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WILL PACKER: Atlanta? Los Angeles? Doesn't matter. His audience will follow him anywhere

Posted By Chris Green, Monday, August 10, 2015

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 at Universal.

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 independent film?

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 engineering.

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 movie.

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.

Talking about 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, y’know, super-white.

[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.

speaking 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.

For producers 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 really good.

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.

Considering 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 feel.

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

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