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'Girls Trip' producer Will Packer finds success by targeting an underserved audience

In the run-up to his latest movie “Girls Trip," producer Will Packer didn’t rely on massive billboard campaigns in Los Angeles and New York.

Instead, he brought the star-studded cast to Atlanta, Miami and New Orleans for advanced screenings with fans and online tastemakers, including black millennial website Hello Beautiful, to generate excitement among African American women. At an event at New Orleans’ luxurious Theatres at Canal Place, Packer told moviegoers of his wish to make a film that encapsulated the experiences of black women.

“It makes [moviegoers] feel like they're part of a movement,” Packer said in an interview.

The strategy of marketing movies directly to their target audiences has served Packer well. “Girls Trip,” a $19-million movie about four women who reconnect at the Essence Festival in New Orleans, has grossed $85 million so far domestically. The Universal Pictures-released film is the latest success for Packer, 43, a prolific producer whose 26 movies, which include “Think Like A Man” and “Ride Along,” have grossed more than $1 billion combined at the box office.

Packer’s remarkable run of hits comes at a time when mid-budget movies — especially live-action comedies and rom-coms — are supposed to be fool’s gambles as studios focus on blockbuster franchises based on big brands like Marvel and DC. His success as one of the most prominent African American filmmakers also stands out in an industry that is frequently criticized for not giving enough opportunities to non-white filmmakers and actors.

Though his movies rarely get critical acclaim (“Girls Trip” and “Straight Outta Compton,” which he executive-produced, were exceptions), Packer has consistently achieved mainstream success by making movies with mostly black casts, targeting a specific audience that has historically been neglected by the studio system.

“Will makes films that completely satisfy a core audience but at the same time tackle the most universal stories and are of such high quality they end up reaching an even wider audience,” said Donna Langley, chairman of Universal Pictures, which released Packer-produced movies including “Ride Along” and “Almost Christmas.” “Will understands that a great movie for a specific audience has the power to be a great movie for all audiences.”

There’s rarely a pause for the expanding Will Packer universe.

On a trip to Los Angeles last week, he met with Universal executives about a new Kerry Washington project called “City of Saints and Thieves,” visited the Malibu set of the Gabrielle Union thriller “Breaking In,” and attended the launch party for Kevin Hart’s new comedy app at a sprawling private estate in Beverly Hills. Back in Atlanta, he’s in pre-production on the Kevin Hart film “Night School” and re-shoots on a remake of “Jacob’s Ladder.”

His new production company Will Packer Media, backed by Universal Pictures and Discovery Communications, is developing television shows, digital series and advertising campaigns for Packer’s audience. He’s working on a provocative series for Amazon Studios called “Black America,” which takes place in an alternative post-Civil War timeline, and developing material for Discovery’s OWN. Will Packer Media also recently paid an undisclosed amount for Narrative, a digital branding firm founded by marketing expert Tricia Clarke-Stone and Def Jam Recordings co-founder Russell Simmons.

“We have an opportunity to take advantage of the fact that niches are becoming less and less defined by the day,” said Packer, who splits his time between Los Angeles and Atlanta, where his family lives (he’s married with four children). “You have everybody watching everything now. Now, more than ever, we have an opportunity for that same content to appeal to a wider audience.”

It’s a startling rise to power for a filmmaker who got his start as a college sophomore in Tallahassee, Fla. by helping a fraternity brother make a $20,000 indie film.

At Florida A&M University, where he studied electrical engineering, he made a movie called “Chocolate City,” a coming-of-age tale set at a historically black college, with his friend Rob Hardy. They sent the movie to every studio and agency, with no luck. So they went local, premiering the film in the school’s main auditorium and booking it in a second-run theater. It got a huge response.

“Nobody cared in Hollywood, but you know where they did care? Tallahassee, Fla., and Florida AMU, and they cared a whole lot,” Packer said. “I realized that if you make something for an audience, and it's received well by that audience, it doesn't really matter what other people feel about it.… I certainly want to make content for a broader audience, but I never lost an eye for making sure I hit the bull’s-eye with a niche.”

Early efforts, such as the “Trois” erotic thriller series, found their market. Yet Packer’s breakout success as an on-set studio producer came with “Stomp the Yard” in 2007, which was released by Sony Pictures’ Screen Gems label. The dance competition drama, for which he drew on his fraternity experience, opened No. 1 at the box office in the U.S. and Canada and grossed $61 million. Screen Gems would go on to work with Packer on movies including “Obsessed” and “No Good Deed.”

Packer often draws on his personal experiences for inspiration. He first approached Steve Harvey about buying the rights to his advice book, “Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man,” after seeing women exchange the title at hair and nail salons. Though the source material contained no story, the 2012 ensemble comedy grossed $91 million in the United States and Canada, driven by a breakout performance from Hart.

Packer decided three years ago to build a movie around black women at Essence Festival in New Orleans, where he’d met his now-wife and proposed on stage at the Super Dome. The idea of the film was to turn the “Hangover” and “Bridesmaids” films on their heads by showing black women behaving the way white people do in R-rated comedies. “Girls Trip” opened with $31 million from an audience that was 59% black and 79% female.

“He has his finger on the pulse when it comes to understanding the marketplace,” said Glenn Gainor, head of physical production at Screen Gems. “Will understands what it takes to make great movies within the studio system that reach the right audience.”

Packer also is known for spotting and nurturing rising stars, including Hart and Idris Elba (“No Good Deed,” “Obsessed”). The list now includes Tiffany Haddish, a comedian previously best known for her role in “The Carmichael Show,” who is now the breakout star of “Girls Trip,” delivering some of the raunchiest lines in the movie.

Packer also peppers his movies with cameos by famous NBA players and professional boxers. For example, he got boxing champion Floyd Mayweather Jr. to make a surprise appearance on the Las Vegas set of the “Think Like a Man” sequel for a memorable exchange with Hart.

Clint Culpepper, president of Screen Gems, praised Packer’s calm personality on-set and his ability to deal with Hollywood egos. On the 2010 movie “Takers,” for example, Packer had to wrangle multiple big-name stars in an ensemble film with a small budget.

“He's good at keeping tempers in control on the set,” Culpepper said. “It can sometimes be a very ego-driven environment.”

One of Will Packer Media’s first projects is “Black America,” from writer Aaron McGruder, who created the satirical cartoon “The Boondocks.” “Black America” takes place in an alternative timeline in which African Americans have taken over three Southern states in reparations for slavery. Though the idea was more politically searing than most of Packer’s work, he was attracted to the provocative concept.

“I could not get the idea out of my head,” Packer said. “I sat and thought about how you'd do that and get it right, because it's such provocative subject matter. But that doesn't scare me at all. You can do provocative as long as you can do it right.”

The “Black America” creators had been trying to keep the premise under wraps. However, they decided to go public with their show after HBO announced its own show called “Confederate,” which posits what would happen if the South won the Civil War and slavery became a modern institution. Amid the social media furor over the HBO series, Packer said he wanted people to know there was an alternative show in the works.

Packer said there has been some progress in Hollywood to make the media industry more inclusive, and there are now more diverse voices creating content than ever before. Still, he said, the industry has a long way to go.

“As an industry, we were already so far behind that by no means are there enough,” he said. “But I'm happy for the progress we do have and I certainly try, with my projects, to get in as many women and people of color, because I think it just makes my content better.”

ryan.faughnder@latimes.com

@rfaughnder

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