‘Bad Boys’ Ticket Buyers Toss Will Smith a Career Lifeline

Moviegoers sent Will Smith a clear message over the weekend: We forgive you.

“Bad Boys: Ride or Die,” the fourth entry in the Sony Pictures franchise — and Mr. Smith’s first wide release since he slapped Chris Rock at the Academy Awards in 2022 — arrived to roughly $53 million in ticket sales in the United States and Canada, according to Sony. That No. 1 result was a career milestone for Mr. Smith: He now has 15 first-place debuts as a leading man on his résumé.

“Ride or Die,” which returned Mr. Smith to one of his signature roles, cost an estimated $100 million to make, not including marketing. It received positive reviews, with many critics noting a comedic moment that seemed to refer to Mr. Smith’s behavior at the 2022 Oscars: Mr. Smith is slapped by his co-star, Martin Lawrence, and called a “bad boy.”

Ticket buyers gave the R-rated “Ride or Die” an A-minus grade in CinemaScore exit polls. The Rotten Tomatoes audience score stood at 97 percent positive on Saturday.

Prerelease surveys that track audience interest had indicated that “Ride or Die” would arrive to about $45 million in North American ticket sales. Sony was hoping for at least $30 million.

Hollywood as a whole was unsure what to expect. For a variety of reasons — too few movies, movies that didn’t appeal to wide audiences, changing consumer habits — the summer box office has been in a deep freeze.

And Mr. Smith’s ability to save the day was unclear. His most recent film, “Emancipation,” released in late 2022 in a limited number of theaters and on Apple TV+, was largely ignored. The Q Scores Company, which measures the popularity of celebrities and brands, found in January that 19 percent of poll respondents viewed Mr. Smith in a positive light, down from 39 percent just before the 2022 Oscars.

The slap was just part of the problem. Mr. Smith returned to the Oscars stage minutes later to collect the prize for best actor and, instead of apologizing to Mr. Rock, gave a defiant speech. He then attended the Vanity Fair party, dancing to “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It,” his chart-topping hit from 1998, as though nothing had happened.

Mr. Smith has since apologized repeatedly.

Sony’s promotional campaign for “Ride or Die” was notable for its reliance on Mr. Smith. Instead of hiding the star, the studio did the opposite, making him appear omnipresent — no worries here — with a publicity tour that took him to eight cities in 12 days. Mr. Smith also participated in numerous marketing stunts, including arriving at the film’s Los Angeles premiere on top of a double-decker bus while singing “Miami,” his other 1998 hit.

The strong initial ticket sales for “Ride or Die” trailed those for the previous installment in the franchise, “Bad Boys for Life,” which collected $62.5 million over its first three days in 2020, or about $76 million after accounting for inflation. “Bad Boys for Life” benefited from pent-up demand, coming out 17 years after “Bad Boys II.” The franchise started in 1995.

Sony also had the No. 2 film of the weekend, “The Garfield Movie,” which collected an estimated $10.3 million, for a three-week domestic total of nearly $70 million.

“The Watchers,” a horror movie from New Line, which is part of Warner Bros., arrived in third place, selling an underwhelming $7 million or so in tickets. “The Watchers” cost $30 million to make, not including marketing, according to Deadline, an entertainment trade news site. It was directed by Ishana Night Shyamalan and produced by her father, the horror maestro M. Night Shyamalan.

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