Statistically speaking, financiers often say that it’s the tentpoles that profit the most in the long run, however, producer Will Packer has a knack for yielding big returns off movies with conservative budgets, latest title being Almost Christmas which is on its way to a domestic take of $40M-plus off a production budget of $17M (before P&A). Directed and written by David E. Talbert, Almost Christmas is Packer’s second holiday movie after 2007’s This Christmas which reaped a combined domestic box office and DVD haul of $73.5M from a $13M budget.
While Packer has discovered the secret sauce to financial film success, he insists that when it comes to choosing a project, he tries to strike a balance. “I don’t go into a project looking at it solely from a budgetary standpoint. I think you have to be [budget conscientious] as a filmmaker,” he said. “If you’re not making a Marvel tentpole where the budget of the movie is inconsequential because it’s a billion dollars global (gross), I think you have to be responsible and really conscientious about your margins.”
He added that being cost-effective doesn’t mean that you can’t tell the stories you want to and do it well. “Spend what you have to spend. These aren’t $5M dollar movies but they don’t have to be $50M movies either,” he said. “The overriding factor for me when it comes to getting involved with a project is the theme, how execution-dependent it is, how castable it is, who the audience for the film is. Once you got a project with all those things that you’re passionate about, then you go back and look at ‘what do we think we can make that film for?’ And if that makes sense based on the profit potential, you do it.”
Along the lines of budgetary importances, making sure the film’s presence is known holds just as much weight. Universal’s robust marketing campaign for Almost Christmas was driven by joint effort from the talent and filmmaker, leaning on grassroots marketing and social media, especially when it came to the cast. During Veterans Day weekend when Almost Christmas squared off against Paramount’s Arrival and EuropaCorp’s horror title Shut In, Social Media monitor Relish Mix reported that the Packer pic had the best social media universe of that weekend’s entries with 72.6M across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube. One of the biggest social media generators for the holiday film were 14 YouTube vids of the Almost Christmas cast on Family Feud. Heading into its third weekend, the pic’s social media stars Keri Hilson (13.3M) and Gabrielle Union (11M) continue to tubthump the movie on social.
“I always try to make sure that my cast is truly invested in the success of the film so that they are willing to go out and go above and beyond just standard press appearance,” Packer told Deadline. As with all Packer’s films, being very active in what Packer termed as the “ground game” — utilizing social media and making public appearances–is his go-to approach. His frequent collaborators like Kevin Hart, Ice Cube, and Gabrielle Union have massive followings on social platforms and are an integral part of the marketing process. “I certainly think about that when I look at who I want to put in a movie,” said Packer. “There is too much competition and too much saturation out there for you to not make decisions that would allow your project to stand apart and be different.” Packer’s collaboration with Hart is a lucrative one with $574M in worldwide ticket sales across six movies, which includes two franchises –Ride Along and Think Like a Man. Packer’s partnership with Ice Cube across Ride Along, its sequel and Straight Outta Compton is worth close to a half billion at the B.O.
As such can be expected on his upcoming Girl’s Trip that’s directed by Malcolm D. Lee and stars Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith, Regina Hall, a R-rated all female African American led pure comedy. The film was inspired by Packer’s time at Essence Magazine’s annual Essences Festival that takes place in New Orleans and serves as the backdrop of the film. “It’s like black women’s Coachella or Burning Man. I wanted try to make a movie that will capture the fun of that and also capture the fun of a movie like a Bridesmaids or even a movie like a Hangover but do it with actresses that you don’t typically see in those roles.” The pic hits theaters on July 21.
James Lopez is the executive producer on Girls Trip as well as Almost Christmas to which Packer lauded him as having “great marketing mind” and being “instrumental in the development of the script and in helping to put the cast together.” Lopez joined Packer’s company in 2015 after leaving his post as SVP at Screen Gems. “He’s a tremendous asset to this project and a very essential part of my company,” said Packer.
Like This Christmas, Almost Christmas features an ensemble cast. The 2007 Screen Gems comedy included Idris Elba, Lorette Divine, and singer Chris Brown. Packer is taking what he learned from that film and rolling out Almost Christmas in similar fashion. “What you are trying to do is get the best of both worlds,” said Packer about the the advantages of opening a Christmas themed film before Thanksgiving.
“Thanksgiving is a big holiday time frame. The day after Christmas, people’s perspective, attention, focus, everything shifts immediately to New Years,” he said. “We’re hoping that, because it’s always very crowded at the cinema during the holidays, that we can come in early and then play after Thanksgiving (right through) Christmas so we have the longest amount of time for our film to be in the theaters and be relevant.” This weekend, Almost Christmas will remain in the top 10 against younger-skewing family monoliths Moana and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them with a FSS of $5.2M (-28%, excellent) and $6.9M over five days for a 17-day total of $34M.
Speaking of relevance, with the new age of media and all the platforms available, smaller budget films (like many of Packers) are seeing shorter theatrical windows to make room for the blockbuster pictures. Despite the exponential changes, Packer maintains an optimist outlook on the future.
“I see what is happening with the streaming services and the other new media distribution outlets as an opportunity for filmmakers like myself to have yet another window to allow consumers to find my product,” he said. “I think it’s definitely changing the exhibition model but I think that consumers are driving that.” He added that it is “incumbent upon producers like myself to produce enough high-quality content for all the various platforms that are out there for consumers to be able to devour in the way that they want to.”
Anthony D’Alessandro contributed to this report