I make no bones about my admiration for Will Packer, a 1991 St. Petersburg High School graduate now recognized as one of Hollywood's savviest producers.
Nine years ago, Packer and his Rainforest Films partner Rob Hardy arrived at the St. Petersburg Times without an appointment, asking if I'd listen to an idea that they admitted sounded crazy.
The former Florida A&M roommates had a feature film — the sexy thriller Trois — they planned to personally distribute, bypassing the traditional system by striking deals with theaters primarily serving African-American moviegoers. Nobody had tried that since Oscar Micheaux barnstormed movies in the 1930s. I agreed that it sounded crazy but just might work.
Trois opened on 20 screens nationwide yet posted a higher per-screen average of ticket sales than any movie that weekend. Trois eventually became the fastest independent black film to reach $1 million at the box office. Sony noticed, signing Rainforest Films to a development and distribution deal under its Screen Gems banner.
Since then, Packer's nine productions include the chart-topping hit Stomp the Yard and the dramedy This Christmas. His 10th movie, Obsessed, opens Friday, starring Beyonce Knowles as a wife whose husband (Idris Elba) has an affair with a co-worker (Ali Larter).
Coming in 2010: the crime thriller Takers, starring Matt Dillon and Paul Walker, and an African-American remake of The Big Chill.
Variety magazine named Packer, 35, one of its Top 10 producers to watch in 2007, and he regularly appears on lists of Hollywood's most influential and successful African-Americans.
Packer dreams it and then does it, and that's to be respected. Recently, we talked on the telephone about working with Beyonce, why success hasn't changed him, and the best way to keep his mother happy:
Obsessed marks the first non-musical dramatic role for Beyonce Knowles. Was she the diva folks would expect?
She was a pleasant surprise, brother. It's one of those things where you don't know what you're going to get. As a producer, whose job is making sure everything goes smooth, you never know what bringing in a star like that will do. But her work ethic is out of this world. She wants to be taken seriously as an actor. This role gives her the chance to do something she hasn't done before, that her fans haven't seen.
Any worries about remaking a classic movie like The Big Chill?
Absolutely! With a remake, you can only go wrong. You either can't do it better than the original, or you do and people say: 'What do you expect? The original was a great movie.' You can't let fear stop you, but you have to be aware of it. I'm really putting myself in a position of risk. But if I never did that I wouldn't be where I am today.
(Obsessed) has the biggest budget I've ever handled, and the next one's budget is even bigger. That means bigger expectations and responsibilities. I'm trying to continually raise the bar. I'm looking for that sweet spot of critical success and commercial viability.
What has success changed about the Will Packer who grew up in St. Petersburg?
When I visit St. Pete, go to church or whatever, friends tell me: 'Man, you're the same old Will.' I like to think that's true. The industry hasn't beaten me down. I'm not jaded. . . .
I think I've probably honed some of the skill sets that I learned growing up in good old Pinellas County. . . . I'm a lot more of a businessman now, so I think with a business mind.
Your mother (Birice Packer) was proud when you made The Gospel because it was the first time she felt comfortable taking members from her church to see one of your movies. Now you have Obsessed, which looks like a throwback to Trois.
Yes, but Trois was a hard R, and Obsessed is PG-13. But it's a sexual thriller, so I know what you mean. Mama's still proud of me. I'm taking her to the premiere with Beyonce. That helps. As long as I get her on the red carpet, I'm in my mama's good graces.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.
Obsessed offers pop diva Beyonce Knowles her first movie role that doesn't involve singing, so it's safe to say that a lot is riding on this.
Overshadowed by Jennifer Hudson in Dreamgirls and ignored for her volcanic portrayal of blues legend Etta James in Cadillac Records, Knowles has proven she has acting chops. Fans buying her CDs and idolizing her style just don't seem to care.
Knowles plays Sharon Charles, happily married to Derek (Idris Elba) until he's seduced by a temp (as in Ali Larter's temptations) at the office. Flirting leads to canoodling and then remorse for Derek, leading to Fatal Attraction-style stalking by the lovestruck co-worker.
Obsessed is the latest film produced by St. Petersburg native Will Packer, interviewed in the story above, harkening the sexual intrigue of his breakout hit, Trois. The movie wasn't screened by a Times critic in time for a Weekend review.