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“Little” producer Will Packer on making entertainment for the “new American mainstream”

The hit-making film and television producer talks about the cultural importance of Atlanta, and making movies for black audiences and beyond.

“Little” producer Will Packer on making entertainment for the “new American mainstream”
[Photo: Ben Rollins]

Producer Will Packer’s films, such as the NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton, Tiffany Haddish’s breakout vehicle Girls Trip, and the dance drama Stomp the Yard, have generated more than $1 billion at the box office by making blockbusters that appeal to black audiences and beyond. His latest film, Little, starring Issa Rae and Black-ish‘s Marsai Martin, was coproduced by 14-year-old Martin, whom he worked with to develop and pitch the idea for a Big-in-reverse-style comedy.

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Fast Company: You’ve collaborated with a lot of powerful women over the years, including Tiffany Haddish, Queen Latifah, and Taraji P. Henson. Little showcases the talent of 14-year-old Marsai Martin, both behind and in front of the camera. She’s now the youngest person ever to have produced a Hollywood movie. What made you want to work with her?

Will Packer: This next generation of creatives is more comfortable with its voice than previous generations. They are more aware of their reach and their power. With the right leadership and guiding hand, the sky’s the limit for them. Marsai is a great example. She’s amazing in that she listens to me and allows me to give her advice. But she has a very clear idea of what she wants to do, and what her talents are. My job is to put her in a position to win.

FC: You broke into film in 1994 as an undergraduate at Florida A&M University by producing Chocolate City, a drama about a young man attending a historically black college. You spent $20,000 on the film, which became a local hit. What did you learn from that experience?

WP: There is a benefit to naïveté—you try everything and you’re fearless. As an industry veteran, I think you still have to be fearless, even when you know that certain things may not work. You have [to remember] that you wouldn’t be where you are if it wasn’t for bucking trends and doing things in a nontraditional way. I still have the philosophy that I have to attack this industry every day as if it’s my first movie and I’ve got something to prove.

FC: With Chocolate City, you tapped into an underserved audience that was hungry for films that spoke to their own experiences. Do you think the industry has changed its outlook on tailoring content for specific audiences?

WP: Being somebody who started off creating content for a niche audience, I was always feeling pressure from financiers, studios, distributors to bring the budgets down. But I understood how to get in under the hood and where to move the chips around in order to make [my films] palatable for a financier. This is before people realized how big and fruitful my niche could be. I don’t think anybody would say the urban—or new American mainstream—audience is some tiny niche now. Everybody knows that audience is a force to be reckoned with.

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FC: Lately, your movies, like Girls Trip, and your shows on OWN—which include the reality dating show Ready to Love and the family drama Ambitions—have focused on black women. You also acquired the popular black women’s lifestyle site xoNecole. How do you identify content that appeals to this segment of the population?

WP: In today’s environment of oversaturated content, if you’re not making a movie for a specific somebody then you damn sure better be making it for everybody. But that’s really, really hard to do. So I think about [a specific] audience member. I think about what she does, what she likes, what she wants to see, what she hasn’t seen, and how she likes to see herself. I think about how I can make something that feels really specific and organic to her. And the stories usually evolve from that. Girls Trip was based on Essence magazine’s annual music festival celebrating African-American culture and music. That was a real festival with real people, so it had a real texture to it.

Here’s How Will Packer Approached Five Of His High-Profile Films

FC: You are based out of Los Angeles and Atlanta, a major hub for black culture. Does having roots in Atlanta help your career?

WP: Living in Atlanta means I interact with my consumers daily. It gives me a leg up over my peers who don’t leave the Hollywood bubble very often. The [2012] movie Think Like a Man, which I produced and which was very successful, is based on Steve Harvey’s book Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man. I reached out to Steve [about the book] before it was a New York Times best seller. I was dropping my girlfriend off at the hair salon when I noticed somebody with the book—it had been passed along to her, and there were two other people waiting to read it. I saw a demand [for the book] in a way that’s not quantifiable, at least not in the ways that Hollywood usually thinks about intellectual property. Ultimately, the book caught fire and multiple studios reached out to Steve. But to his credit, he said, “Will Packer was the first to talk to me about turning it into a movie.”

FC: How important are reviews to you? Last year’s Breaking In, starring Gabrielle Union, took in more than $50 million at the box office on a $6 million budget, but has a 27% rotten score on Rotten Tomatoes.

WP: Ideally, you want that perfect nexus of critical acclaim and commercial success. But I am unashamedly thinking about my audience first. I’m thinking about what they’re going to enjoy. I’m not thinking about the critics. And with all the options out there, audiences vote with their dollars. And so looking at the profitability of a movie like Breaking In means we got something right.

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FC: How has your role as a producer evolved since you founded your upstart production company, Rainforest Films—which you began while you were in college—to your current company, Will Packer Productions?

WP: I am what I like to call a “real” Hollywood producer. I’ve actually done every role on-set. I’ve held the boom. I’ve wrangled the cables. I understand physical production. So I’m not just an idea guy—I’m also somebody who understands the full 360-degree process of the execution of an idea. Although I’m a macro person, I pay attention to the minutiae.

FC: You were a vocal supporter of Stacey Abrams’s and Andrew Gillum’s gubernatorial campaigns last year in Georgia and Florida, respectively. Would you ever consider doing a film about politics?

WP: I have done more of what I would consider escapist fare, [but] my content is not without messaging. We have such a dearth of content that showcases a variety of black [experiences] on the screen. I combat this every time I create something that flies in the face of all the old negative stereotypes that Hollywood used to put out around black people. My first No. 1 movie was [2007’s] Stomp the Yard. I wanted to make a movie that showed the impact and benefit of historically black colleges and universities. I still have [fans] today who tell me, “My kid wants to go to college, or wants to go to a black college, because they watched Stomp the Yard.” That, to me, is the ultimate impact.

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About the author

KC covers entertainment and pop culture for Fast Company. Previously, KC was part of the Emmy Award-winning team at "Good Morning America," where he was the social media producer.

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