Film producer, screenwriter
Atlanta-based film producer Will Packer scored a surprise hit with the 2007 step-dance drama Stomp the Yard. Its box-office success prompted the industry trade journal Daily Variety to place Packer on their "Ten Producers to Watch" list. Packer asserted that his company, Rainforest Films, was merely putting out the kind of movies that the market demanded. "You've got this whole upwardly mobile, affluent African-American portrayals onscreen. It's higher concept with intelligent story lines," he told Bob Longino in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "People are embracing it."
Packer graduated from St. Petersburg High School in Florida in 1991 and went on to study engineering at Florida A&M University, a historically black school in Tallahassee. He pledged the same Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity to which his father, William Sr., had belonged, and later noted that it had enriched his college experience. "They had a great community service program, they gave out a lot of scholarships, they had the best parties," he said in an interview with Dalia Wheatt in the St. Petersburg Times. In 1994 Packer and his fraternity brother Rob Hardy set up Rainforest Films, a film production company. Their first project was Chocolate City, a story about a young man at Florida A&M, which Hardy directed and Packer produced.
Signed with Sony Pictures
After graduating in 1996, Packer and Hardy moved to Atlanta and opened Rainforest offices there. Their next project was Trois, a racy tale about a romantic triangle from a screenplay they wrote themselves. Shot on a budget of just $250,000, Trois (2000) benefited from Packer and Hardy's innovative idea to work outside the standard film distribution channels—they personally visited theater owners in predominantly African-American communities and convinced them to take a chance on showing it. In the end, Trois earned $1 million in box-office receipts, and netted Rainforest a financing and distribution deal with the Screen Gems unite of Sony Pictures.
Packer served as producer for two sequels to Trois: Pandora's Box in 2002 and Trois 3: The Escort. Motives (2004) was another erotic thriller that starred Shemar Moore and Vivica A. Fox. The first film to be released with the help of Screen Gems was The Gospel (2005), which starred Boris Kodjoe and Idris Elba. Kodjoe played a major-label R&B star, David, who returns to the Atlanta area and reconnects with Frank (Elba), who has taken over the pastorship of the church where both sang as young choir members. "This is a project we wanted to do for a long time but we got pigeonholed in the erotic thriller genre," Packer told Steve Persall in the St. Petersburg Times. "But that's okay because that gave us a chance to learn and understand our core demo(graphics), and to understand grass roots marketing." With music for the film written by gospel great Kirk Franklin, The Gospel was shot on a budget of $3 million and earned $8 million at the box office in the first week alone. Packer's mother, active in her St. Petersburg-area church, was thrilled to finally be able to show her friends and fellow churchgoers what her son was doing with his life. "This was an answer to my prayer, that he'd do something in praise and honor of the Lord," Birice Packer told Persall. "When I cry, it's tears of joy because he did what his mother asked him to do."
Packer's next project, a drug-themed comedy called Puff, Puff, Pass (2006), served as actor Mekhi Phifer's directorial debut. Rainforest next collaborated with Screen Gems on Stomp the Yard, a college musical set in Atlanta. Released in January of 2007—traditionally the dead-zone period for movie premieres—the movie earned $25 million at the box office in its opening weekend. Packer and Hardy had originally wanted to make a movie similar to Chocolate City, but used step-dancing as a hook to lure financing. "Stepping was the perfect vehicle because it is so visually attractive," Packer told Wheatt. "I felt like we would get them in the door with something that was really, really cool like stepping, but then once there, we were able to slide in some nuggets about black college life and about fraternities and sororities and about the importance of higher education."
Succeeded with Stomp the Yard
Stomp the Yard stars Columbus Short as DJ, a Los Angeles-area step dancer whose crew becomes embroiled in a rivalry that turns violent and leaves DJ's younger brother dead. Sent to live with his uncle in Atlanta, DJ enrolls in a historically black college, where he finds that the step-dancing scene is dominated by the school's intensely competitive black fraternities. He joins the underdog group, and "from there," wrote Justin Chang in Daily Variety, "the story's trajectory could hardly be more predictable—DJ must get schooled, get hazed and, of course, get the girl and the trophy, while dealing with his repressed grief and learning the meaning of teamwork." Despite the lack of critical plaudits, Stomp the Yard nevertheless proved such a financial windfall that it brought Packer serious recognition in Hollywood, and later that year he was named one of "Ten Producers to Watch" by Daily Variety.
Packer's next project for Rainforest was a family-oriented holiday drama, This Christmas, released near the end of 2007. Filmed in Los Angeles, the movie starred some well-known actors, including the aforementioned Elba and Phifer along with Delroy Lindo, Loretta Devine, and Regina King. "It was great because everybody came to work with such a drive, focus and energy that was contagious," Packer told Sarah Hoye in the Tampa Tribune about working with such screen veterans. "It was really like a family, and like a family, there is crying and drama, but if you believe in family and have faith in faith, it's all good at the end of the day." The story centers on the grown children who return to the home of Ma'Dere (Devine)—who attempts to hide the fact that she and Joe (Lindo) are living together—and the dilemma over whether or not to sell the family's dry-cleaning business. All of the children, it turns out, have their own secrets. Critics gave This Christmas a warmer reception than Packer's previous efforts, with Lael Loewenstein in Variety calling it "a rare holiday treat, a package that's both thoughtfully selected and sure to please its intended recipients."
At a Glance …
Born c. 1974, in St. Petersburg, FL; son of William Sr. and Birice (a community-service volunteer) Packer; married Nina; children: two daughters. Education: Florida A&M University, BS, electrical engineering, 1996.
Career: Film producer. Projects include: Chocolate City, 1994; Trois, 2000; Pandora's Box, 2002; Motives, 2004; Trois 3: The Escort, 2004; The Gospel, 2005; Puff, Puff, Pass, 2006; Stomp the Yard, 2007; This Christmas, 2007; Obsessed, 2009; Bone Deep, 2009.
Addresses: Home—Conyers, GA. Office—Rainforest Films, 2141 Powers Ferry Rd., Ste. 300, Marietta, GA 30067.
Packer's subsequent projects include Obsessed, featuring Beyoncé Knowles as the victim of a stalker, and the basketball drama Phenom. Rainforest was also working on an all-black remake of the popular 1984 movie The Big Chill and a biopic about Kemba Smith, a young woman who spent six years in prison on federal drug charges. All of the productions kept him often away from his home in Conyers, Georgia, which he shares with wife, Nina, and their two daughters. Making time for everything he wanted to do was a problem, Packer conceded to Longino. "I always know I could be doing a better job with the balance. It tilts both ways. I get all the big-picture stuff—the PTAs, the programs the girls are in. I don't miss any of that. It's the little stuff. Like, ‘She scraped her knee.’"
Pandora's Box, 2002.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, November 18, 2007, p. K12.
Daily Variety, January 8, 2007, p.11.
Film Journal International, March 2007, p. 41; December 2007, p. 68.
St. Petersburg Times (St. Petersburg, FL), October 14, 2005, p. E1; January 12, 2007, p. E1.
Tampa Tribune, November 23, 2007, p. 17.
Variety, October 10, 2005, p. 76; October 29, 2007, p. 51.
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