By Special Correspondent Arturo R. García
In the wake of that disturbing article in Fade In magazine, there’s at least one black producer out there with a film opening this weekend, and some of the objections Will Packer says he faced early in his career parallel those we heard about in the Fade In piece: that films featuring African-Americans were “niche films” for “a niche audience.”
“It’s tough to get any film made – black, brown, it doesn’t matter. It’s definitely still tough as African-American film makers because they (traditional Hollywood studios) don’t make as many african-american themed films as they do other films, so you’ve got smaller windows of opportunity. But it’s certainly different than it was 20 years ago.”
Packer’s latest film, Obsessed, features a relative host of “niche” story points: Not only are two of the three leads – Idris Elba and a non-singing Beyonce Knowles – POCs, but there’s an interracial aspect to the Fatal Attraction-ish scenario presented, involving Elba’s character and a temp played by Ali Larter. Packer says there was always an interracial factor in the story, but only as a backdrop.
“I think that audiences are a lot more sophisticated now,” Packer says. “You certainly can portray inter-racial relationships but you have to do it in a realistic way. In our film, it’s not about race – it’s interesting that the husband happens to be black, but it’s nothing that we feel the need to make any more provocative or to otherwise single out that fact.”
Packer says his successful film, 2007’s Stomp The Yard, also had to fight the “niche” argument.“Nobody saw Stomp The Yard coming,” Packer says. “But we tapped into an audience that was a cross-section of dance-movie fans and African-American audiences who knew about college life, and we managed not only to open No. 1 at the box office, but to hold the No. 1 spot for another week. Suddenly people in Hollywood were trying to call us, and asking, ‘What do you mean, they don’t have agents?’.”
The film went on to gross $75 million worldwide.Packer says the “nobody saw us coming” thing started as soon as he and director Rob Hardy founded Rainforest Productions and made their first film, Trois, in 2000.“We didn’t have a film school. We didn’t have money. We didn’t have connections. We didn’t have long-standing Hollywood relationships,” Packer says.
“I wanted to start a film production company. My partner wanted to be the next Spike Lee. We moved to Atlanta because we felt that was a market where we could be a big fish in a small pond. We made Trois, and nobody in Hollywood cared. We literally drove city-to-city and handed out flyers, shook hands, kissed babies and we convinced 19 theatre owners to run our movie for one weekend. Then we went out and hustled, got the word out. That film made over $1 million dollars.”
Despite the success he’s enjoyed in producing films geared toward audiences of color, Packer says things are still very difficult. “People don’t have any single viable studio catering to that audience,” he says. And how far off is that studio?
“Distribution is still kind of the final frontier, and that’s still very difficult,” Packer says. “If African-American audiences and mainstream audiences respond to that kind of material, then it’ll happen.”