Ask most producers ahead of opening weekend how well their movie will do and they’ll start bragging about the blockbuster numbers from their studio tracking surveys. But Will Packer, producer of the upcoming romantic comedy “Think Like a Man,” is far more likely to boast about his film’s social media buzz. Last weekend, Packer re-tweeted a rave review from LeBron James, who told his followers: “Great movie and funny as [heck]!!”
Packer isn’t your typical Hollywood producer. For one thing, his home base is Atlanta, where he’s lived for the last 15 years, after graduating from Florida A&M with a degree in, of all things, electrical engineering. For another thing, Packer, who’s produced such hits as “Stomp the Yard” and “Takers,” is a big believer in touting his movies directly to his target audience, something he learned from studying Master P, the 1990s hip-hop star known for driving around in a loudspeaker-laden rap truck.
And, oh yes, if you hadn’t already figured it out, Packer is African American, which when it comes to Hollywood makes him a stranger in a strange land, since black producers are ridiculously few and far between in the film business.
Being African American in showbiz still has its disadvantages. Packer’s films, which have had predominantly black casts, have rarely made a dent overseas. And even though he’s had four sizable hits, none of which cost more than $20 million to make, he’s still waiting for someone to invite him to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
But the brash 37-year-old believes that being an African American in the white world of Hollywood is actually a big plus. “I’m the youngest and darkest guy in the room, but I’m the one with the unique perspective,” he told me the other night, squeezing in an interview before racing off to a promotional screening of “Think Like a Man,” which opens April 20 and is based on a relationship advice book by Steve Harvey. “When you’re around 40 white guys, you’re the one who can bring something different to the table. When I was a kid, my parents never let me use race as an excuse. They’d say, ‘When you walk into a room and it’s all white, those kids have to work to stand out, not you.’”
Packer worked his way into the movie business through hustle and showmanship. At Florida A&M, he helped fellow student Rob Hardy, now his business partner, fund a coming-of-age college movie called “Chocolate City.” He sent screeners out to everyone in Hollywood but got no response. They held the world premiere in the school’s main auditorium, which sold out.
Packer says he learned a valuable lesson then about niche marketing: “Everyone loved the movie because it was about them — it was about the college experience.” Packer persuaded a “hippie dude” who ran a local second-run theater to book the film for a week. It played for months, becoming the theater’s all-time top grossing film. “We sold T-shirts, caps and posters and turned our $20,000 investment into a $100,000 business, which is when I realized I could be an entrepreneur,” he recalls.
When no one in Hollywood showed interest in his next film, an erotic thriller called “Trois,” Packer flew to Las Vegas and used a fake press pass to sneak into the movie trade gathering ShoWest. “I was like a politician, shaking hands and giving out business cards, meeting every exhibitor I could.” He left with commitments for one-week showings at 19 theaters in 19 markets, largely in the South.
“The African American audience had seen erotic thrillers before, but they hadn’t seen one about them,” he explains. The movie grossed more than $1 million. This niche appeal led to Packer’s breakthrough hit, 2007’s “Stomp the Yard,” a dance-competition drama that opened at No. 1 and ended up making $61.3 million. Distributed by Sony’s Screen Gems label, the film is one of seven Packer-produced films with Screen Gems.
With its focus on low-budget, genre-oriented films driven by niche marketing, Screen Gems has been a perfect fit for Packer. “There’s nothing more important than having a personal connection with your audience,” says Packer. “In the early days, I’d tour with my cast from city to city. But today, you use social networking. It’s the new frontier when it comes to marketing. I’m always going to go up against movies with bigger muscle and money, so I need to have a strong grass-roots game.”
When Packer is casting a film, he’s just as interested in an actor’s active relationship with his or her audience as with his or her credits. “I look at who’s got juice with their fans,” he says. “If someone has 1 million Twitter followers, that’s really valuable because it helps give our films an edge. It helps us be as loud as the big dogs.”
He points to the comic Kevin Hart, a costar of “Think Like a Man.” “He really activates his fan base through social media because he’s always tweeting and posting clips. I’m looking for people like him, because when opening weekend comes along, I want our film to be the top trending topic out there. It’s the way to catch people’s attention.”
Knowing that sports stars, especially in the NBA, have embraced social media, Packer had an early screening of “Think Like a Man” during the league’s February all-star weekend in Orlando, then a second screening the other night for Miami Heat players, which inspired the Twitter shout-out from James.
To hear Packer’s industry fans tell it, social networking isn’t his only skill. “He’d be a great producer even if social networking didn’t exist,” says Screen Gems chief Clint Culpepper. “He’s just a great people person. When he walks into a room, he reads the room and when he walks out, he owns that room.”
Packer often finds his audience outside the country’s biggest cities. “Our movies will do better in Memphis, Atlanta and St. Louis than in L.A. or New York,” he says. “On ‘Think Like a Man,’ we’re doing outdoor ads in places like Jacksonville and Birmingham.” He laughs. “Let me tell you, you don’t usually see a lot of movie billboards in Jacksonville. But it’s a demographically rich market for us.”
The next market he wants to conquer is overseas, where African American films rarely do any business. “It puts a black film at a big disadvantage when the studio bean counters don’t see it having any foreign box-office potential. But look at the NBA. They worked the international market to make sure their sport happened overseas. And I’m going to work it too.”
I wouldn’t bet against Packer. Like generations of showbiz people before him, he is a man in a hurry, eager to make his mark. “When you come into the industry as an outsider, you need to have an entrepreneurial spirit to succeed,” he says. “In Hollywood, it’s very clear that you either play by the rules or make up your own. And I wanted to do it my way.”
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Caption: Top, from left: Jerry Ferrara, Michael Ealy, Kevin Hart, Terrence J, Gary Owen and Romany Malco in a scene from "Think Like A Man." Bottom: Will Packer at a New York screening of "Think Like a Man" earlier this month.
Credits: Alan Markfield/Sony Pictures. Fernando Leon/Getty Images