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Longtime friend and mentor Muhammad Ali inspired Will Smith to refocus on his philanthropic activities, he told an enraptured audience at a Cannes Lions session on Tuesday.
“He was unwilling to compromise for money, accolades, he was living his values rich or poor,” Smith said, adding that after years of Hollywood success he had lost focus and was more concerned about being a movie star than living true to his values.
“I had so much success that I started to taste global blood and my focus shifted from my artistry to winning. I wanted to win and be the biggest movie star, and what happened was there was a lag — around Wild Wild West time — I found myself promoting something because I wanted to win versus promoting something because I believed in it.”
He repeatedly brought up 1999’s Wild Wild West as a personal low point. The Barry Sonnenfeld-directed film earned over $222 million worldwide.
“Smoke and mirrors in marketing and sales is over. People are going to know really quickly and globally whether a product keeps its promises,” he said, throwing his lot in amongst the roomful of advertising execs. “I consider myself a marketer. My career has been strictly being able to sell my products globally, and it’s now in the hand of fans. I have to be in tune with their needs and not trick them into going to see Wild Wild West.”
“The power has gone away from the marketers,” he added.
The actor also confirmed his involvement in the company Just Water, which produces a paper and sugar cane-bottled water in an effort to reduce plastic pollution. The company had previously refused to disclose its investors. His involvement in the company was spurred on by son Jaden’s concern about plastic pollution in the oceans.
That message — the phone follows you everywhere — clicked for him in a way that translated to his work and the way films are marketed.
“I realized that it’s also true in the marketing of movies. Back in the ‘80s and ‘90s you had a piece of crap movie you put a trailer with a lot of explosions and it was Wednesday before people knew your movie was shit,” Smith said. “But now what happens is 10 minutes into the movie, people are tweeting ‘This is shit, go see Vin Diesel’.”
The result is a return to storytelling instead of gimmicks and explosions. “It’s funny to go sit in a meeting in Hollywood now. It’s a new idea that we have to make good movies,” he joked, playing to the delight of the packed theater. “Hmm, I never thought of that.”
His younger children Jaden, 17, and Willow, 15, have started their own entertainment careers, Jaden in the remake of the Karate Kid and Willow with her hit song Whip my Hair in 2010.
“In my family it’s known as ‘The year of the mutiny,’ and my family decided they were no longer going to function under my tyranny,” he joked.
The then-10-year-old Willow taught him the biggest lesson when she wanted to drop out of touring with Justin Bieber because she was no longer enjoying performing and shaved her hair — the very core of her act at that time — in a hotel room in London. He found that creating a career for his daughter was useless if she didn’t want it.
“The lesson was so important: selling, marketing and creating cannot be about me, and my parenting is connecting to the way I make movies and the way I interact with people,” Smith said.
His work with Just Water and healthy living project Thrive Market are what he sees himself focusing on in the future.
He brought it all back to Ali’s funeral last week. “It was really beautiful for me to see how profoundly happy people were at his memorial and that’s a result of him living his life with a purpose,” he said. “Improving lives is how I want to move forward.”
He added: “If someone stands at your funeral and says, ‘His ROI was ridiculous,’ you’ve failed.”
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