Until last year, Atlanta-based Will Packer was one of the most successful producers that few mainstream industryites had never heard of. That all changed when “Stomp the Yard,” a drama about a step-dancer at a black college, marched its way to $61 million at the U.S. box office. Now, after years of working in mainstream obscurity, Packer has quickly established himself as a player.
Born and raised in St. Petersburg, Fla., Packer started making films at Florida A&M U. after meeting fledgling director Rob Hardy. Their first feature, “Chocolate City,” made while they were still in college in 1994, did well enough to score a small video distribution deal. After graduating, the two young partners started a production company, Rainforest Films, moved to Atlanta, and quickly began churning out low-budget movies for African-American audiences.
“When I was starting out, I saw a lot of independent filmmakers tell stories they wanted to tell, but they couldn’t find anyone to agree with their vision,” Packer says. “We decided to come up with a very smart plan — we were going to make films that would appeal to a particular niche — black audiences who hadn’t seen genre films starring people like themselves.”
Packer describes Rainforest’s first film, “Trois,” as “a low-budget black ‘Fatal Attraction.’ ” After failing to score a traditional theatrical deal, Packer distributed the film himself and ended up grossing more than $1 million, making the pic the fastest African-American-distributed film to hit seven figures.
“I just pounded the pavement and formed relationships with exhibitors,” Packer recalls. “It made me understand that in this business, making your rules isn’t necessarily a bad thing to do.”
“Trois” was also the first of many Packer films to be distributed through Sony Home Entertainment.
Over the next six years, Packer went on to produce eight more films (including “Stomp the Yard”), all of which found theatrical and/or video distribution.
He’s in post on two pics for Sony Screen Gems: Mody Mod’s “Three Can Play That Game” and Preston Whitmore’s “This Christmas.” Up next: three more pics for Screen Gems, including an African-American remake of “The Big Chill.”
“While I’m still committed to telling great African-American stories, I’ve become interested in branching out and making films for a larger audience,” Packer says. “I just want to keep going, no matter what.”
Provenance: St. Petersburg, Fla.
Inspired by: “I come out of what I call the Spike Lee generation of African-American filmmakers. So Spike is who got me started, but John Singleton is also very inspiring. Also Scorsese and David Fincher, because they’ve got vision.”