ETI: ETI had the opportunity to sit down with producer Will Packer two weeks ago, just days after Universal slotted a bunch of “untitled Will Packer Movie” releases. As such, we talked about Will Packer Media, a changing Hollywood landscape, so-called cross-over appeal and balancing big ambitions with responsible budgets. Without further ado…
ETI: By the way, congratulations. You are apparently now a brand. You are now successful enough that Universal is dating movies just saying, “Untitled Will Packer Film.”
Will Packer: It’s surreal for a kid from St. Pete, Florida, who didn’t know where Hollywood was. But it’s kind of cool that the studio is exhibiting confidence in the relationship and the partnership, as they should because it’s been very fruitful. It says two things.
It says, one, “We think it’s a brand that that alone will let people know potentially the type of film that’s coming, and that the studio is serious about what they’re going to put behind it.” And, two, it says that the studio is committed to creating those projects with me, which is good.
ETI: How is your relationship (with the studios) changed as, comparatively speaking, we stopped pretending to be surprised when movies like this did well?
Packer: It’s changed in the same way that any content creator that has now proven that they can consistently reach an audience does. It’s so hard these days to reach an audience in any form, on any platform, because there is so much fragmentation of the audience and there’s so much saturation of content. Some people can reach an audience every now and then. Very few people can consistently reach an audience. When you can do that, there is real value that the studios recognize because it is so difficult.
I never minded outperforming expectations. But as somebody who makes content that oftentimes has people of color in front of the camera and behind, but has themes that are different than other themes out there, it makes me feel good that now there’s a different perception of projects that may have an all-black cast.
ETI: What are your opinions on the idea of demographic crossover versus, basically, making a movie that doesn’t really need to crossover if it appeals to the specific demographic? To what extent do they need to crossover as long as the budget is reasonable and, frankly, for stuff that you make, the African-American audience shows up?
Packer: It’s really about the economics at play. When people said, “The Wedding Ringer was a crossover vehicle,” you and I know both know it meant, “Oh, potentially more white people will go see this movie than black people.”
It matters because at that time a Kevin Hart movie was probably being green-lit at a certain number and with a certain expectation of return and with a certain amount of resources being put towards it, and all of that lined up with what an African-American domestic audience could bear.
Now, if you are strategic about what you’re making the movie for, meaning how much it cost and the resources you’re using to release it, then, no, it doesn’t matter. Because green is green and dollars are dollars.
If you’re smart about what you are making, what you’re spending to make it, and you know you can deliver that audience, then a hit is a hit is a hit. Now, it may not be a grand slam. It may be a double or a triple, but you can win the game with doubles and triples, right?
If I’m making a movie about people taking a trip to Vegas to go get married, like Think Like a Man Too, then I don’t need $50 million to make that movie. But if I’m making something about Vibranium in Wakanda, I need a lot more, and so I need to be able to justify the audience that’s going to come to that movie on a broader level.
ETI: Have you had an easier go of it in the last few years as, quite frankly, films like Girls Trip or Think Like a Man Too have been more expected to be hits?
Packer: It’s a double-edged sword, right, because with success comes expectations. I welcome that. I want the success and I want the increased expectations, and so what happens is that the bar continues to get raised and so now if I have a movie that doesn’t open to $20 million+, which most of mine do, there’s a comparison that can be made and it would be less successful than, let’s say, the average Will Packer movie.
But if I’m given the resources, I can compete. I just want to be able to compete with my peers on the same level. I’ve never released a film that wasn’t profitable, and so it’s very, very hard for a financier or a studio to say, “We’re only going to give a certain level of support behind your films.”
There was an advantage, I will admit, to that whole coming out of nowhere thing. It used to make me laugh when I’d see those headlines … when nobody expects much, it’s a whole lot easier to come out of nowhere. Once the expectations are higher, you’ve got to deliver, but I welcome that.
ETI: How do you decide what to focus on? You are, I would argue, one of the better known, at this point, producers. As someone who is one of the main purveyors of what I would consider crowd-pleasing, multiplex-friendly, African-American targeted genre films, how do you decide what gets your attention?
Packer: I’m, like a lot of creators, always thinking about how we hit that sweet spot between commercial and critical success and, for me, critical success isn’t necessarily about a Rotten Tomatoes score. It’s more about the way that a piece of content resonates with an audience. Not just that they will spend a bunch of money and buy popcorn to go see it, but also that there is a true deeper resonance with the audience and a deeper connection with the audience.
So, I’m thinking specifically about who that audience is. I’m also thinking about are there ways that like a Girls Trip, it is something that will be owned by the primary core audience that I made it for but will not feel exclusive, will not feel so inside baseball that people outside of that audience won’t be able to relate to it and won’t be able to enjoy it. And then thinking about, “Is there a world where we can broaden out from there?”
ETI: Is there a temptation to try to roll the dice for more expensive films now that you have a track record?
Packer: Sure, and I will. But I have to be honest, I like going into my opening weekends knowing that from a business perspective there is a reasonable number I need to hit to be “successful.”
ETI: This is the part where I let you plug Will Packer Media.
Packer: I launched Will Packer Media because I was having success on the feature film side, wanted to expand into television, hadn’t done anything in non-scripted, had taken some swings at scripted. I wanted to do things in the digital space and in the branded content space, and I saw that my audience was consuming content across all those platforms, and I realized that for me to be successful in today’s environment, I can’t only look at content one way. If we’ve got a hat company and somebody brings us an amazing design for a shoe, we’re going to be trying to figure out how to put it on your head.
ETI: Your next project, movie-wise, anyway, Breaking In…
Packer: It’s kind of a reverse home invasion thriller with Gabrielle Union. Gab must break into a highly fortified house to save her family from the bad guys that are locked in the house with the kids.
ETI: I noticed a couple of years ago, and Screen Gems doesn’t put as many of these as they used to, but you saw, what I would argue, were 1990’s-style, star-driven potboilers that used to star, basically, a lot of white people. And now we’re getting black actors, black casts, and are appealing to the very audiences that maybe felt neglected back in the proverbial olden days. Is that something that you might dip your toe in again? Or this just a script that you like for a movie you wanted to make?
Packer: I like this concept and I like the pairing of this concept with an amazing actor like Gab. It was more about the specific opportunity with this project. You got to have something that makes yours different, that gives it a reason for being made to get people’s attention, and through the 80s and 90s, you had a lot of women in peril or family in peril. Just like domestic thrillers and all that, and they all were starring white people.
And then it came to the point where so many of them had been done, and then they started being done very, very cheaply and they were pushed to kind of like late night basic cable realm, and so if you didn’t have that kind of movie starring some big, big star, it didn’t feel elevated. Well, that wasn’t true when you talked about black stars because you hadn’t seen that movie with Idris Elba or Taraji Henson or Michael Ealy or Gabrielle Union.
Same thing is true with different genres and sub-genres of content where you haven’t seen them optically the way that they could be made now. By the way, I think the same thing is true of a lot of different demographics. Not just African-American actors. Latino actors, Asian-American actors, gay actors.
Hollywood has, for so long, just been like the bastion of white males. A system built on white male patriarchy. Everything was done through that prism. Well, it’s not the same now and now Hollywood is understanding that, “You know what, we’ve gotta make content that looks like the world and we’ve gotta make content that feels like the world in which we live and organically speaks to the audiences, which look like everything.”
ETI: Well, it almost stinks for you now that Hollywood is catching on because you’re not gonna be the only game in town anymore.
Packer: That’s okay though because it means that there’ll be other Will Packers. In most rooms that I go into, I’m still usually the only non-white person in the room and there are not a lot of women in those rooms. (So if) somebody is able to walk into a room and go, “Hey, I’ve got something and it’s like Girls Trip with a Think Like a Man/Ride Along vibe,” and they get a green light, then that’s amazing. That’s exactly what progression looks like.
ETI: What genres have you not toiled with that you would like to?
Packer: I do have a real interest in sci-fi. Those are the types of films that I enjoy. I am going to do more in a kind of like the darker horror kind of space. I’ll never get away from comedy. I’m open to everything, but sci-fi is something that is personally interesting to me that typically the way it has historically been done would push it outside of my normal budget range. It’s not to say that there are not smart ways to do it. Or to do human-driven films with a sci-fi element, like The Shape of Water.
ETI: Well, thank you very much. I really enjoyed this. Just for the record, we should note that (Kevin Hart and Tiffany Haddish’s) Night School and I’ve practiced in the mirror my “shocked and surprised” face. I will be ready to be shocked and surprised when that opens well.
Packer: There you go.
ETI: Because I certainly can’t see that coming.
Packer: You and I have got our faux shocked and surprised faces ready and lined up so that we can sit next to the rest of mainstream media and not look out of place.
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