Will Packer knows how to pick a winning team.
And you’re about to see his team win the game: big time. Of the five movies that the swagger-spilling native of St. Petersburg, Florida, has on deck in the next 12 months, four star Hollywood’s newest Mr. Funnyman, Kevin Hart (call Hart the DiCaprio to Packer’s Scorsese). While that may seem like the ultimate hand, the other film features 2014 Golden Globe nominee Idris Elba. Talk about having a nose for talent. Seriously. Let’s talk about it.
Over his 20-year career, Packer’s films have grossed $350 million.
Six years ago, Variety called the 39-year-old one of the “Ten Producers to Watch.” For real reasons, over his 20-year career, Packer’s films have grossed $350 million. Last year’s Battle of the Year, about the competitive dance scene, put troubled R&B star and actor Chris Brown back on the map. The year before that, his breakout romantic comedy Think Like a Man, based on radio and TV show host Steve Harvey’s best-selling relationship book Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man pulled in $95 million. All on a piddling production budget of $12.5 million.
Those are big numbers coming from a short guy, with a cool-as-a-fan attitude (and loud-as-a-fire-engine voice, when necessary). This demeanor is his calling card for when he sells actors, directors, writers and industry executives on his visions of greatness — especially when they don’t immediately see what his sharp nose sniffs out.
Friends call him “Will Power,” and power he has: He’s succeeded in conveying the experiences of black Americans, from all shades, ages and social backgrounds, and telling their full stories, so rarely told elsewhere. The upcoming 2014 projects hits those marks and set up Packer for a crossover year that will add to his millions in earnings (where’s that billion?) and merge into a solid mainstream base.
“’I’ve got a knack for winning’ — I’m going to put that on a T-shirt,” Packer laughs into the phone. It’s the day after Christmas and he’s taking a break from his fiancée, Heather Hayslett, and family to discuss his upcoming film, the action-comedy Ride Along opening Jan. 17 and starring Hart and Ice Cube, the iconic rapper and a movie producer in his own right. It’s the wild adventure of a street-tough detective (Cube) who takes his overeager security guard brother-in-law (Hart) out on a 24-hour assignment.
“Kevin is a consummate professional, and we both get that you have to put in the work,” says Packer. “He’s tireless, he’s focused, and he’s a machine. And so am I. We sit and talk about plans for three movies beyond the movie we’re working on, and each movie will be a steppingstone to the next movie, the next one after that and so on.”
Packer got his start in movies in 1994, partnering with fellow Florida A&M University buddy and writer/director Rob Hardy to form Rainforest Films. The Atlanta-based production company hit it big in 2000, when it booked the first million-dollar box office–selling black independent film, the urban cult hit Trois. The erotic thriller, starring Gary Dourdan of CSI fame and model Kenya Moore, struck a chord with the masses previously deprived of seeing African Americans in deadly love triangles.
African Americans have become more sophisticated about choosing the content available to them.
— Will Packer
“When you first start out, the studio wants to ascertain what you’re good at,” he explains. “What’s the thing you will be known for?” Packer became known for speaking to an African American audience that was still being underserved and misunderstood. It wasn’t just the churchgoing urbanites who made Tyler Perry’s plays and movies so successful, but also a new group of affluent yet grounded and educated folks who wanted to be entertained by stories they could relate to on a personal level.
And Packer has stayed in touch with his ever-changing audience by presenting various sectors of urban life and issues through his projects. There was the scandalous sex plot line of Trois; the dysfunctional family values of This Christmas, to the deep documentary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s fraternity days, Packer knows how to capture the mind, and then the soul, of those who understand his project’s themes.
But it wasn’t always smooth ride. And the wrinkles don’t come where you’d expect them. “I consider Stomp the Yard to be my greatest failure,” Packer muses. Which is a funky thing to say, seeing as Stomp the Yard was his first No. 1 box office smash, spending two weeks at the top and earning more than $70 million. The 2007 drama, which features Columbus Short, certainly wasn’t a commercial failure. His side of the story: “When I went out to pitch Stomp the Yard, every single studio told me no. No one wanted to make a film about black college life, stepping or fraternities and sororities.” Instead of caving, the Alpha Phi Alpha member honed his pitching skills and shaped the idea into something he could sell. “I never let go of the Stomp the Yard dream. But it was all of those initial failures that allowed me to reposition myself and bring you the movie that ultimately became a success.”
That same determination has helped Packer focus his various projects. “African Americans have become more sophisticated about choosing the content available to them. It used to be that simply having a black face on screen was enough to bring them out. But now with reality TV and so many different content options, there’s so many opportunities to see black faces — that’s no longer enough.”
What does help the viewer’s appetite in between creative downtime is the social-networking boom that connects people to their favorite famous entertainers. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and the like share the previously unseen private personalities of stars in leisure mode. “Celebrities used to be celebrities because you didn’t know anything about them,” Packer says. ”They were mysterious, far-off, unreachable, manufactured icons.” This particular shift works to the favor of Packer’s current star, Kevin Hart. “Now a celebrity is a celebrity because you know everything about them, and that’s great for Kevin, who’s entertaining and engaging all of the time. People can’t get enough of him.”
Next up, close on the heels of Ride Along, Packer is planning a Valentine’s Day release of the romantic comedy About Last Night, also starring Hart. Adapting David Mamet’s obscure stage play Sexual Perversity in Chicago is a bold move for Packer, who was drawn to the smart, sardonic material.
So now, 2014 looks like Packer’s year to win, he’s never cranked them out this fast before, but he’s sure to, armed with his trademark Brixton news cap, ever so tilted to the side. The whirlwind schedule for 2014 includes the sequel Think Like a Man Too; Idris Elba’s lead in the crime thriller No Good Deed; and promotion for another Hart comedy, early 2015’s The Wedding Ringer. He’s also moving full steam ahead on a two-year production deal that the newly formed Will Packer Productions recently signed with Universal Television.
“My first internship (with trailblazing producer Warrington Hudlin) taught me that you have to earn your position each step of the way,” he says. “In this business, people will try to define your success for you. They tell you if you’re good enough to produce a project, smart enough to direct it, attractive enough to act in it or have the skill set to write it.” He pauses, and then continues.
“But if you don’t decide what success is for yourself, you will forever be chasing the validation of others.”
Maybe the T-shirt should say ”I’ve Got a Knack for Learning” instead.
Why you should care
The box office beast known as Will Packer is attacking Tinseltown from every angle this year. Be ready. Be very ready.