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January 8, 2014

Will Packer: Hollywood Super Producer Climbs Film, TV Mountains

WillPacker

You don’t know him, but you know him.  You know his movies – Think Like A Man, Stomp The Yard, Takers, Obsessed, This Christmas, The Gospel, and Trois, among others.

Will Packer has become a Hollywood blockbuster hit maker with four of his films opening at number one at the box office and all of his movies collectively grossing over $350 million worldwide.

Packer parlayed that success last year into a three-year first-look movie production agreement with Universal Pictures and a two-year overall development deal with Universal TV to produce network television programs.

Under both deals he will create new projects for the studios under his Will Packer Productions banner, making him one of the only non-writing African-American producers with an overall deal at a major studio.

As if that’s not enough, Packer also co-owns Bounce TV, the first Black-owned broadcast network, and is one of the youngest African-American members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (the organization that hosts the Oscars), which he was inducted into in 2012.

 

Now you’re really going to know Packer this year, as he has four major movies coming out in 2014, beginning with the Ice Cube-Kevin Hart comedy Ride Along, which opens nationwide January 17th.

That’s quite a track record for a brother who is still only 39 years old, but who on the other hand has been in the business of producing movies for half of his life.

Producing On The Fly

Born in St. Petersburg, Florida in April 1974, Packer holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Electrical Engineering from Florida A&M University, where he graduated magna cum laude in 1996.  He also found his life’s work there, but it wasn’t connected to what he got his degree in.

At school, Will befriended fellow engineering classmate Robert Hardy, whom Packer says, “wanted to be the next Spike Lee, the next John Singleton” as a filmmaker.  Packer himself, “was an entrepreneur at heart, I always wanted to be in business for myself,” he says.

Hardy made a movie called Chocolate City, about a young man’s profound experience on a Black college campus that emphasized the importance of intelligent decision-making in college. It was shot using 16mm color film on the campus of Florida A&M University for less than $20,000.

Being business minded, Packer helped his friend with that movie, from the financing to the distribution.  “Later, I found out that that’s what a movie producer does,” he says.

It wasn’t smooth sailing, but Packer called that adventure his crash course in niche marketing.  They sent Chocolate City all over Hollywood, but couldn’t get anyone to return their calls, “not even the assistant to the assistant,” Packer says.

“So we took it directly to our audience, Even though Hollywood didn’t care about it, we knew that our little HBCU school did.  Florida A&M students cared because it was a movie about college life that they could relate to, that resonated with them with its different themes and images,” Packer says.

“We convinced a small, second-run movie theater in Tallahassee, Florida (where the school is located) to run our movie.  At first they said ‘no’, but we finally convinced them to give us one showing on one screen.  We sold that one out. They gave us one more.  We sold that one out.  They added another and another and we were able to continuously  sell out our small movie.”

Packer notes, “We were able to turn that little movie into a small profit and I thought, ‘You know what, I’ve been looking for a business model, I’ve been looking for an entrepreneurial endeavor – this is going to be it right here because we basically hustled our first movie and found a way to find an audience and make it profitable.’

“So it was actually my love for the business side of the game that helped propel me as a film maker.  It was an instinctual thing in that I knew if I had a product, no matter what the product was, I had to find a way to get it to my consumers, to my audience.”

That was in 1994, when Packer was only 20.   Surrounding the success of Chocolate City, he, Hardy and several others formed Rainforest Films, where the vision was to make movies that would appeal to Black audiences who hadn’t seen genre films starring people like themselves.

The first in that regard was Trois, an erotic thriller released in 2000 about a young corporate tycoon in Atlanta who talks his new wife into having a ménage a trios with another woman, who, as is always the case, turns out to be a lunatic.

That production experience was the same as with Chocolate City.  All of Hollywood again said no, and just as Packer knew Florida A&M students wanted to see that movie, he was convinced that Black audiences would “want to see this erotic thriller because Hollywood doesn’t have these thrillers marketed to us.

“So we did the exact same thing,” he says.  “We convinced a few theater owners to show our movie one screen at a time, one screen per city, in about 19 different cities, and we sold out all of those screens.  That’s how that movie was successful.”

“Over-ambition is a myth of the complacent.  If you are willing to work and work hard and give it 110 percent, then there is no limit to what you can accomplish.”

It was so successful that Trois raked in over $1.2 million and became the fastest million-dollar grossing film distributed by African Americans…and that’s when Hollywood took notice.  The next year, in 2001, Packer brokered a very profitable production and distribution deal with Sony’s Columbia Tri-Star and Screen Gems pictures.

“Trois wasn’t a big movie by most people’s standards, but it was a big movie for us, a movie that cost $200,000 and made over a million dollars,” Packer says. Chocolate City and Trois “taught me very early on that even if Hollywood doesn’t see the value in your content, if you can find a way to quantify your content, you will then be valuable to Hollywood.

“If you want Hollywood to pay attention to you, make money without them.  That’s what happened with us.  Because we were able to take Trois to a successful box office completely independently, that is when studios reached out and said if you can make a million dollars on your own, imagine what you can make with us and imagine what you can make for us.”

 

Busy Work

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Kevin Hart and Ice Cube in Ride Along; Beyonce in Obsessed; Takers, a 2010 action heist flick.

Still, Packer says, even with their deal, the studio wanted to pigeonhole them into making urban erotic thrillers.  After a few more Trois’ sequels and the like, Packer says, “We finally broke out of that mold when we made a faith-based movie in 2005 called The Gospel.  They gave us $3 million, which was our biggest budget to date at that time. The movie ended up making over $17 million and showed that we were profitable even outside of the erotic thriller genre.”

After that, the hits just kept on coming:  This Christmas, which opened number two on Thanksgiving weekend 2007, grossed $50 million.  Stomp The Yard the same year was number one for two weekends and earned $75 million worldwide.  In 2009, there was Obsessed, another hot threesome-thriller  flick starring Beyonce, Idris Elba and Ali Larter, that was also a number one, as well as Screen Gems’ second highest opening movie in company history, with a $74 million gross.  Takers, an action heist flick starring Idris Elba, Paul Walker, Michael Ealy, T.I., Matt Dillon and Chris Brown, was Packer’s third number one, in 2010, with a $70 million box office.

Then, Packer hit the mother lode in 2012 with Think Like A Man, based on Steve Harvey’s 2009 bestselling book, and featuring an ensemble cast.   It opened number one at the box office, has grossed over $92 million worldwide since and is still counting, and won the 2013 BET Award for Best Movie.

Explaining his association with that project, Packer says, “I reached out to Steve Harvey very early about turning the book into a movie. In fact, I was one of the first folks from Hollywood to talk to him about it. Later, when it became a bestselling hit there were many, many studios after it, but Steve remembered me showing interest first. When he saw that my vision for the project aligned with his, he was 100 percent on board. Steve was a great partner to work with!”

Last year was a crossroads for Packer’s trajectory.  He founded his own company, Atlanta and Los Angeles-based Will Packer Productions, and negotiated the film and TV deals with Universal.  Ride Along is his first release for the studio and “that’s ultimately what really sparked my production and distribution deal with them,” he says.

Coming after Ride Along this year, Packer has a remake of the ‘80’s movie  About Last Night, an adult romantic comedy starring Kevin Hart, Joy Bryant, Regina Hall and Michael Ealy, set for release on Valentine’s Day.

Think Like a Man Too, which filmed in Las Vegas and stars Gabrielle Union, Taraji P. Henson, Meagan Good, Regina Hall, Kevin Hart, and Michael Ealy,  opens on June 20.

“Then there’s a thriller with Idris Elba, who is super hot right now coming off his Mandela performance, and Taraji Henson, who is one of the most talented actresses of her generation,” in No Good Deed, which releases September 12, says Packer.  Another Kevin Hart vehicle, The Wedding Ringer, is set to open in February of 2015.

As if that isn’t enough, his company is also busy working on TV pilots and concepts right now that they will pitch to the networks at the end of the summer, with the expectation of having shows on the air by Fall of 2015.

“My goal is to have multiple shows on network television over the course of the next few years,” Packer says.  “I want to make compelling television that really engages you and that it’s hard to turn away from.  Characters that you can be invested in.

“I’m excited about things we have in the pipeline that are different from what’s out there because as a filmmaker, I have a unique point of view, so nobody’s doing the type of television that I’m going to do. I’m excited about seeing if audiences respond like they have so wonderfully with the films.”

That sentiment is echoed by Bela Bajaria, the Executive Vice President of Universal TV, who said of Packer when they cut the television production deal, “We have been impressed by Will’s keen eye on the feature side with the several hit movies he’s produced. We are looking forward to bringing his enthusiasm and expertise into television.”

“Universal stepped up and said that they wanted to be in business with me and they’ve invested in me and shown a lot of faith in what I will be able to do,” Packer says.  “That’s exciting to me – to have a partnership with a company that supports and believes in me and my abilities and my vision. It’s been a long time coming.”

Packer’s Universal deal does not interfere with his Bounce TV activities. He co-founded Bounce in 2011 with Andrew Young and Martin Luther King III.

“Bounce is in a different space and is doing great,” Packer says.  “Bounce is the first African-American owned broadcast network and obviously is much smaller than its mainstream counterparts like NBC, ABC and FOX.  But Bounce is doing programming that you won’t find anywhere else.  It’s primarily aimed at an older African-American audience and wants to do stuff that is different than what you might see on a BET or a TV One.

“I’m an investor in Bounce and I’m very excited about what Bounce can potentially grow to be. But as a producer (with Universal), I’m excited about the content I can create that will be on platforms like NBC, ABC or HBO…and that’s for everybody in the world, not just for Black people.”

 

The One In The Room

Lest it seems that he may be overreaching with all these activities, Packer pooh-poohs the notion that he’s stretching himself too far.

“First I have a tremendous team around me and I always have to give credit to them,” he says.  But second, “I’m somebody who believes that over-ambition is a myth of the complacent.  I believe that if you are willing to work and work hard and give it 110 percent, then there is no limit to what you can accomplish.”

And what Will Packer has accomplished has taken him from being an HBCU graduate to one of THE most powerful men in the film industry – all before the age of 40.

“I started off small and each step of the way gradually did a bigger and  bigger movie and I was able to learn, and learn while making movies.  I really had a lot of on-the-job training,” he says.

“But I never thought I’m not supposed to be doing this or I won’t be successful because I’ve always been very bullish on myself.  I’ve always believed in myself 100 percent.  I think you have to.  If you don’t believe in you, why should anyone else believe in you?

“I have had great support from audiences.  I have had great people around me.  But at the top, it starts with me – every morning, waking up and telling myself how I’m capable, how I have the right skill set, how I can go in and offer to this industry what nobody else can.”

And it’s the hard work, too, he adds.

“This is a very taxing, challenging industry, and you can always find some people you can argue have had a lot of success without a lot of work or aren’t very talented,” Packer says. “But for the most part, the people that are successful in this industry are the ones who work the hardest, who outwork everyone else around them, who were told ‘no’ a million times but they kept working until that millionth-and-one answer became a ‘yes’.  I wanted to be one of those people.”

And what’s interesting, he adds, is that “I don’t have a lot of peers and contemporaries that are doing what I do – there are not a lot of African-American producers making movies or television.  I see that as an opportunity, not as a hindrance. I see it as, when I walk into a room and I’m the only African-American in that room, I have a different perspective than anybody else in there and I want to take advantage of it.”

Photography: Robert Ector/Taylor-Ector Studios
Grooming: Denise Tunnell
Styling: Leah Taylor/Taylor-Ector Studios
Producer: Staci R. Collins Jackson/The Collins Jackson Agency


About the Author

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David Smallwood