in on movie sets. The interior includes a full kitchen with up to $200,000 worth of granite countertops. They’ve bought and sold two houses in Hawaii, each at a healthy, multimillion-dollar profit, and last year they picked up a second house in Hidden Hills for $11.3m.

Any other side hustles?
Not short on self-confidence, Smith has also founded a venture capital firm with Japanese footballer Keisuke Honda. Dreamers VC backs out-there outfits like Elon Musk’s brain implant company, a safety-first electric scooter brand, a dog food subscription business and, surprise surprise, his son’s start-up, Just Water.