Producer Will Packer is a force that many are happy to reckon with these days. Soaring high on a commanding string of profitable movie releases–About Last Night, Think Like A Man and Ride Along–the indeterminable trajectory of Packer’s future bodes exponential.
He successfully transitioned into filmmaking albeit somewhat circuitously—Packer holds an Engineering Degree from Florida A&M University, graduating at the top of his class in 1996. He now sits atop an electrifying explosion of black themed films driven by talent and tenacity as seen among many of his contemporaries including Tyler Perry (“Madea” film franchise), Malcolm Lee (“Best Man” film franchise), Ava Duvernay (Independent Spirit Award winner), Stephanie Allain (“Hustle & Flow”) and Lee Daniels (Two-time Oscar nominee), all of them reflecting a new business model in Hollywood.
Other colleagues and predecessors like Robert Townsend (“Hollywood Shuffle”), Keenen Ivory Wayans (“I’m Gonna Git You Sucka”), Kasi Lemmons (“Black Nativity”), David Talbert (“Baggage Claim”), Paul Hall (“Madea’s Witness Protection”), Tim Story (“Fantastic Four” film franchise), Jeff Clanagan (CodeBlack Films) and multi-hyphenate Ice Cube have been on a steady climb over the past decade amassing director/producer credits with studio-financed, independent, private and creative resources, making their dreams happen on re-defined terms, all the while forging paths for those fast on their heels.
Between the 1970s and 1990s, trailblazers including Executive Producer Suzanne De Passe, filmmakers Bill Duke (“Deep Cover”), Julie Dash (“Daughters of the Dust”), the Hudlin brothers (“House Party” film franchise), Spike Lee (“Do The Right Thing”), Gordon Parks (“Shaft”), Sidney Poitier (“Uptown Saturday Night”) and Michael Schultz (“Car Wash”) ran the matrix of black themed movies.
The list of black filmmakers inside and outside Hollywood is expansive, far too lengthy to name however, the current trend of getting things done by whatever means necessary has shifted. Many have technological advances to thank for access and ascension, not the least of them, a social communications construct that penetrates global boundaries. New markets are no longer off limits; moreover, viewing devices and platforms are limitless.
Success in Hollywood for many has for decades been a numbers game, primarily box office performance fueled by healthy advertising and marketing campaigns. Still the dominant indicators, thankfully, those numbers are no longer mired and steeped in traditions of old. It’s a new day and there are new ways to reach the masses.
The masses of moviegoers are celebrating with Packer and those like him. Prior to Spike Lee’s imprint, it was rare to hear consumers discuss film budgets and box office returns. Now, often those aspects lead the discussion.
Comparatively, Packer’s film budget to box office performance ratio yields significant profit margins: his 2005 feature, THE GOSPEL was mounted with $5 million and earned nearly $16 million. The $14 million budget for his 2007 ode to black college life, STOMP THE YARD, earned $61 million. In 2012, the “Think Like A Man” budget was $12 million, box office yield was $92 million. This year’s $25 million “Ride Along” budget has earned $125 million at the box office. The latter two spawned sequels without question or qualm.
Packer knows the power of collaboration. His foray into feature film catapulted the visibility of a growing list of actors, to name a few; Idris Elba was featured prominently in several Packer-infused projects: “The Gospel,” “Obsessed,” “Takers,” and “This Christmas.” Kevin Hart, named BET’s 2014 “Entertainer of the Year” headlines the “Think Like A Man” properties and the Valentine’s Day release, “About Last Night.”
On Valentine’s morning, I spoke to Packer, a divorced father who is now engaged.
The 39-year-old is full of moxie—known for wearing many hats, figuratively and literally. The bi-coastal CEO of Will Packer Productions tracks the composition of his success in a straight line to strong parenting and a solid foundation–love is key in his life.
And, he continues to share his love of filmmaking. Packer’s model of collaboration has spawned another anticipated story rooted in the African American experience. So stated by his publicists, fresh off the heels of Ride Along, Packer has set up his next film with Universal Pictures, using the working title, Girls Trip. Malcolm D. Lee is set to direct. Lee’s The Best Man Holiday sequel for Universal has grossed over $71 million to date. Production on Girls Trip is expected to begin summer 2014.
Our conversation follows–
Talk2SV: When you enter a room, you own it, not in an off-putting manner rather with confidence and ease. When did you become aware that you could handle the command of being in charge?
Packer: I think it was well before I was involved with the film industry… I could tell you that. I talk a lot about the importance of parents instilling confidence in their children at an early age and I am definitely a result of that. My parents very early on told me in a very sincere, heartfelt way that you can do anything you want to do; always strive to be great no matter what. I took that to heart. When I speak to young people, I point out that you are preparing yourself for life from elementary school, middle school and high school.
I don’t care if it’s a subject (in school) you don’t like or it’s an activity you don’t really want to participate in, go in and give 100%; challenge yourself to excel at something that you may not want to do. It may not drive you, it may not be your passion but, in life you’re going to have to succeed and excel. Work hard. Whether your goals are headed in the direction of being an entertainer or an athlete, don’t disregard math and science. You have get in the habit of working hard. I’ve certainly benefited from being instilled with that confidence early on and I think I exhibit some of that now because I feel very confident in my abilities. It comes from working hard and striving to be great in all aspects of my life.
Talk2SV: Indeed. In your opinion as a professional and as a man in love, what would you say is the cost of love, since we’re talking on Valentine’s Day…
Packer: You know…a lot of self-sacrifice; the cost is what you give of yourself in order to keep the other person happy. Everything that you give in a true loving relationship is returned to you ten-fold and it’s all worth it. The sacrifice is an investment in not only the relationship but also in you. You can’t put a price on your own happiness, on your own soulful and spiritual health and that’s what a relationship gives you.
Talk2SV: Let’s use your analogy to talk about the sacrifices one makes when they enter the field of acting based primarily on their love for the profession. Acting is a risky proposition. As a successful producer, a proven entity, you are bringing a strong amount of collateral to many actors who’ve been working for a long time, now finding another level of achievement as a result of working with you. To a large degree, the payoff to their love and sacrifice is due in part to the security that you bring to the game.
Packer: You know what I hear in that observation by you? I hear relationship and it’s interesting because that’s really what it all boils down to, a relationship between two lovers, between two people in love or in a partnership like the kind that I have with my actors. You’re talking about what I bring to them and what they bring to me. In any relationship, it has to be two-sided, both entities, both people, giving and ultimately receiving something greater from the relationship. That’s what you’re seeing with my partnership, my relationship with these actors like Kevin Hart, like Michael Ealy, like Regina Hall, all whom I’ve worked with multiple times.
Talk2SV: Like Idris Elba…
Packer: Absolutely. He is one of my longest and most frequent collaborators.
Talk2SV: You’re not the typical film producer; I see you as more of an architect; one who builds by design. What is it that allows you to be so attached to the films yet give the directors the freedom they need to get the job done?
Packer: It’s a skill set and it’s one that is very important in my job and in the way I make movies. I am a very hands-on producer. I am somebody that is a creative producer involved with every aspect of the filmmaking process. That being said, I definitely take a more macro approach than a director. Directors have to be concerned with the minutiae of filmmaking; for me, it is definitely about the bigger picture, it’s about overseeing the process from start to finish, all the way through fruition including distribution and promotion of a project.
It’s my job to be involved with every aspect. I don’t do it in a way that makes people feel put upon, creatively stilted or infringed. I have a good relationship with these people and they feel like I’m invested in them be it my directors or my actors; they feel like this producer takes the time to do what other producers may not. They know I’m invested in the success of the film and ultimately invested in the success of the talent. That level of commitment goes a long way toward them being willing and open to give me what I ask for in the process.
Talk2SV: Speaking of being successful, I’ve begun to grow weary of the age-old conversation about the dearth of roles and opportunities in Hollywood. I am of the belief that Hollywood doesn’t change rather you bring the change you’re seeking. I’d like to have you on record with your views based on the projects you’ve had success with.
Packer: You know, I think the word is relentless, that’s what you have to be; I mean, I am having a great year. I am having an amazing amount of success and I don’t say that to pat myself on the back. I say it only because it’s true and it’s important that I acknowledge it because it doesn’t happen very often. I don’t care what kind of filmmaker you are, I don’t care what your background is, I don’t care what kind of movies that you make, there are just very few filmmakers that can say that they’re having the type of run that I’m very fortunate to have right now. I have to acknowledge and receive how great that is.
But on the other side of that, I have had a number of movies that I could not get made. I have had failures, I have had projects that I just knew would be successful and they weren’t. I’ve had projects that I thought would be more successful than they were and it wasn’t their time.
I have definitely had challenges. I have had important, power-wielding people in Hollywood say, ‘No, not going to do it, not going to work, you don’t have it, this is not for you, we’re not going to back your project.’ I have definitely had that happen to me. But if I had given up, if I had accepted those no’s over the years then I wouldn’t be having the run that I am having now. I wouldn’t have been able to break through to have the level of success that I’m having and hopefully will continue to have.
So relentless is the word because that’s how you have to be. It’s very difficult and challenging to succeed in this business but you can never, ever give up or you definitely will not succeed.
Talk2SV: It seems that Hollywood is at an axis, currently. Many have thrown things against the wall to see what will stick. Where do you think Hollywood is pivoting right now?
Packer: Hollywood works in cycles so I think it’s an interesting time for African American filmmakers and on-screen talent. Those works are making money, more money than they ever had in the history of individual films; I think that’s a real positive. But Hollywood is very cyclical and reacts to what audiences are supporting at the time. I hope that particular cycle continues.
Additionally, I’m also very proud of the artistic works, the films that aren’t necessarily made for commercial sake but the films being rewarded this season that happen to be featuring filmmakers and actors of color; it’s a proud moment for me to see that.
Talk2SV: If you were to take an introspective look, if Will Packer were to dissect Will Packer, you are equal parts what?
Packer: I’d say faith, drive and ambition; I’d say fatherhood and an unrelenting desire to be as great as I can be, measured by my own standards.