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Quoted: Producer Will Packer on ‘Obsessed’ and overcoming Hollywood bias

By Special Correspondent Arturo R. García

obsessed1

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.”

obsessed2Packer’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.”

Moving Beyond the Niche

by Guest Contributor Melissa Silverstein, originally published at Women and Hollywood

A couple of weeks ago the NY Times ran a piece about the lack of progress of African American directors over the last decade. It seems that African American filmmakers suffer the same issues as women filmmakers — being stuck in a niche and unable to get out. Whether it’s right or not, or desired or not, most African American directors get pigeon holed into creating stories for African American audiences which are still not seen as “mainstream.” Personally, I would rather see a film like The Secret Life of Bees directed by an African American woman like it was, because I would venture to say that Gina Prince-Bythewood (pictured top right) would do a better job than a white woman or white man. I don’t see anything wrong with that. But because women and people of color are seen as “niche audiences” anyone who is in those groups gets stuck. I don’t think the problem is with the audiences. The Secret Life of Bees was a steady earner all through the fall with black and white women. I think the word niche is evil and should be banished. Why aren’t stories like Cadillac Records which boasts an amazing performance from Beyonce (tell me why they couldn’t sell her?) seen as American stories? Once the movie business figures out that they can make money by getting people beyond the “niche” maybe we will see more opportunities for African American directors and women directors.

Some points from the article:

You could now literally count on one hand (using two fingers) the number of black directors who can get their projects made and distributed at a steady rate. One is (Spike) Lee…while the other is Tyler Perry.

Momentum for African-American cinema, it would seem, has been curtailed or at least stalled in part by studio executives’ preconceptions that black films are “niche product” with limited appeal. Yet at the same time black directors and producers still express optimism that they not only can continue to cultivate their black audiences but also can reach out further and wider to the mainstream…

Darnell Martin, the director of Cadillac Record is a cautionary, yet surprisingly typical tale of what happens to women directors:

Ms. Martin places much of the blame for her sporadic career in the feature-film business on the conflicts she had over the promotion of “I Like It Like That.” “They insisted on making me the poster child for the film, the ‘female Spike Lee,’ and I said, ‘Look, I don’t mind that. I’m proud to be a black woman director, and I want that out there.’ But we’d gotten some great reviews, and I felt that was what they should be leading with. If it had been a white director, they would have emphasized the reviews, but instead they were trying to get people to see it only because I was black.

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