Friday, May 25, 2018
Things To Do

Will Packer, native son of St. Pete, becomes Hollywood powerhouse

Will Packer's life these days is bouncing bicoastal, Atlanta to L.A. and back, "doing my Hollywood hustle, brother," as a successful movie producer and black cinema pioneer.

With one recent detour to his native St. Petersburg, as an appreciative son.

Mom needed a new car. Packer, 40, sneaked into town and surprised her with a shiny new Buick LaCrosse, bows, ribbons and all.

"It's got all the bells and whistles," Birice Packer said. "Everything I said I don't need, he put on this car."

The 1991 St. Petersburg High School graduate can afford to be generous, with the 2014 he's having at the box office and beyond. While Tampa Bay basks in movie star connections like Channing Tatum, Patrick Wilson and Angela Bassett, Will Packer working behind the camera is at least their equal in Hollywood influence.

Packer's year began with pulling the strings on Ride Along, grossing $134.1 million to cement a profitable friendship with breakout comedian Kevin Hart. The pairing continued with About Last Night ($48.6 million) and now Think Like a Man Too, opening Friday, a romantic comedy inspired by Steve Harvey's advice book for women.

The latter project, a sequel to Packer's 2012 surprise hit ($91 million), is the inaugural release of Will Packer Productions, after signing a first-look movie and television development deal with Universal. In other words, Mom, enjoy that Buick. Call it repayment for good advice to a bright 9-year-old son.

"I remember asking her," Packer said, "okay, if I'm good at math and English, if I can give speeches, if I'm kind of good at a lot of different things, what should I be? What job is there for me?

" 'CEO,' she said, 'That's what you want to be, a CEO.' I had no idea what that was but it shaped my perspective on what success was.

"For me, success was going to be having my own company that was mattering, making a difference, having an impact. And that's where I am now."

So far, four Packer productions — all under his Rainforest Films banner — debuted No. 1 at the box office, starting with 2007's Stomp the Yard, a step dancing story set at a black university in Atlanta. His filmography is marked by modest budgets — Ride Along reportedly cost only $25 million to produce — and savvy online marketing to urban moviegoers.

Packer's success impresses Robert Townsend, a black cinema icon since 1987's Hollywood Shuffle, which satirized show biz obstacles for African-Americans then, and some might say still now.

"When you think in terms of black Hollywood, the resurgence started with Spike (Lee) and myself," Townsend said by telephone from Chicago. "The next resurgence came with Will Packer. He was able to navigate through the Hollywood waters. … He's another pioneer.

"There is always the hope that you'll open a door and somebody will walk through, understand all the pieces and take it to the next level. … I look at Will and he's kind of kicked the door open and figured out a whole other level."

It was obvious that Packer was going places 14 years ago when he cold-called me, asking to join him and Rainforest Films co-founder Rob Hardy for soft drinks and a story pitch.

They were Florida A&M frat brothers and filmmakers with a micro-budgeted, Afrocentric sexual thriller titled Trois, and a plan to bypass Hollywood's traditional distribution plan. Like Oscar Micheaux's barnstorming in the 1920s, they took black cinema directly to its audience.

Packer and Hardy personally cut deals with 20 theaters in largely African-American neighborhoods nationwide. Trois grossed just more than $200,000 in its opening weekend, for a per screen average second only to Disney's Fantasia 2000. Trois eventually made $1.2 million, impressive for an outsider.

Hollywood noticed, and soon Rainforest Films, based in Atlanta, had a distribution deal with Sony's Columbia Tri-Star and Screen Gems studios. Packer's decision to form his own production company based in L.A. is "a natural progression" leading to the Universal deal.

Twenty years after he and Hardy made their first movie Chocolate City, Packer hasn't forgotten "the feeling of wanting to be successful, and not being where I wanted to be.

"Remembering that feeling continues to drive me now."

Ambitious, yes, but not at the expense of his family, including four children — one a Harvard University freshman — and fiancee Heather Hayslett, still living in Atlanta to avoid L.A.'s "fish bowl" existence.

"You have to have boundaries and parameters," Packer said. "Hollywood … can be very cutthroat and ego-driven.

"You have people telling you either how awesome you are, or how much you suck. That can wear on you after a while. It can push you to the point where all you want is for people to say how great you are, and you'll do whatever you can to get it.

"My balance is not living in L.A. I spend as much time as I can with my kids. I'm just Dad to them, and they're never going to tell me how much I suck. Even when they say how great I am, it's in the context: 'Of course you're great, Dad, that's what you're supposed to be.' So it puts things in perspective."

Of course, Packer's instincts as a producer find another advantage to bicoastal life.

"It's always so refreshing and informative for me, to get perspectives from people outside the industry, outside of L.A., the real consumers who are buying my movie tickets," he said.

"Taking it to the people, baby. You got to be amongst the people to know what they want."

Steve Persall can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow him -@StevePersall.

Comments
Denis Phillips, hurricane season guru, talks his signature beer, suspenders and Rule #7

Denis Phillips, hurricane season guru, talks his signature beer, suspenders and Rule #7

SAFETY HARBOR — Denis Phillips cracks a pop-top and pulls a can that looks a lot like him to his lips."It’s got that citrusy feel to it," he says. "Which is a Florida thing. That’s not bad." Indeed, there’s a grapefruit finish to Rule #7 Hurricane Sa...
Updated: 11 hours ago
Veterans get in free at Busch Gardens, SeaWorld and more with Memorial Day deals

Veterans get in free at Busch Gardens, SeaWorld and more with Memorial Day deals

Memorial Day is a time to say "thank you" to our veterans. The following is a list of free offers for them to enjoy. Some even last all summer.• Busch Gardens and SeaWorld are offering U.S. veterans and up to three guests get free admission to the th...
Updated: 11 hours ago
Hooper: More than a restaurant, Lee Roy Selmon’s was a meeting place

Hooper: More than a restaurant, Lee Roy Selmon’s was a meeting place

It’s where former Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Doug Williams had lunch with current Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston.It’s where University of South Florida fans often gathered to watch the program’s biggest road games.It’s where folks showed up in...
Published: 05/24/18
Eight women accuse Morgan Freeman of sexual misconduct in CNN report

Eight women accuse Morgan Freeman of sexual misconduct in CNN report

Eight women have accused actor Morgan Freeman of sexual harassment or inappropriate behavior on-set, at his production company, and during press junkets, according to a report.CNN reports that 16 people have spoken out against Freeman’s alleged misco...
Published: 05/24/18
Ballet Nacional de Cuba stuns with a spectacular ‘Giselle’

Ballet Nacional de Cuba stuns with a spectacular ‘Giselle’

TAMPA — The Ballet Nacional de Cuba performed Giselle, its signature ballet, on Wednesday at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts. Fifty-four dancers charmed a packed house, culminating in about two hours an effort that took more tha...
Published: 05/24/18
9 things to do indoors on this rainy Memorial Day weekend

9 things to do indoors on this rainy Memorial Day weekend

It's probably going to rain, but we've got you covered (get it?)
Published: 05/24/18
15 things to do in Tampa Bay on Friday

15 things to do in Tampa Bay on Friday

Our editors' picks for May 25.
Published: 05/24/18
What's in theaters this week: 'Solo: A Star Wars Story,' Art and Short Film Mini-Fest

What's in theaters this week: 'Solo: A Star Wars Story,' Art and Short Film Mini-Fest

[email protected] brings an Art and Short Film Mini-Fest to the studio Thursday, May 24.
Published: 05/24/18
Watch Kenny Chesney’s new ‘Get Along’ video, filmed entirely at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa

Watch Kenny Chesney’s new ‘Get Along’ video, filmed entirely at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa

Were you at Kenny Chesney's concert on April 21 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa? Then there's a decent chance you might be in his new video.The country superstar dropped the official video for his new single Get Along on Thursday, and it was appare...
Published: 05/24/18
Dr. Beach ranks Caladesi Island No. 7 on list of country’s best beaches

Dr. Beach ranks Caladesi Island No. 7 on list of country’s best beaches

Caladesi Island’s "crystalline quartz" sand and "sparkling clear" water left an impression on Dr. Beach, who ranked it in his annual list of the country’s top 10 beaches.Dr. Beach, or Dr. Stephen P. Leatherman, is a professor and director for the Lab...
Published: 05/24/18