Oscars producer Will Packer finds fixing Hollywood a never-ending job

Bloomberg photo by Bess Adler
Will Packer during the Bloomberg Equality Summit in New York on March 27, 2019.

In “Beast,” the Universal Pictures thriller released Friday, Idris Elba plays a father locked in a battle with a rogue lion in South Africa. Every time he thinks he’s won, his feline foe comes roaring back.

Will Packer, the movie’s producer, can relate. The 48-year-old is one of the industry’s more prolific filmmakers. Among his hits: the two “Ride Along” pictures, starring Ice Cube and Kevin Hart, which took in more than $300 million at the box office, and 2017’s “Girls Trip,” featuring Regina Hall and Tiffany Haddish. The top-grossing comedy that year, the film was the first by a Black female screenwriter to take in more than $100 million.

But each triumph for diversity in Hollywood seems to come with setbacks as well. Case in point, the Academy Awards in March, where Packer led the first all-Black production team. People of color captured two of the top acting awards, a deaf person snagged best supporting actor and a woman won best director. What was supposed to be an epic celebration of inclusion in entertainment instead will be remembered as the night best actor winner Will Smith slapped presenter Chris Rock on stage.

“The dream would’ve been that there was this seismic shift within the industry around diversity,” Packer said in a recent interview, referring to the last two years. “It hasn’t been seismic, but there has been a continued progressive nature of the way Hollywood has looked at who’s invited in to the club.”

Packer couldn’t have predicted it’d be this way when his phone started ringing off the hook in 2020. George Floyd, an unarmed Black man in Minnesota, had been killed by the police. For weeks, the Atlanta-based producer said, he felt like he heard from every white person he knew.

That made Packer hopeful for change in a way he hadn’t been before. Growing up as a math whiz in Florida, he followed his parents’ advice and didn’t get defensive about often being the only Black kid in class. He kept that in mind as he scratched his way into the upper echelons of Hollywood, allowing the work and the cash to speak for itself. If white people finally wanted his perspective, however, he’d give it.

As of 2020, 93% of senior managers at the 11 major and “mini-major” film studios were white, according to a report from the University of California at Los Angeles. Nonwhite customers accounted for 45% of frequent moviegoers, while making up 39% of the U.S. population in 2019. They were underrepresented on and off screen.

A self-described “outsider” living in Georgia, Packer had by then produced films that sold more than $1 billion worth of tickets. He did so by betting on the star potential of fellow people of color like Elba, Haddish and Hart.

“Everyone loves to see a story that they can relate to in some way,” Elba said by email. “Will is just one of the pioneers of taking the African-American culture, as pure as it can be, and amplifying it to the silver screen.”

Packer had been asked to produce the Oscars in the past and declined. The 2022 ceremony, which followed Floyd’s killing and the subsequent protests, was the one he accepted. While creating the show was much harder than he thought, he realized the most important parts of his vision.

The show opened full of promise and energy, with Beyoncé singing an ode to Venus and Serena Williams on a tennis court in Compton, California. Ariana DeBose, who won best supporting actress for her role in “West Side Story,” expressed pride in her speech that she did so as a queer Afro-Latina woman. “Coda” broke ground for the deaf, winning best picture and best supporting actor for Troy Kotsur.

The ratings for the program reversed a long-running decline, with 16.6 million people tuning in. They were up more than 50% from a year earlier, and that was before what many have called “the slap heard around the world.”

Immediately after the incident the backstage press room was filled the sound of clacking keyboards as reporters rewrote their stories to focus on Smith. Questlove, who collected the award for best documentary feature for “Summer of Soul” from Rock moments after the incident, went in front of the journalists to discuss his win and realized with a frown their focus was elsewhere.

Packer responds graciously to every question about the slap, but he’s not happy. “Quest got robbed. Ariana got robbed. Troy got robbed. I got robbed,” he said.

Smith, who was banned from attending the Oscars for 10 years, apologized to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and to Rock.

If there’s one positive note Packer said he can identify, it’s that people are making fewer sweeping generalizations about others. In his nearly 30-year career, Packer said he often felt his own actions affected every other aspiring Black filmmaker. He no longer feels that way.

“I think that people are being judged more on their individual successes, failures, morals,” he said. “And that’s a good thing.”

Packer is releasing “Beast” with Universal, Comcast Corp.’s movie division, as a part of a longstanding partnership. The studio is run by Donna Langley, making her one of Hollywood’s most prominent women of color. The next Langley needs to be fostered from a young age, he said.

Black kids miss out on early educational opportunities, Packer said, leaving companies with fewer qualified candidates of color years later. Simply making “diverse” hires and putting those people in jobs for which they haven’t been prepared will only make things worse, he said.

“Beast” focuses on a doctor who takes his young daughters to South Africa after the death of their mother. It’s expected to take in a relatively light $10 million domestically in its opening weekend, according to an estimate from Box Office Pro. It may not even finish the weekend in first place, depending on the success of “Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero,” a computer-generated anime film from Japan.

“It’s been a really good summer for moviegoing, but the movies that have really broken out have been big IP, big franchises,” he said. “We’re trying to do an original concept movie and feel great about what we have in the marketplace.”

Packer has many other projects in the works. He’s filming a movie, “Praise This,” about youth choirs gathering for a competition, and is releasing three TV series. He’s also producing podcasts, including a second season of “Lower Bottoms,” which focuses on a gentrifying neighborhood in West Oakland, California. And he’s writing a book with his perspective on business, which he hopes will be motivational.

Packer’s also up for an Emmy for the Oscars ceremony, competing against the Super Bowl halftime show and the Grammys. He’ll find out if he won on Sept. 12.

“I always look at the bright side,” he said. “I’m the most interesting dinner conversationalist at any dinner party. I’m telling you, I got the best stories.”