Medium: How to Gain Mainstream Success

The easiest path to success is to model yourself after those who are already successful.

Find someone who is where you want to be and use his or her path to success as a roadmap for yourself.

Here’s a Story…

In the early 1990s, a middling talent rapper with a few hits and a Grammy (the first ever in the rap category), found himself in the most clichéd of situations — he owed close to $3 million dollars in unpaid back taxes to the IRS.

Now, this was the 1990s. Hip-hop was, well, in transition, on it’s way from an east coast underground music phenomenon to the the global force of today. Rappers weren’t the multi-hyphenated business moguls they are now. Jay-Zwas still a part-time rapper/full-time drug dealer. Sean “Puffy” Combs was still an intern at Uptown Records. 50 cent didn’t have a dime. The only (legal) way for a rapper to raise that kind of money was to go into acting and, fortunately for this rapper, he was presented with the opportunity to star in a television show somewhat based on his life.

The show was a “fish out of water” situation comedy, centered on his character moving from his urban east coast hometown (“the hood”) to a high-end enclave of Los Angeles (“so NOT the hood”) to live with his mother’s rich younger sister and her bougie family.

The show became an instant hit.

But the rapper, who was very smart and prior to becoming a rap star flirted with the idea of going to an Ivy League school, knew that the real money in entertainment wasn’t made by TV stars (This was BK — before Kardashian. The most famous Kardashian at this time was trying to help his bestie beat a murder rap). The real, real money in 1990s America was made by movie stars. And since he was a rapper, meaning he had no shortage of ego, he didn’t want to be just any movie star, but “THE” movie star.

So he began.

Now, not many rappers in the 1990s were able to make the transition from music to film. The most successful at this point was the ever charismatic Tupac Shakur, but Tupac had some formal training, attending a performing arts high school, ironically, with our rap star/budding leading man’s future wife.

So, the rapper started out slow. His first major starring role in a movie was in a small budget drama based on an acclaimed play. Critics LOVED the movie.

“A rare sight: a sharply observed Hollywood satire of poignant ideas,” 
- Random Movie Critic.

His character was gay — remember this was the 90s when machismo was full blast in rap. It showed his range as an actor and showed he was willing to take risks.

But small budget dramas don’t make you THE movie star.

Logically, he should have followed in the footsteps of the black male movie icons of that time — Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor — who starred in successful comedies with a slight action bent like Stir Crazy48hrs and Beverly Hills Cop. Since he was already a TV comedy star, he could seamlessly transition to become a movie comedy star. A black guy, as a comedian, people could understand. But a black guy as a mass market superhero, that was a new idea.

But just like drama films don’t make an actor THE movie star, neither do comedies with a few action scenes thrown in for good measure. No full fledged comedy film was in the top ten grossing films of the 1980s. In fact, seven of the top ten grossing movies of the decade were action films, and all of the top grossing films of the 1980s fit into one of two genres — action or science fiction (Sci-Fi).

Top Ten Highest Grossing Movies of the 1980s

At that time, and remember this is the early 1990s, THE biggest stars in terms of box office gross were Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Cruise, Bruce Willis, and Harrison Ford. Schwarzenegger was killing it at the box office in the TerminatorPredator, and other movies that deftly mixed Sci-Fi with action and a small dash of humor. The same with Willis and the Die Hard franchise. Ford was coming off a decade of iconic roles in movies that changed entertainment — the Star Wars Trilogy and Indiana Jones movies. Ford’s combination of winning matinee idol good looks with a penchant for a good quip led him to star in 5 of the 10 biggest grossing movies of the 1980s, all a mix of action, with a dash of comedy (and a lot of Sci-Fi in the case of Star Wars).

So, if your goal is to be THE (male) Movie Star, it’s pretty clear what genre you should focus on — action — and if you can add in a bit of Sci-Fi with a dash of comedy, you have yourself a solid formula for success.

So, the rapper studied the careers of Schwarzenegger, Willis, and Cruise, noting the roles they selected, how much each movie grossed, and even noting the time of year the films were released.

He chose his next film, a buddy action comedy set in a beach city known for having a ton of very good-looking people, based on this criteria. It was a solid hit, making 10 times the box office gross of his critically acclaimed drama. However, this film was missing the Sci-Fi angle, and he knew to truly break out, he would need that.

His next, next, film had all the elements of the winning formula: Sci-Fi, lots of action, and a few iconic comedic situations.

This was the movie that turned him into THE movie star.

The film went on to become, at the time, the second highest grossing film of ALL time. ALL TIME. He applied the formula to his other movie choices throughout the 90s and into the early part of the millennia, becoming one of the top film stars of all time, with his combination of action and Sci-Fi comedy bringing in over $2.5 billion dollars.

Oh yeah, he also dropped his rap moniker and started using his real name.

Will Smith.