"Just think of me as a big shrimp cocktail," Will Smith said with his megawatt smile. "A nice appetizer before the main course."
Hundreds of Twin Cities fans certainly found Smith delectable on Friday. Posing for cell phone snapshots, exchanging hugs and high-fives with cheering fans, the world's biggest movie star hit the Twin Cities like a juggernaut, combining interviews, private visits at schools and hospitals, and a red-carpet local premiere to whip up an appetite for his film "Seven Pounds," which opens nationwide next weekend.
It's unusual for stars of his stature to move outside the New York-Los Angeles axis, let alone cruise Midwest streets in a motor coach emblazoned with their face, as Smith did. But as recent visits to Minnesota by George Clooney, Jerry Seinfeld and the stars of "Twilight" suggest, the changing media environment presents special challenges.
Declining revenues for "old media" -- print, TV, radio -- means that fewer journalists can travel to publicity junkets on the coasts, so some stars are personally bringing their wares to the public, as makers of low-budget films long have done.
"It's highly unusual," said Jeff Bock, a film-industry analyst for Los Angeles-based Exhibitor Relations. "I don't think the biggest box-office star in the world necessarily has to do a bus tour to promote his film. [But distributor] Sony has a pretty tough sell on their hands." With Smith playing a suicidal man determined to change the lives of several strangers, the drama "isn't your typical Hollywood or blockbuster film," Bock said.
Barnstorming the nation also gave the actor something he said he craves: A sense of reconnection with the people who gave him his success.
In an interview, Smith recalled when he realized he had drifted out of contact with everyday people: "On Nov. 4, I sat there with my children and my 16-year-old son couldn't understand how I didn't know [the election] was over already. He was like, 'You're out of touch.'
"A big part of this is getting out and talking to the people like we did with the music," said Smith, recalling his days as rapper Fresh Prince, and an early-'90s concert at Elk River High School. "To be able to create as an artist you have to be in touch with people."
The Twin Cities is the northernmost stop on a tour including Miami, Dallas, St. Louis, Cleveland, Denver and Charlotte, N.C. Smith said the movie merits special promotion because it hinges on twists that can't be revealed without ruining its suspense.
Its story of atonement and accountability also inspired an "epiphany" about his own life, he said -- that there's more to life than art and commerce, and that service to others should be a cornerstone of his future.
"What I'm really promoting is a much bigger idea, and this one film is part of a bigger message of hope and the power of a single human spirit. These are ideas connected to this film but the film is not the whole of why I'm here."
Surprise is his element
Bock sees Smith's "surprising" motorcade as a unique event. "It's a big change from the standard procedure of holding an extravagant opening in Hollywood and inviting the press. I don't know if it's cost-effective. But if you know anything about Will Smith, he likes to do things that people don't expect. That's why people keep their eye on him."
Smith's appearance for the film's regional premiere at Edina's AMC Southdale theater is a fundraiser for Second Harvest Heartland, the state's largest hunger-relief organization. Tickets were given to the first 250 people who donated nonperishable food to the charity.
On Friday afternoon between the end of his publicity duties and the premiere, Smith visited schoolchildren and hospital patients, offering encouragement and spreading good cheer.
"I feel with all the success America has afforded me, it's my responsibility to get out and give back and meet people and sign autographs and take pictures," he said.
"The value of a human life is not measured within itself. It's measured by its qualitative and quantitative effect on the lives of others. It's cool to have the goal of being the biggest movie star in the world. But why? It's been revealed to me that the question is: Whose life is better because you woke up today?"
Under sweeping searchlights in the Southdale parking lot, a crowd estimated at more than 1,500 cheered "Over here! Over here!" as Smith worked the red carpet.
Jessica Squires, 27, a business student from Bloomington, spent 90 minutes in frigid weather waiting for her idol as her fingers and toes grew numb. She brought a food-shelf donation of mashed potatoes, rice and "good old Hamburger Helper" in hopes of winning a ticket.
She didn't, but said, "I truly feel good because I donated. It was 100 percent worth it. This was a movie premiere, something that doesn't happen in Minnesota."
Wennie-Mae Parsons, 21, of Hopkins, battled her way to the front for a glimpse of the star. "Will Smith is my second hero" after God, she said. "I pushed forward, and I was stomping on people and making my way to him. It was like a war. He grabbed my sleeve and said, 'Stop pushing.' I was so happy and excited."
Smith, who joined Vikings player Bernard Berrian in donating 300 holiday dinners to the Second Harvest Heartland Food Shelf at the premiere, said, "If there's a message, it's 'you gotta help somebody.' Even if it's somebody's car breaking down, use your cell phone. Something little like that. We gotta help one another to get the quality of life we're all striving for." Colin Covert • 612-673-7186