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‘Night School’: As Will Packer Scores His Tenth Box Office Hit, Here’s the Secret to His Success

The producer is achieving mainstream success by doing the impossible: making movies starring black actors, directed by black filmmakers. And he's just getting started.

Will Packer attends the 2018 Esquire "Mavericks of Hollywood" Celebration at Sunset Tower Hotel, in Los Angeles2018 Esquire "Mavericks of Hollywood" Celebration, Los Angeles, USA - 20 Feb 2018

Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

With the $28 million opening of Kevin Hart-Tiffany Haddish comedy “Night School” last weekend, producer Will Packer scored his tenth first-place box office opening. He’s a success story that stands out at a time when issues surrounding inclusivity and diversity are a cause célèbre, as the Hollywood machine faces steadfast criticism for its shortcomings on those fronts. Collectively, Packer’s films have earned a box office lifetime gross of over $1.2 billion, topping even the prolific Tyler Perry — a fellow African American director-producer with a similar ethos with respect to producing and distributing content. So what’s Packer’s secret?

It’s a formula that the seasoned producer honed very early in his career, with indie efforts like the 2000 erotic thriller “Trois”: relatively low- to moderately-budgeted films, targeting specific audiences that have been historically ignored by the studio system. “Trois” was made on a $250,000 budget, and grossed over $1.3 million in a very limited release. It was boosted by a barebones, grassroots marketing effort that Packer has come to refer to as having a “ground attack,” complementing the “aerial attack,” or more traditional advertising that includes all the perks that come with studio pictures with higher advertising budgets.

Packer has required his actors travel to attend advanced screenings of his movies and engage directly with fans; he also targets online tastemakers, including niche blogs like the black woman-centric website Hello Beautiful, which was recruited to generate excitement among black women for 2017’s box office hit “Girls Trip.”

“Trois” was directed by Rob Hardy, with whom Packer once ran the now-defunct Rainforest Films, which they founded as college students in 1994. Half of Packer’s 20-film resume originated from this company, until it was dissolved in 2014. Soon after, the producer launched Will Packer Productions, expanding his output into television and inking a multi-year first-look production agreement with Universal. He would immediately leave a mark with the first film produced under that agreement, uniting Kevin Hart and Ice Cube for the 2014 action-comedy “Ride Along,” an unexpected blockbuster made for $25 million that would go on to gross over $134 million domestically. That success made the case for Hart as a new A-lister — and now, he has starred in six of the last 11 movies that Packer has produced.

Hart has become a key member of what could be collectively called the “Packer Pack” — a select group of black actors and directors that the producer routinely brings into the fold. That team also includes actresses Gabrielle Union, Regina Hall, and Taraji P. Henson, actors Romany Malco and Michael Ealy, and directors Tim Story and Malcolm D. Lee, who helmed three of Packer’s last five movies; they’re among a short list of mostly black directors who have directed the majority of Packer’s films (a noteworthy statistic at a time when industry studies continue to reveal a dearth of opportunities for black directors at the studio level). Joining the Packer Pack is rising star Haddish, who starred in “Girls Trip” and “Night School,” alongside Hart — a potent one-two punch for Packer to package in future films.

Splitting his time between Los Angeles and Atlanta — otherwise known as “Hollywood South,” thanks in part to Tyler Perry making it his domain — the 44-year-old Packer’s seemingly boundless energy for his work is contagious. His success as one of the most prominent African American producers in Hollywood belies that critics aren’t always kind to his films, although recent titles like “Girls Trip,” “Straight Outta Compton” (which he executive-produced) and “About Last Night,” are exceptions.

But it’s not uncommon for critics and audiences to be divided on commercial hits. A relentless marketer, Packer’s films are profitable, even those that aren’t breakouts like “Girls Trip.” He knows his audience, how and where to reach them, and how to satisfy them. He’s often done so without the kind of significant marketing budgets allocated to the typical studio tentpole. With three movies in the last four years passing the symbolic $100 million mark at the box office, he’s clearly found a formula that works, achieving mainstream success by doing what has typically been believed to be nearly impossible — making movies with primarily black casts and black directors. And Hollywood is certainly paying attention.

In 2017, Packer set his sights on the small screen and the web, launching Will Packer Media, which is backed by Universal Pictures and Discovery Communications, under which the producer will develop television shows and digital series, as well as advertising campaigns. On the newly-formed company’s slate is what could be Packer’s most provocative project yet: an alternative history TV series that he’s developing with “The Boondocks” creator Aaron McGruder for Amazon Studios, which imagines a post-Civil War America in which African Americans form a separate nation-state as reparations for slavery. Will Packer Media is also developing material for Discovery’s OWN, and recently inked a first-look deal with Oprah Winfrey’s OWN Network, with two series already in the works. So it’s safe to say that despite his many successes, Packer’s just getting started.

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