EXCLUSIVE: Universal Pictures has just closed a deal to acquire Beast, an action-thriller for Will Packer to produce. The logline is being kept under wraps, but the film will show what happens when man is forced to go head-to-head with a beast. The pitch comes from Jamie Primak-Sullivan, and it will be scripted by Ryan Engle. They served the same roles in the Packer-produced Breaking In, and Engle separately scripted Rampage. Packer will produce through his Will Packer Productions banner alongside partner James Lopez and Primak-Sullivan will executive produce. Engel is repped by CAA and Mosaic.
While Venom and A Star Is Born got all the plaudits last weekend, it’s notable that when the Kevin Hart-Tiffany Haddish Malcolm Lee-directed Night School won the previous weekend, it became the 10th time that a Packer-produced film finished first on opening weekend. Others included the Ride Along and Think Like A Man films, No Good Deed, Takers, Obsessed and Stomp The Yard. In his lane, the charismatic Packer has become as dependable a hitmaker for Universal as Jason Blum’s Blumhouse is in the genre space. Here, Packer tells Deadline how it all happened, and how direct audience interaction has been at the heart of his success.
DEADLINE: Ten films finishing atop the box office is impressive enough, but you’ve done it with done it for the most part with modest budgets and P&A spends.
PACKER: Social media has been so important, even if it can be a double edged sword.
DEADLINE: Why do you consider it invaluable, when many people trip themselves up using it as a platform to be provocative?
PACKER: It is a way to let people into my world in a very strategic kind of way to sell these projects. These days, audiences want to engage with people, be they celebs or producers like me. They want to know what’s going on and if you tell them, it makes them more likely to support and consume your content. If you feel like you know somebody and like them, you’re more likely to take a ride with them. I will post some family stuff, but a majority of my stuff is business, inspirational, and promoting my projects. But you can’t just do the latter because it will be seen as a big commercial and unimportant. You got to give them a slice of life. That’s something that Kevin Hart does really well. Kevin’s different because his is really a content outlet; he’s putting out jokes, fun things, all the time. It used to be stars were stars, because they were so mysterious and untouchable. They lived up in the Hollywood Hills, and you didn’t know anything about them. Now, stars are stars because you know every single thing about them, and you still can’t get enough. That’s what a star is today.
DEADLINE: Lots of stars use social media to say provocative things on subjects like President Trump, and you wonder if they are polarizing their audiences and turning off potential consumers in the red states.
PACKER: Yes, if you feed into that.
DEADLINE: Denzel Washington once told me that early on, Sidney Poitier saw something in him, took him aside and said, “If they see you during the week for free, they’re not going to pay to see you on Saturday.’” It continues to be a guiding principle for him. I don’t think you would ever see him commenting on Trump or doing much social media, because he knows he’s there to sell his film to the widest possible audience in a limited window, and then he disappears until the next time. But that kind of runs counter to what you say.
PACKER: I think that was very true then. I don’t think it’s true now. The vast majority of stars prove that it’s a new day. They are more accessible than ever before. Now, there’s two trains of thought. One is that the star system isn’t what it once was, and I think it’s certainly not something that as a content creator you can depend on. That because you put so-and-so in a movie, it’s going to open. That’s not the case anymore. It’s upside down now. You have people of questionable talent but huge popularity because of reality shows or social media, and I think that there are a lot of those folks out there.
I wouldn’t consider those to be stars, but I would say that the folks who have real talent and who have the biggest social engagement are doing it right. The Dwayne Johnsons, the Kevin Harts, the Beyonces. Their fame is definitely augmented by the fact that audiences feel like they can engage with them in some way. Now, listen, Denzel is Denzel; he’s been doing it forever, and he lets his talent speak for itself. But I would argue, if there was the new Denzel coming up today, the first thing his publicist or manager or producer would say is, “Where’s your damn Instagram account? We got to get your following up.” It’s a new day, bro. It’s different than when Poitier was talking to Denzel.
DEADLINE: Are we getting to the point where social media could be more important than the traditional inefficient and very expensive P&A spend?
PACKER: I have always believed in having a good ground game, I call it. I look at a movie release, or even a TV show premiere, as a battle. Your aerial attack, that’s your billboards, your television, your traditional media. But you can’t win a battle without a good ground game, without folks actually on the ground, actually engaging and touching people. I started my career by driving city to city in a Ford Excursion that I had my movie posters taped to the side of, handing out flyers in malls.
DEADLINE: Which movie?
PACKER: This movie was called Trois. My second movie, when I was just graduating from college. I knew nobody in Hollywood, couldn’t get distribution. I had to hustle, do it myself. I drove to demographic-rich markets where I had my audience, and I touched people, actually physically shook hands, handed out flyers, like a politician. I still do that, to an extent, but now it’s through social media. If you don’t have that to augment what you’re doing from a traditional media standpoint, it’s tough to win. Some four quadrant, huge tentpoles, like a Marvel movie, you just throw $100 million of marketing at it, that’s all you need to do. People just need to know when it’s coming out and make sure it feels big and they’re going. But most movies? You go because somebody that you know says, “Hey, you heard about this thing? It looks good. I’m going, you should go.” It’s really about us interacting with people that have similar tastes, likes, political ideologies. We’re all in these silos. I need to reach into those silos to get people excited about the content, and one of the best and most efficient ways to do that is social media.
DEADLINE: How important was Trois to forging this audience-involved career path?
PACKER: I majored in electrical engineering. I never wanted to be an engineer, but I was good at math and science, and I got a scholarship. I went to Florida A&M University, this historically-black college down in Tallahassee. I wanted to go to an Ivy League school, I wanted to go to Penn. I had great grades, good test scores. I got in. I wanted to go to Wharton so that I could start my own business, because I wanted to be an entrepreneur. There was this push to get more African-Americans in the STEM: science, technology, engineering, mathematics programs. So, I got this big scholarship to go to this black college. I didn’t want to go. I told me parents, I said, “Listen, I’m going to Wharton. I got in.” But Wharton wasn’t giving me a dime. So, they ask, “and A&M wants to give you a full ride? Oh, that sounds really nice, young William. Guess where you’ll be enrolling in the fall?” They said, “You’re going to take this money, you’re going to go get an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering. It’ll be a great fallback, and then you can go get your MBA.” Well, along the way, I produced that little movie, and turned a 20,000 dollar film into 100,000 dollars’ profit. And I said, “What do I need Wharton for?”
DEADLINE: That simple?
PACKER: Well, we made this little movie on our college campus, we didn’t know what we are doing, and Hollywood didn’t care. We didn’t have a film school, but Florida State University did. We got the kids to our campus. We said, “Listen, stay out of the way. Don’t get in front of the cameras, but show us how to turn this shit on.” We don’t even know what to do with this equipment borrowed from some old TV station. But we shot this little tiny movie, and though Hollywood didn’t care, it was a big deal to our niche audience, and that’s where my philosophy in films were born.
DEADLINE: What principles that you discovered then remain in place now?
PACKER: I still, to this day, believe you got to have an audience. You don’t have to have everybody though. But you need a specific audience, especially now, as saturated as content is. We had a very specific audience for the first movie, it was called Chocolate City. And I convinced this guy, a white guy with a long ponytail and a joint, who was running a second-run theater. He was the manager. He wasn’t going to run my movie.
DEADLINE: Why not?
PACKER: He said, “I’m running Rocky Horror Picture Show ten times a day, why would I run this movie? Nobody’s in it, it looks like an old movie made in college.” I kept hammering the guy until he agreed. I talked to him long enough believing that if he got high enough, or frustrated enough…and he finally said, “Listen, if I let you get one showing, will you leave me alone?” I said, “Yeah.” So, he gave me one showing, and we sold it out three weeks in advance. This little movie was about college life as we knew it and so we made sure it was a big deal on my college campus.
DEADLINE: How many seats did you have to sell?
PACKER: Two 300-seat theaters. This is what independent distribution is about, but I didn’t know what that meant at the time. I just knew I needed to show my movie somewhere, and by the time I was done selling tickets to the second-run theater, T-shirts, hats, we created a little soundtrack from all the wannabe artists that were around campus at that time, we turned it into a hundred grand. And so, I said, “Why am I going to business school, to sell widgets? This is my widget.” I didn’t even know what a producer did at that time. I was just working with my buddies, and doing something I thought was fun, and I said, “You know what? I can do this,” and that’s how I started producing. And I took that same mentality with Trois, my next movie. I snuck into ShoWest, which is Cinemacon now. I had a buddy who worked for a magazine, I got his press pass.
I met all these different exhibitors and their assistants, got all these business cards. When it was time to release Trois, it was right at the time that multiplexes were exploding and a lot of exhibitors were under water because they’d build these 24-screen buildings and couldn’t fill them. I said, “Give me your smallest house. Give me one weekend.” It was the same thing I told the guy in Tallahassee that first time. I convinced 19 theaters in 1999 to do it in different markets around the country, but not New York and LA.
We drove to every market that let us show it. Atlanta, Charlotte, Jacksonville, Florida, Memphis, Tennessee, Birmingham, Alabama. Markets that had high concentrations of African-Americans. A ten day tour, driving to every city. Chicago was the longest drive. We opened and did $10,000 per screen average. And those theater owners said, “Well, let’s see if you can do that again.” And then other theaters started calling because they saw we were making money. They go, “Yo, bring it over here.” And I’m thinking, how am I going to drive all the way to Portland?
DEADLINE: How did the movie do in cities where you couldn’t be there?
PACKER: Not as well, but okay. But to this day, with ever movie I’ve made, there hasn’t been a movie where I haven’t done some kind of a tour where I take the talent, director, myself, and hit the road. I just got off the road with Kevin Hart. We hit six to seven markets in a week. I still do it because that’s what’s always worked for me. Even in the age of big, huge media spends, and even social media, I still feel like the way I’m going to make a difference is by going out and putting my message directly in front of people, taking it directly to people.
DEADLINE: That seems easier with someone like Kevin Hart, who seems tireless.
PACKER: That’s not a façade. He’s human, but barely, and that’s why we get along so well. We love each other, but we’re hard on each other and won’t let the other one sleep. He takes a break and I say, “What are you doing? Oh, you don’t want to be famous anymore? You don’t want this life? You’re not happy being successful?” He does the same thing to me. “Packer, what are you doing?” “Man, I just released two movies in three months. I’m sleeping. What do you want?” He’ll say, “Oh, you’re sleeping, okay, so you’re done with Hollywood, you already quit. There’s a young kid producer right now that’s out there chasing it, while you’re taking it easy.” It’s all love, but it’s also a hardcore pep talk, but it’s all love.
DEADLINE: You’ve had ten films that opened as the weekend’s top film. Kevin has been in a lot of them, and he’s become a huge star. You are both still that insecure?
PACKER: Like, do we fear it might all go away? Without question, especially for him. I have been very fortunate that my ascent has been pretty steady, but Kevin has seen it all go away before. He had this sitcom once, I believe Brian Grazer was producing. It was called The Big House. It was going to be the big one. He tells me the story sometimes. He went to New York for the upfronts. And then the network made the decision to not air the show. They pulled it. He’s already in New York. It was awful for him. Then he got his first big movie, Soul Plane. And people hated the movie and it was a bust. He has been on the precipice before and seen it all go away. So he works it and runs now like it could all end tomorrow. And that’s contagious.
DEADLINE: So how did you make the jump to become part of the Hollywood establishment?
PACKER: By the time we were done going city to city in theaters for Trois, we’d done a million dollars, in theaters. It was quantifiable. I’ve always said the way to get Hollywood’s attention is to make money without them. So, we actually had a chart showing this little, tiny film that nobody had ever heard of, produced by a guy nobody ever heard of, that was making money. And there was a guy over at Sony who saw us continuously making money every weekend on the charts.
DEADLINE: Which guy?
PACKER: Peter Schlessel. He was doing acquisitions at the time. He saw this little movie on the chart that didn’t have a real distributor. I’ll never forget when he called. I’m living in Atlanta, me and my business partner. We got a three-bedroom house, my bedroom, his bedroom, and the third bedroom was the worldwide corporate headquarters for Rainforest Films, my company at the time. I get a call from Peter Schlessel from Sony, asking to speak to somebody with the movie Troyce, because nobody ever pronounced it right. I say, ‘Oh, you want to speak with Will Packer. Who’s calling?” “Sony Pictures.” And I say, “Please hold. Let me see if he’s here.” I say to my buddy Rob, Sony is calling about the movie.” He asks, what are you going to say?” I didn’t know what to say, so I told them Mr. Packer was unavailable, he was in meetings, but we’ll have him return.” I finally called him back, and Peter says, “It’s good to see what you’re doing with your movie. What are you doing with your ancillaries?”
And I said, “What are ancillaries?” And then, once he explained it to me, a producer was born. That’s when I said, “You know what? I can do this.”
DEADLINE: What did Sony and the ancillaries add to your cause?
PACKER: There was a real market, especially for urban films. The first deal I did was with him, for our little movie Trois, and that covered home video, pay-per-view, cable. It wasn’t a big deal, but it was a deal and it put us in the door at Sony. I made a few more DVD movies for them and then Stomp The Yard, which really blew up. The interesting thing about Stomp the Yard was, it was like the big studio version of that first college movie I did. It was a movie about college life and we wrapped it up as a dance movie around stepping and steppers. It opened number one for three weeks in a row, I think. We made it for about $13 million, and it ended up grossing maybe $70-plus million.