Will Smith is a rarity in Hollywood.
After all, he is the only actor in history to have eight consecutive films gross north of $100 million at the domestic box office and 10 consecutive films gross north of $150 million internationally. But these days, star power has less of an impact than it once did. Moreover, as Smith explained at Cannes Lion Tuesday, becoming popular wasn't as fulfilling as he'd imagined.
"I had so much success that I started to taste global blood and my focus shifted from my artistry to winning," he recalled. "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."
Smith repeatedly cited Wild Wild West as an example of a film that he did for status rather than artistic integrity. And though director Barry Sonnenfeld's 1999 film was panned by critics, it still managed to earn $222.1 million on a reported $170 million budget. Smith gave credit to the film's marketing team, but added that their tricks wouldn't work on today's fans. "That smoke and mirrors in marketing is over. People are going to know really quickly and globally whether a product keeps its promises," he said, adding, "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 s--t...But now what happens is 10 minutes into the movie, people are tweeting, 'This is s--t. Go see Vin Diesel.'"
Smith said he considers himself to be a marketer, not just an actor. "My career has been strictly being able to sell my products globally, and it's now in the hand of fans," he said. "I have to be in tune with their needs and not trick them into going to see Wild Wild West."
The tide is turning in Hollywood, he added. "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. "'Hmm, I never thought of that.'"
Smith also spoke to the panel about his friend and mentor, the late Muhammad Ali. "He was unwilling to compromise for money, accolades. He was living his values, rich or poor," the 47-year-old actor said. Even in death, Ali still is an inspiration to Smith. "It was really beautiful for me to see how profoundly happy people were at his memorial," he explained, "and that's a result of him living his life with a purpose. Improving lives is how I want to move forward."
"If someone stands at your funeral and says, 'His ROI was ridiculous,' you've failed,'" he added.