By Steve Persall
Times Film Critic
Filmmakers typically spend opening weekends anxiously awaiting box office numbers. Not producer William Packer, who will visit his hometown St. Petersburg while his new movie, Takers (PG-13), debuts nationwide.
Packer is a St. Petersburg High School graduate who barnstormed Hollywood a decade ago with Trois, an erotic thriller that succeeded without a traditional distribution deal. Packer's Rainforest Films has since produced the No. 1 box office hits Stomp the Yard and Obsessed, starring Beyoncé Knowles.
"I'm already claiming (Takers) as my third No. 1," Packer said in a telephone chat from his Atlanta office.
Packer returns Saturday morning, visiting family and joining a youth empowerment workshop at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Later that evening, he'll host the church's Torch Awards honoring community leaders. Packer has rented a theater at BayWalk 20 that evening to share Takers with the participants.
Takers features a gang of bank robbers (Paul Walker, Idris Elba, Hayden Christensen, Michael Ealy and singer Chris Brown) whose cohesiveness is threatened when a former accomplice (Tip "T.I." Harris) gets out of prison. The parolee suggests an armored car holdup that can net a cool $20 million. In their way are two dogged detectives (Matt Dillon, Jay Hernandez).
Find a review of Takers at tampabay.com/features, and Friday on Etc, Page 2B.
After specializing in films geared to African-American audiences, Takers is Packer's first legitimate shot at crossover success, which is where the conversation began.
Are you hoping to expand your brand to a wider and whiter audience with Takers?
No question. As a filmmaker you don't want to be pigeonholed. I'm on the producer's side of the game, so I certainly understand the economic imperative. It was important to have talent in there that would open it up beyond just an African-American audience. . . . I'm just trying to find that sweet spot between commercial viability and critical success.
Is it easier now to get films made for African-American audiences than when you started?
I think so. It's an interesting time. You've got Tyler Perry, who has had a tremendous amount of success. Myself and (Rainforest partner) Rob (Hardy) have been very blessed. There aren't a whole lot of other voices right now but they're coming. What we've been able to do — and Tyler, albeit with very different approaches to filmmaking — is to show the power of that audience at the box office. . . . That's how Hollywood works; they're reactive, not proactive. If something works you'll see more of it.
Are you still working on a black version of The Big Chill?
That one has been put on the back burner. More immediately, I'm doing an adaptation of Steve Harvey's book Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man. . . . I'm also working on a biography of Kimba Smith, a true story of a lady who got sentenced to 24 years in prison because she was dating a guy who was on the FBI's most-wanted list.
After making hit movies, do you get the best tables at restaurants in L.A. now?
(Laughs) Well, I can't cry anymore, like: "Poor little old me, I'm an independent filmmaker nobody will talk to." I get a lot of my calls returned now. It's a good feeling.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at tampabay.com.blogs/movies.