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The Will Packer Interview: Why the Billion-Dollar Producer Is Still Hollywood’s Greatest Underdog

The business-first creative producer believes "the glacier is starting to move" for black creators, but success only stays if the struggle never stops.

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

Will Packer attends the 2018 Esquire “Mavericks of Hollywood” Celebration in Los Angeles, February 20

Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

Will Packer’s movies have grossed more than $1 billion worldwide, with 10 films that opened at number one. However, “a lot of people think I just popped up with Will Packer Productions,” Packer said. “They don’t know about the grind years and years and years before that.”

Packer made his first film, “Chocolate City,” when he was an engineering undergrad at Florida A&M University in 1994. (With a budget of $20,000, he served as both producer and star; said Packer, “I had to go and borrow money to buy 16 mm short ends.”) Scrappy indies led to direct-to-video “urban” features to low-budget genre titles like Beyonce’s fatal-attraction drama “Obsessed” (2009) and the Taraji P. Henson thriller “No Good Deed” (2014). The reviews were often unimpressive, but all were made for a price, all featured black casts, and all made money.

Today he leads his eponymous production company, with credits that include the “Ride Along” franchise as well as critically acclaimed titles like “Girls Trip,” “Straight Outta Compton,” and most recently “The Photograph” starring Issa Rae and LaKeith Stanfield. He works with black directors like Tim Story, F. Gary Gray, and Malcolm Lee, as well as Tina Gordon Chism and Stella Meghie. He’s also branched out into investigative documentaries “Atlanta Child Murders” and “Disappearance of the Millbrook Twins,” and digital-only programming like the upcoming Quibi project “Blackballed” and a live Twitter show, “Power Star Live.”

But perhaps his most impressive credits are the ones that don’t have names — the Untitled Will Packer projects that, by name alone, earn a slot on Universal’s upcoming slate. He says it’s possible that the time is coming for productions led by black creatives to not be a trend, or a welcome change, but simply the norm.

"The Photograph"

“The Photograph”

Universal

“I think that the glacier — which is the change in Hollywood — is finally starting to move,” he said. “This has been a very, very long time coming. It takes a long time for a dam to break. I love the fact that we’ve got so many different storytellers in the game now, telling their story from perspectives that normally Hollywood did not place a lot of value on.”

What follows is an extensive conversation with Packer, in which he tackles the virtues and drawbacks of doing every job, taking the blame, black parents, and attending his daughter’s cheer competitions. It has been edited for clarity.

INDIEWIRE: When I spoke to you guys way back, you were talking about approaching things from an underdog POV. Do you still feel like you’re an underdog?

WILL PACKER: In some respects. But in many others, I realize I can’t claim that anymore. Once you’ve had 10 number-one movies, it’s hard to say “woe is me, everybody underestimates me.” I’ll be honest with you, though, Tambay: It was better. I liked being underestimated. I liked it when every time the projections for one of my movies were low, because then I could exceed them. And with success comes those heightened expectations. I got to grind now as hard as I ever did. Right now, you can get attention, you can have a piece of content that people talk about. It can make money, even. (It’s) the sustainability. Those are the people I really respect.

How do you accomplish that? Is it a question of building a brand?

You can’t think that you know it all. You can’t think that because you had past success, that is a harbinger for future success. I think personally, I need to attack each project as if it’s my first. I have to attack it as if I need to learn the audience, pay attention to the audience, listen to the audience. I’ve got instincts and credibility that I’ve built up, and a brand that I’ve built up, but if I sit back and rely on that, I’m going to lose. I guarantee you. So I have to learn every time I go out, whether it makes a ton of money or little money. If you’re not constantly progressing, then you’re stagnant and the end is near.

Are you still having to chase projects or talent, are they now chasing you, or is a combination of both?

It’s both. I don’t just immediately get to the top. I got to go and pitch my project, pitch my case. I do have a track record. But I’m definitely still chasing talent, and I also do have a lot of folks that are coming to me, and I’m fortunate in that respect.

You’ve talked about having this sort of innate instinct. Where do you think that came from?

Having commercial instincts is a different skillset than having filmmaking instincts and creating great art. I think very early on in high school — shoot, elementary school — I was the guy running for class office. I was the guy that was selling stuff after school. I’ve always kind of had a business instinct.

When did you decide that film was something that you wanted to really do as a career?

It really happened after making that movie as students, “Chocolate City,” on the campus of FAMU, and having some success with that. We were able to get our peers, that demographic that we made the film for. They were excited. They were willing to pay for it. Prior to that, I was planning to go to Wharton and get my MBA. I wanted to go to Wharton for undergrad and my parents wouldn’t let me go because I had gotten this scholarship to major in engineering at FAMU, at a black college. And it was the best decision ever, because I made that first movie. (But) nobody in Hollywood gave a shit. Nobody would call us back. It was tough, but our demo that we made it for, they loved it. So I said, “Okay. This could be a business model.” Because that’s really how I was thinking about it: as a business model. I fell in love with the ability to tell stories along the way.

So it wasn’t like you were 12 or 13 years old and you were watching maybe a Spike Lee joint, and you discovered the spark or something?

No.

Not one of those.

Yeah, that’s not my story. No. I love those folks who were born to make movies and born to tell stories, do cinema. No. Man, I can’t even claim that. That wasn’t me. I was always a hard worker, I was always the straight-A kid, but movies is definitely something that was a business that I saw viability in, in college after making our first little movie.

And then your parents were on board from the beginning when you made that decision? I know how black parents can be at times.

This is the thing about black parents, great black parents. They tell you you can do anything. They tell you you can be anything. They instill you with confidence, right? But then when you actually believe them, and you go out there thinking you can fly, they’re like, “No, no, no, don’t jump. Don’t go fly.” That was my parents. They definitely instilled confidence in me early on that made me think, You know what? I can do this, damn it. No, I don’t know one person in Hollywood, I barely even know where Los Angeles is, but I can do anything. I can do it. And my parents were like, “Um, you will starve out there in that world. I have no idea what this means, to make movies. I know that you have an engineering degree. Why would you not go work in your field?” Especially my mom. You know black mamas. She wanted her baby to eat and be able to put clothes on his back, and drive a nice car, and have a house and a wife and a dog. She was like, “That is success. I don’t want you out there struggling.” And it was a struggle. It definitely was. I had two great middle-class parents that worked very, very hard from being lower-income families to being middle class, and they wanted to see me continue it, but not by doing some crazy artistic, movie-making dream. They wanted me to be an engineer. That felt safe.

"Girls Trip"

“Girls Trip”

Michele K. Short

You were in Tallahassee, Fla. You had to make a decision as to whether you were going to move to Hollywood or New York, but you chose Atlanta. Why did you make that decision?

Man, it felt like LA was so big, and New York was so big. Everybody in those cities were doing what myself and my partner, Rob Hardy, were trying to do. The music scene in Atlanta was on fire at the time. And we felt like, if we go to LA and New York, we didn’t go to film school, we don’t have the pedigree or the connections to walk into those huge markets with anything but our dream, like everybody else has. Atlanta, because of the music industry, we could have a symbiotic relationship. We can shoot promo videos and music videos, get some work along the way, and we would be one of a few filmmakers who would be based in that market at the time.

Half of that turned out to be true. Being one of the few filmmakers in Atlanta and forming our relationships and an infrastructure, that part worked. The part of us being able to work and eat off the music industry along the way was a total failure, because nobody wanted to hire us to do shit, just to be frank. We were the new guys from Tallahassee, we didn’t know anybody in that hip-hop world. They had their guys that were already doing their music videos and we weren’t in the club. So we got locked out. We would walk into Rowdy Records, or So So Def, or Organized Noize, or LaFace, and they’d be like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, we get it. You made a little movie, you got it real. Everybody’s got it real. We got our guys. Good luck.” Couldn’t get one video, man. Thank God we couldn’t though, because it forced us to make independent movies.

Have you ever considered directing?

You know what? I don’t have the desire to focus on the minutiae that you need to have to direct. I enjoy having multiple projects going at a time and being able to focus on the macro aspects of those projects. And as a director, you need to be all in on that particular project and the minutiae of that project. I have had some pretty significant directors who kind of see the way that I work on set as a creative producer and say, “You should consider directing. You should give it a try. You’ve got good instincts.” And I won’t rule out trying it at some point in my career, but right now, I have no desire to do it.

I want to hear how you describe what a creative producer does.

A lot of people really, truly don’t know what a producer does, even people in the industry. And a lot of people call themselves producers. Nobody’s going to give you a director credit unless you’re actually directing. Unless you actually wrote the words on the page, nobody’s going to call you the writer. Producer, eh. You got the producer, you got co-producer, executive producer, associate producer, people that are kind of in an ancillary way associated with the project. I have always been a creative producer who is working side by side with the director and the writer to help shape the vision — another set of eyes, another lens, another perspective. I also understand physical production. I have been the person who has done every job on the set. From boom, to focus puller, to craft services, usually because I couldn’t afford to hire somebody to do it. I’m also involved with the distribution, the marketing. If I pitched it, if I oversaw the production and got it made, how can I then just turn it over to people and then say, “All right, now you go sell it.” As a creative producer, I think it’s important that I am involved with every aspect of a film from concept to fruition.

Do you ever face pushback, given how much you want to be involved in the creative decisions?

No, that hasn’t been my experience. Hollywood is a place that loves to pass the buck. They love for everything to be somebody else’s fault. So if you’re somebody like me that’s willing to raise his hand and get in there, then I’m also the person that is easy to blame. So I don’t get pushback because they’re like, “Yeah, you get in here, you do this. Because if it doesn’t work out, it’s on you.” And Hollywood is very risk-averse like that.

I see you have 56 producer credits in about 25 years.

Wow. I didn’t even realize that. Geez. I am more of a CEO than I am a project to project producer that I once was, so I’m in a different place. I saw my dad work very, very hard in a corporate environment, and he never, ever missed a game of mine. He never missed a parent-teacher conference. He was always there for me and my sister. So I was like, that’s how it was done. You go to go out and slay the dragons in the world, but you always got to be present. I like to kind of tongue-in-cheek remind my family that if I didn’t spend so much time with them, I could be a much bigger producer. I always tell them that just to give them some guilt, but I think that is 1,000% true. I have definitely made a conscious decision to live outside of Hollywood, to be present for my family, to take time away when I could be pushing projects. I’m chasing my kids. I’m trying to be a good husband and father. I sleep. I take breaks. But I also do what it takes. So if I’m going to make all my daughter’s cheerleading competitions, and I still want to be a producer at a high level in Hollywood, I don’t have any days off. That’s just the tradeoff. I get it. Because I do have a background in electrical engineering, some of it to me is all like Xs and Os, and I approach it as a problem that needs to be solved. And it’s like, okay, what percentage of my time do I spend here, and what do I spend here, and what needs it the most, and what fire’s burning the brightest? Even in a creative industry, I’m still very analytical in the way I approach it.

Is there a Will Packer formula?

I always start with the audience. The majority of my projects have certainly been for consumer consumption, for ratings or box office. It’s not: What do I want, what do I want to see, what do my followers on Twitter think is cool. You have to think about that audience en masse. If there is a formula, it’s that. It is: What is the audience, where are they, what are they into, what would resonate with them, what’s the marketing? Then I do a cost-benefit analysis, because if I think the audience that I could realistically reach is not worth the effort it would take to reach them, I probably won’t do that project.

Do you care about awards, Oscars? Do you give a shit about any of that, especially at this point in your career?

I mean, here’s the deal. I am very satisfied with my career, and I haven’t won much of anything in terms of awards. There are projects that I am working on that I am passionate about that are more about them being important stories to tell than they are being big box-office movies. There are projects that I want to help facilitate getting made because I love what they say, what they represent. “The Photograph” is one of those. I have wanted to do a black love story for a very long time, and the goal was to show beautiful black love on the big screen. And that was the priority. After that was box office, or awards, or acclaim. And listen, there are some things that I think should win awards that if I do them right. And if they do, that would be great. But it’s not like I’m sitting around like, boy, if I don’t win an Oscar, if I don’t win an Emmy, if I don’t win an award, then my career is for shit. No. I’m good.

[The 2007 dance drama]“Stomp the Yard” was a breakthrough for you guys, right?

That was that moment where I got my calls returned. Before that weekend, I could leave my name on a phone sheet at some agent, executive, big-time creator’s voicemail or with their assistant, and know with 90% certainty that nobody was going to call me back. After “Stomp the Yard,” I still had to say, “the guy who made ‘Stomp the Yard.’” I needed that as my calling card, make no mistake. I couldn’t just say, “Will Packer.” They’d say, “Who?” But now not only did I get my calls returned, I was getting calls from people saying, “Hey. We’d like to be in business with you. You should be making movies over here.” Those are the kind of calls that I started getting literally after that weekend. One weekend, you can go from shit to sugar and sugar to shit real quick.

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover UsageMandatory Credit: Photo by Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock (5550491d)Aldis Hodge, Neil Brown Jr., Jason Mitchell, O'Shea Jackson Jr., Corey HawkinsStraight Outta Compton - 2015

“Straight Outta Compton”

Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock

“Straight Outta Compton” had been in development for, what, a decade?

Yeah. And by the way, “Ride Along,” too — seven, eight years. I’m very fortunate in that most of my stuff does not gestate that long. But that’s also very strategic, right? There are projects that I know I can get made, that I know there’s an audience for, that require a level of financing that I feel pretty confident I can get. I don’t have a lot that’s in development or turnaround that never see the light of day, because of the types of projects that I’m making.

What’s coming up? What has your attention?

We’re getting ready to shoot a pilot for “Night School,” which was the movie. obviously, with Kevin [Hart] and Tiffany [Haddish]. We are doing some more series for OWN. We have a dating show there called “Ready to Love” that is entering its next season. We have a new show that we haven’t even announced yet that is going to be coming on OWN in the fall. We’re shooting a movie on Wendy Williams with Lifetime. We’re doing another movie, which is a gospel choir competition movie called “Praise This,” that’s with Tina Gordon who did “Little.” I’ve got a new Kevin Hart, Malcolm Lee movie that we just announced that is going to production this year. I’ve got a new show called “Central Ave.” that is a weekly entertainment magazine show, but with an in-depth perspective on pop-culture topics from the perspective of people of color. And it’s hosted by two women of color, Julissa Bermudez and Sanya Richards-Ross, and Fox picked that up for the fall. So yeah, man, we’ve got stuff coming all across the board.

Is there maybe a Will Packer-Marvel movie collaboration coming up?

I don’t know that there’s a Marvel, but I’ll tell you this. I think there are going to be some Will Packer movies coming up that will surprise people. I don’t think I get pigeonholed into a genre per se, but I think that I have some stuff that is outside of that quote-unquote “urban” box. I have stuff that has global audiences in mind. I’m never going to make a movie with just all white people, but I think I can make a movie that is probably a lot more white than some of the movies I’ve made. But they’re still going to have a perspective and a lens that represents me and represents my perspective on the world.

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