If you want to get a producing
career going, they say, you have to move to Los Angeles. Maybe New York, if you
sunburn easily. But the conventional wisdom says that if you’re not on one of
the coasts, you might as well be spinning your wheels.
In a revelation that will shock precisely no one,
conventional wisdom is clueless. While LA and New York remain key centers of
production, the road to a producing career no longer runs exclusively through
Hollywood and the Big Apple. Case in point: PGA member Will Packer, who founded
Rainforest Films and more recently Will Packer Productions in Atlanta, the headquarters from which he’s launched no fewer
than seven films that have hit #1 at the box office, including Ride Along,
Think Like a Man and Stomp the Yard.
Packer is at this point no stranger to the major studios.
(Producing a filmography that’s grossed nearly $800 million will open some
doors.) But even as he taps into the deeper talent pool that Hollywood offers,
Packer remains committed to his roots in the South and the regional production
community his projects have done so much to foster. He’s part of a rising
generation of producers with one foot in the institutional structure of
Hollywood and the other firmly planted … somewhere else. Call it "the real world.”
For Packer, that remove from Hollywood is a feature, not a bug—allowing him to
listen as closely to his audience as he does to the agents at UTA or the execs
Now it’s our chance to listen to Will Packer. In a recent
conversation with editor Chris Green, Packer reflected not only on the skills
and outlook on which he’s built his success but on the challenge faced by
storytellers seeking to marry mainstream Hollywood formats to the vital
perspectives unique to African-American and other minority audiences. And if
that wasn’t enough responsibility, Packer has opted to hit the reset button and
start again at the beginning, learning the ropes of television production even
as he extends his enviable track record in feature film.
You have a degree in electrical engineering, of
all things. How does a budding electrical engineer find his way into
The long way, I’ll tell you that.
Engineering was something that would let my parents feel a little more
comfortable about my ability to feed myself. I actually wanted to get a
business degree. I applied to Wharton and got in. But a funny thing happened on
the way: I got accepted into the electrical engineering program at Florida
A&M University, which was a state school not far from home and which was
offering a lot of money for top minority students to come to that school.
Wharton was not. So my parents said, "Guess where you’re going?” [laughs]
But they pacified me by saying, "Look, it’s a fallback. You don’t have to be an
engineer. You can always get your MBA later, and the combination of those
degrees means you can do anything.” So I went for it. I worked hard and am
proud to say I graduated magna cum laude with a degree in electrical
Entrepreneurship was CLEARLY a goal of
yours—when did that begin to coalesce around film?
My freshman year, I met a guy who would
become a lifelong friend. All he wanted was to be the next Spike Lee or John
Singleton. I helped him make a little movie while we were at FAMU and helped
him hustle that movie into profitability. It wasn’t ‘til later that I found out
that what I was doing, raising the money, hiring the actors, ultimately finding
our own way to independently distribute the thing, that’s what a producer does.
Two struggling college students turned this $20,000 movie into about $100,000
in profit. That was huge. Forget Wharton; here’s my entrepreneurial endeavor
right here. I’m going to be a movie producer.
Those "aha!” moments are really gratifying. How
did you find that distribution and turn that first profit?
When we finished the film, I talked my
way into a second-run theatre in Tallahassee. The guy kept telling us, "No, no,
no, I’m not going to show your movie,” but I wouldn’t relent. He said, "If I
show it one weekend, will you go away?” I said, "Absolutely.” So he finally
agreed to show it, and that’s where the true hustle came in. We got our entire
campus and that town of Tallahassee so excited about this locally-produced film
that featured local actors and students, that we were able to pack that theatre
for the entire weekend.
That’s what really launched us. That’s what allowed us to
make a little bit of money and what allowed me to say, "There could be a career
here.” I did the same thing with my next film, Trois, an erotic
thriller. We talked our way into theatres, and instead of just one second-run,
we got about 19 theatre chains to agree to carry our film. And we took that
film with a budget of about $200,000 to a box office of $1 million.
How did you go about turning those no’s into
yesses? Because that’s ARGUABLY the core of the producer’s job.
I don’t believe in "NO.” Everybody’s going to tell you "no.”
What does that mean?nThat’s just their opinion at that time. "No” doesn’t mean that you don’t have the
right project, or you don’t have the skills, or you don’t have the ability. It
just means that person, at that particular time, doesn’t see the movie in their head that you
see in your head. It’s your choice to give power to that "no.” And I choose not
to give that "no” power. I don’t care who says it. I don’t care if it’s the
financier, the head of the studio, the actor that you think that you have to
have to make your project happen.
You operate out of Atlanta, which is one of the
fastest-growing production communities in the U.S. WHAT does a producing career
look like, if it’s not based in Hollywood or New York?
I love it, to be honest with you. I think it gives me an
advantage over some of my peers who are Hollywood-based. I like the fact that
I’m in a market that is outside of the industry bubble. I like the fact that I
interact a lot more with the consumers that I’m creating my projects for. If I
walk into a Starbucks in LA, I can’t throw a rock without hitting an agent or a
writer or a producer or a director. In Atlanta or some of the other markets,
it’s not the same. I’m bumping up against doctors and accountants and money
managers and construction workers. They’ve got their perspectives, and it’s
important that we not ignore them. I like being around those people. I think it
gives me an advantage when I am creating my own content.
| photographed by Matt Kennedy for Sony/Screen Gems|
Of the movies you’ve produced, which were the
hardest to put together? which were the
biggest challenges once you got into physical production?
You know, my early stuff was tough. It was hard to get my
calls returned. Stomp the Yard was a tough one to get traction on
because it wasn’t a concept that Hollywood folks were familiar with. Stepping wasn’t
a dance form that they knew. I took that film to every studio, and every studio
passed. It forced me to go back and hone my pitch. At first I was selling it
more as a coming-of-age story of a young college student who happened to be a
dancer who wanted to learn stepping. But I had to adjust it to Hollywood tastes
by making it more of a dance movie.
It was an executive at Sony who said to my original pitch,
"That movie’s not going to fly here.” And I said, "All right then, tell me what
will.” And he said, "Well, our most successful movie this year was You Got
Served, and we’re looking for a sequel.” So I adjusted my entire pitch so
that it could be You Got Served 2. That’s what ultimately got me in the
door and got me in the office of the head of Screen Gems, who said, "Oh, yeah.
This is even better than a You Got Served 2. This could be its own
film!” and I thought, "Well, duh.” [laughs]
But I never would have been able to have that conversation
had I been stuck on my original version of the film. So I had to be malleable.
It was tough getting told "no” by everybody, but ultimately I made a better
In terms of physical production, I just completed Ride
Along 2, which was the biggest-budget film I’ve produced—a sequel to my
most successful film to date. I wanted so badly to get it right, since this was
a chance to create a franchise. So that movie presented a challenge and an
opportunity that was different from any other film I’ve done.
Sequels and franchises simultaneously have to give the audience
something new, even as they provide a level of familiarity. How do you and your
creative team approach that balance?
That’s the paradoxical thing about a
sequel—that you’ve got something that works, but now you have to do it better
by doing it different. You have a core audience that loved the first one. The
studio says, "Give us that audience and then some. Give us more. Don’t lose any of the first audience, but
give us a bigger audience.”
Well, by definition, that expectation is paradoxical.
Because everything that that original audience loved is what they love and is
what a bigger audience didn’t necessarily love. But yet you’re trying to grow
that film, to broaden it. You try to keep your original cast yet add other
elements. ou try to challenge your
writers: Okay, take the core of the original story, duplicate it and make it
bigger. Everybody expects bigger and better with the sequel. Now bigger doesn’t
always mean better, as we know, but that’s what the studio expects. You never
hear them say, "That sequel was great! It was smaller! That was a great smaller
sequel.” Nobody ever says that. [laughs]
|Producer Will Packer (left) on the set of Obsessed with cast members Idris Elba and Beyonce.|
Stomp the Yard, you touched on the disconnect that can exist between the young,
African-American audience that your films speak to and the POWER structure of
Hollywood. How do you strive to bridge that gap? some of the people you’re
trying to get to greenlight your movie are a lot like me … not just white but,
[laughs] I love that term, "super-white.” I’m going
to steal that.
Hey, it’s all yours.
You know, here’s the thing. I bring a different perspective
than some of my counterparts. I have an audience that I know really well that
shows up for my movies. But honestly, what I try to do is find universal
stories and put black people in them. If you look at my movies, they could have
been movies starring anybody.Sometimes that’s hard for people to see, because
they just look at the surface, the race or ethnicity of the actors, and they
label the movie. But in reality, if you switched those actors with actors of a
different race, the movie wouldn’t change that much.
Personally, I like the fact that my
movies have a different flavor, because they do have actors that you don’t see
as often in some of these situations or against some of these backdrops. For
instance, I have a thriller that I’m working on right now. Now I would argue
that between the ‘80s and early ‘90s, and between late-night cable and now VOD,
you’ve seen almost every iteration of a thriller that you can imagine with a
white lead or two white leads. But you haven’t seen a lot of them with a black
lead or Latino lead. Now you can’t lean on that alone. You can’t just make the
exact same movie and put a black lead in it or a Latino lead in it or an Asian
lead. I’m not advocating that. That’s lazy, and there’s no excuse for that, if
you’re going to call yourself a real filmmaker.
But you can use the fact that this comes from a different
set of cultural expectations to inform the creative process, and that’s what I
try to do. We haven’t seen an African-American female in this position; let’s
lean into that and make it different. That’s what has worked, and that’s what
my audiences have embraced—and not just black audiences.
But because they star and feature black
casts, it allows some of my super-white peers and execs to put a label on it
and put it in a box that dictates: We can’t sell it foreign. Or, we know our
domestic revenue will only be a certain amount, so we can’t spend above X on
marketing. So I do have to deal with that. At the same time, if you’re talking
about something that’s not going to play to all four quadrants, then it doesn’t
make sense to spend the same amount that you would on something that has that
broader appeal. I get that. That’s not lost on me. But what also isn’t lost on
me is the way that it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy if the expectations
of everybody involved with exploiting the content are lowered. Then you
definitely won’t break the ceiling, because nobody’s really trying to—whether
intentionally or unintentionally. They’re accepting a level of marginalization,
and that’s something that I do fight against.
|Packer (left) with Kevin Hart at the premiere for Ride Along.|
of breaking new ground, let’s talk a little bit about television. as a guy
who’s come up through motion pictures, what has it been like to get a feel for
this different format?
Look, it’s all about creating content. I don’t care if it’s
film or if it’s television; you’re creating content. But the process of that
content creation is very different in television. I’ve enjoyed being able to go
through the script sale process and then the pilot process, and then having
pilots picked up and then going to upfronts and having them presented to
advertisers. All of that has been a learning process. In some aspects it’s more
immediate, and in others it’s more drawn out. If you make a movie for a studio,
you pretty much know it’s coming out … some way, somehow and on some platform.
With television, that’s not the case. You can work just as hard to create a
television pilot that never sees the light of day. But the reward is that if audiences
respond to it, they’ll take that journey with you every week. When a movie
audience leaves the theatre, for the most part that relationship is
over.Whereas with television that’s not the case. I’m looking forward to
audiences continuing that relationship with the material, week after week.
just starting out, whether film or TV, what should be their key priorities?
Going out and doing it. Don’t talk about it; be about
it. That’s something that I live by. And today, people have more of an ability
to get things done than ever before. Content is king in a way that it hasn’t
been for a while, because you have so many distribution outlets. Go out and do
it. Shoot something. If you’re just starting off, you really need to go
and shoot something, because that first thing you shoot is going to suck. [laughs]
Period. That’s the rule. It’s going to be bad. So get that out of your system.
Get those first five out of your system, ‘til you get to the ones that are
|Will Packer with fellow producers Bruna Papandrea (left) and Reese Witherspoon at this summer’s Produced By Conference at Paramount. Packer served as moderator for the event’s headlining "Conversation with...” the Pacific Standard producers.|
what you’ve just said, it makes me wonder where Will Packer’s career might have
gone if it was starting today instead of in the ‘90s at Florida A&M.
Well, I think that I came into the business when I was
supposed to come in. But knowing me and the hustler that I am, I think that I
would be doing everything I could to be a major player in the digital space,
doing everything that I could to make content outside of traditional Hollywood
avenues and make them come to me. I would do what I could to build an audience
outside of traditional Hollywood marketing, which I think is
overrated—especially today. I don’t think that you have to have something that
appeals to everybody, as long as it appeals in a strong way to somebody.
And if those somebodies are a loud, persuasive demo, then you will bring others
to your content.
Since you bring it up, could you talk about the
limitations of Hollywood marketing? In what ways does it work and what ways
doesn’t it work?
I think that it serves a great purpose for awareness and
letting an audience know that a film is big, it’s real, it’s something that’s
substantial. But it does not, in the way that it used to, encourage that desire
to see it. It doesn’t make it cool.
Audiences today, especially youth
audiences, are so influenced by the taste of their peers, and not just locally.
Kids in Iowa know what kids in Detroit are doing. Kids in Detroit know what kids
in Waco are doing. Kids in Waco know what kids in Brooklyn are doing. They know
what’s cool. Just because you’ve got billboards or a bunch of TV commercials or
radio spots, that doesn’t necessarily mean that those kids want to go see it. A
lot of times it’s about finding an organic, viral way to get a conversation
started about your content. It’s not necessarily about going out and spending a
bunch of money. I think the music industry has shown us that when Beyoncé can
drop an album without a lick of marketing, and the word gets out and everybody
flocks to buy it, you don’t necessarily have to have a bunch of traditional
marketing signifiers to tell people that they need to go to your movie.
How do you get that viral conversation going,
to find those people who are going to be the evangelists for your movie?
Well that’s the core of my producorial skill set: being able
to go out and connect with a specific audience. I can tell you, it all centers
around feeling organic and authentic and not feeling manufactured. Sometimes
the more money you spend, the more fake or manufactured your movie can
For me, it’s about finding content that
lends itself to sparking an organic social conversation. That’s something that
I do on all my projects, on all my platforms.
It’s essential. I started off as a grassroots marketer of my own
independent films. I still do that same thing to an extent today, even though
I’ve got big Hollywood studios behind me. There’s nothing more organic than
touching people. And the way that you touch people today is through their
smartphones, their tablets, their computers. That’s how you can reach people in
a real way. It’s not always some billboard or Hollywood advertisement.
It feels like we’ve circled back to the perils
of the Hollywood bubble, and how producers can break through that barrier.
Absolutely. I mean look, in my first year in television, I
got two shows on the air. That just doesn’t happen, and I don’t take that for
granted, right? But the true success is going to be when we keep those shows on
the air. It’s one thing to sell the show the way it needs to be sold to the
folks who are making the network schedule. It’s a completely different thing
when you talk about how those shows will be presented and consumed by your
audience. That’s where I always have to keep my eye on the ball.
* Photography: Drexina Nelson for Drexina
Nelson Photography; Hair: Reginald Doss; Grooming: Denise Tunnell; Styling:
Leah Taylor for Taylor-Ector Studios; Producer: Staci R. Collins Jackson for
The Collins Jackson Agency