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  1. Arts & Entertainment

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

Will Packer, 40, oversees his latest movie, The Wedding Ringer, starring Kevin Hart and Josh Gad, due in theaters next year. Packer lives in Atlanta and runs a production company in L.A.
Will Packer, 40, oversees his latest movie, The Wedding Ringer, starring Kevin Hart and Josh Gad, due in theaters next year. Packer lives in Atlanta and runs a production company in L.A.
Published Jun. 18, 2014

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 persall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow him -@StevePersall.

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