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Cinema’s Billion-Dollar Man Finally Has Hollywood’s Attention

Bloomberg logoBloomberg 9/25/2020 Kelly Gilblom

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- With the world in an upheaval in recent months, movie producer Will Packer has had a special sort of sanctuary he can visit in his own home. It looks like a cinema, with lush red drapes and movie posters lining the wall. But these posters, for films that Packer has produced including Girls Trip and Stomp the Yard, aren’t just wall art. They’re a reminder of just how far he’s come over the past two decades. Back then, without industry connections or a film school degree, the graduate of an historically Black college on the other side of the country couldn’t get studio execs to look at his proposals or even return his calls. Today, he’s Hollywood’s version of a unicorn: a person of color whose movies have made more than $1 billion at the box office.

“This is kind of my room of validation,” he says over Zoom on a rainy Thursday in his hometown of Atlanta. “Because I’ve got my posters and I can screen movies and stuff, and it’s like, OK, you know what? You’ve done all right.”

Packer is ambitious, sharp, and ferociously competitive (“I will not be outhustled,” he says), and he confidently declares he was always bound to succeed. He’s not happy that it’s still a rarity when a Black person can transform those ambitions into business success. But Packer says he’s an optimist, and this year has made him more hopeful that things are changing. After George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, was killed by police in Minneapolis on camera in May, the wind shifted. White and Black people linked arms in protest across the nation, and Hollywood’s gatekeepers started to look at systemic racial inequality with an unprecedented sense of urgency.

Cops—the reality television series that presented law enforcement’s arrests of suspects, often people of color, as entertainment for the masses—was canceled after 31 years on air amid a backlash against police brutality. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which awards the Oscars, declared it won’t consider films for best picture that don’t meet certain “inclusion thresholds,” starting in 2024. And the entertainment industry has commissioned panels to investigate why only a quarter of lead characters last year were people of color and 93% of studio executives are White.

Packer’s individual journey, from a college kid who had to look up what a movie producer does to a multimillionaire mogul, doesn’t provide all the answers. But it does offer some lessons for a business finally ready to talk about equality.

It may have been math class that prepared Packer for a career in Hollywood. He has what he describes as an “analytical mind,” and he usually found himself in honors courses in his St. Petersburg, Fla., high school. He was good with numbers, but he didn’t need to be to calculate the number of Black kids usually in his company: zero. “My parents told me early on, ‘Don’t look at that as a bad thing,’ ” he says. “ ‘And don’t use that as an excuse to say that everybody’s against you or thinking something negative about you. It might be, but you got their attention, and you stand out. So now you’ve got an advantage that those other kids don’t have.’ ”

Florida A&M University, an historically Black college in Tallahassee, definitely noticed and offered Packer a scholarship to study electrical engineering in 1991. He had his heart set on the University of Pennsylvania, believing its prominent Wharton business program could help him realize his entrepreneurial aspirations, but his parents urged him to take the money.

Packer wasn’t thinking about a career in Hollywood, and he didn’t have filmmaking idols growing up. However, his friend and fraternity brother Rob Hardy did. Hardy wanted to be the next Spike Lee, and he wanted Packer to help. Undeterred that they didn’t know how they’d get a camera or how lighting was supposed to work on film, or that they’d have to go begging for $20,000 to finance a project, they made a movie.

Chocolate City starred their FAMU classmates and told the story of life on campus. Packer invited every Hollywood studio executive he could think of to a screening, none of whom came or even responded. But in Tallahassee, theaters sold out, raking in $100,000 in ticket sales. “I said, ‘That’s a five times multiple any way you count it.’ I don’t know what they’re gonna teach me at Wharton, but this right here, you know, it’s on-the-job training,” he recalls. “And so I said, ‘I’m gonna go for it.’ ”

Packer and Hardy decided to set up their shop, Rainforest Films, in Atlanta, where they wouldn’t have to compete with the “big fish” of Los Angeles. That was, after all, “the place where whenever I sent something, it died,” he explains. Plus, thanks to artists such as TLC, Outkast, and Toni Braxton, the Atlanta music scene was burgeoning. A film production company that could propel those artists to music video stardom was bound to succeed, he figured.

Wrong. Although fledgling, the music video industry in Atlanta already had its own big fish, and Rainforest didn’t win a single contract. That led Packer and Hardy in 2000 to make another independent film, this one targeting African-American movie lovers who weren’t seeing their stories told in cinemas.

Their vehicle: Trois, an erotic thriller starring an all-Black cast. There was nothing else like it on the market. Trois became a minor hit, generating $1.3 million in ticket revenue on a $250,000 budget. More importantly, it outperformed some movies released at the same time by big Hollywood studios that had ignored Packer and his partners for years.

The low-budget release’s success made Hollywood take notice. One day, in the corner of the three-bedroom house that contained Rainforest Films’ global headquarters, a phone rang. Packer picked it up, and an executive from Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc. was on the other end, asking to speak to the producer of Trois, which he badly mispronounced. Packer was so taken aback that he pretended to be an administrative assistant, telling the caller, “Mr. Packer isn’t available right now.” After he and Hardy did a small victory dance, he called the executive back, surprised and pleased, but clear-eyed about why he’d finally made an inroad.

“Sony called because I was making money without them. That’s how Hollywood works,” he says. “If you want to get Hollywood’s attention, you go out and make money without Hollywood.”

Sony went on to distribute more films from Rainforest, including Stomp the Yard, a 2007 movie about step competitions set at a fictional historically black college. It opened at No. 1 at the box office on its opening weekend, ending a streak by 20th Century Fox’s Night at the Museum. From there, Packer’s career took off, and he continued to churn out hits with bigger and bigger stars. His films Straight Outta Compton, Takers, and Obsessed all were the nation’s most popular releases on their opening weekends. And their success brought other people along for the ride, helping propel the careers of Tiffany Haddish, Kevin Hart, and Idris Elba.

Any notion of being quiet about politics and letting his financial success speak for itself is gone after the events of 2020, Packer says. When the Floyd video hit the internet, he got calls from practically every White person he knows, he says, only partly joking. The conversations, while welcome, were exhausting. But he says that he feels an additional responsibility compared to a White movie producer, who can more easily focus on the work itself, rather than also having to act as an ambassador for a whole race. “I can’t go out and just be a producer that behaves recklessly and just says, ‘Look, but I’m successful, look at me,’ ” he says. “No, because I may be the only Black producer that makes a movie for a particular studio or a financier that year. Maybe in the last few years.”

He worries that his mistakes will slam the door shut on the next Black filmmaker, leaving him with the sense he has no room for either professional or personal missteps.

“That’s being a high-achieving Black person in America,” he says. “Any Black person that has achieved a certain level of success feels that way and feels that pressure.”

Perhaps what Packer is most proud of is that there’s a genuine Black community in Hollywood, and it’s expanding. As Black Lives Matter protests filled the streets, he was one of more than 20 filmmakers and entertainers interviewed for a piece in the Los Angeles Times, including such notables as Ava DuVernay, Cynthia Erivo, and John Ridley. Brandon Lawrence, an agent at Creative Artists Agency, summarized the moment in his comment to the newspaper: “Going back to the prior days when we were taking it on the chin, frankly, that is not going to fly anymore.”

Packer’s latest work is a reflection of the shift. Blackballed, his docuseries released in May by mobile phone video service Quibi Holdings LLC, interviewed Los Angeles Clippers players and managers about the 2014 playoffs, when racist comments from team owner Donald Sterling were leaked. He’s also producing a sports drama called One and Done, which imagines what it would have been like if one of the top high school basketball players attended an HBCU rather than a traditional Division 1 university.

He’s happy that such content, unapologetically highlighting Black culture, is being more welcomed. “Even in a moment where our country is more polarized than perhaps ever before, and is in a dark place when it comes to the way that folks from marginalized communities are being treated, I still think this is an opportunity,” he says, before adding, “if we don’t let it go to waste.”

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