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The Oscars are changing, and Will Packer is the man behind the curtain

Will Packer is the very visible producer of this year's Academy Awards. (Damon Casarez for The Washington Post)
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For many, the allure of the Academy Awards is watching an A-list group of stars schmoozing and celebrating the world of film. But this year, the biggest talking point around the ceremony may be the decisions of the man behind the scenes.

Oscars producer Will Packer, 47, has found his name splashed across the news since the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced last month that eight categories — in craft fields including film editing, production design, makeup and hairstyling, and sound — would be removed from the live telecast of this year’s Oscars ceremony. Instead, they will be pretaped and edited into the show, in favor of fan-voted categories such as #OscarsFanFavorite and #OscarsCheerMoment.

Packer has steadfastly defended the decisions, which were met with widespread industry criticism, as necessary changes to a lengthy show that loses viewers year after year. The controversy has only served to make him visible in a way that’s rare for filmmakers who helm the annual ceremony — or any live awards show, for that matter.

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Part of the discord surrounding this year’s event stems from differing opinions on what, exactly, the Oscars telecast should be: An industry event celebrating the craft of filmmaking? A star-studded ceremony bringing glitz and glam to the masses? Packer wants it to be clear that he views the ABC telecast as an entertainment property — one he hopes will entertain as many people as possible. “My goal, ultimately, is to get eyeballs on the show,” he said earlier this month in a Zoom interview with The Washington Post.

Packer, one of the most prominent Black producers in Hollywood, is no stranger to appealing directly to viewers. His films have grossed more than $1 billion worldwide and include 10 No. 1 box-office hits — “Girls Trip,” “Think Like a Man,” “Ride Along” and “Stomp the Yard” among them. His work has ranged from rom-coms to thrillers to cult favorites, but the common thread is stories that reflect and center Black people and their experiences — in other words, stories the academy and Hollywood at large have tended to overlook.

Despite the clout he wields nearly three decades into his career, Packer is the first to admit he’s no Hollywood insider. He didn’t go to film school. He calls Atlanta, not Los Angeles, home. “That either makes me a perfect choice or the worst choice, and I like to believe the former,” Packer said of his Oscars role. “I have not built my career within the traditional Hollywood power system. And so I come at it from a very different perspective, and that is true of the way that I approach the biggest night in the industry. I approach it from the perspective of a consumer.”

The academy, which has made efforts to diversify its ranks since years of criticism culminated in the 2015 #OscarsSoWhite campaign, said Packer’s big-tent approach is precisely why he was chosen to produce as the industry rebounds from a global pandemic. “Will’s vision of inclusion and celebration is exactly what’s needed right now, and both his creative instincts and boundless energy will surely make it all happen,” David Rubin, the academy’s president, said in a statement.

Packer said he has listened to the criticism, “but I feel very strongly about the way that I want to do the show this year. And I think that’s the only way that I would sign up to do it. To do a show like this, you’ve got to be fearless.”

If his approach sounds antithetical to the way the Academy Awards has traditionally operated, that’s exactly the point.

“I want people to be talking about the Oscars in a Wal-Mart in Dallas versus just the happening restaurant in Beverly Hills,” he said.

Packer’s filmmaking career began, almost accidentally, nearly 30 years ago while he was an engineering student at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee. His friend and fraternity brother Rob Hardy came up with the idea for a film about a young man who, like them, was coming of age at a historically Black college or university. Packer, who planned to get his MBA after graduating, agreed to help Hardy make “Chocolate City.”

When the feature-length film was finished, they sent it to a number of Hollywood production companies. “Nobody in [Hollywood] cared,” Packer said. “Nobody wanted to see it. And that was true of my first couple of movies. But what happened was I was able to take those movies directly to my audience — directly to consumers. And that’s actually what really jump-started my career.”

Packer and Hardy took on the marketing and distribution of the film themselves, cutting their own commercials and advertising on the radio and TV. After the movie premiered to a sold-out crowd at FAMU’s on-campus theater, the duo persuaded a local second-run theater to screen it using the same video projector they used to show Florida State University games on the big screen. “We had like two or three consecutive sellout weekends,” Hardy recalled. “And they were like, ‘Bring that “Chocolate City” movie back here!’”

The duo’s big break arrived when they secured a home video distribution deal through a small company that went defunct a few years later. By the time Packer and Hardy graduated in the spring of 1996, “Chocolate City” was in Blockbuster stores nationwide, giving them “a ton of legitimacy as indie filmmakers,” Hardy said.

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Given the success of Hardy’s feature directorial debut — which made about $100,000 on a $20,000 budget — Packer decided to forgo the MBA and try producing full time with his and Hardy’s recently formed company, Rainforest Films. They set up operations in Atlanta, long an epicenter of Black culture and influence. It was a prescient move — years ahead of the tax credits that made Georgia a flourishing film market.

The duo’s next feature film, an erotic thriller called “Trois,” premiered at the American Black Film Festival (then known as the Acapulco Black Film Festival) in 1999. The movie, about a married couple whose experimentation with a ménage à trois goes awry, “wasn’t the most critically acclaimed film,” but “it was a really provocative movie and we hadn’t seen that a lot, especially in the indie world as it relates to Black filmmaking,” said festival co-founder Jeff Friday.

The ABFF, which Friday founded in support of Black filmmakers whose talents often went overlooked by mainstream festivals such as Sundance, was two years into its existence at the time. Packer was the first filmmaker to reach out ahead of the festival — to say he had submitted “Trois” and, Friday recalled with a laugh, “to say hi.”

“Will has a confidence and exuberance that most people don’t have,” said Friday, who named Packer jury president for last year’s 25th anniversary festival. “He’s charismatic and incredibly intelligent, and he knows Black audiences.”

“Trois” helped to further put Packer and Hardy on the map when the movie — boosted by the vast network of supporters the filmmakers established with their first film — pulled in $1.2 million off a limited 50-screen run. The indie did so well it ended up on tracking lists alongside major distributors. “People started calling our house in Jonesboro, Georgia, wondering who was Rainforest … with this, you know, $50,000-per-screen average,” Hardy recalled.

Rainforest Films saw its first No. 1 hit when “Stomp the Yard” premiered atop the box office in 2007. The film, starring Columbus Short and Meagan Good, revolved around life at a fictional HBCU and, more specifically, the stepping tradition of Black Greek organizations.

Packer was honest about the movie being his “first big thing,” Good said, and treated the cast and crew like peers.

“Oftentimes when you’re on projects, you feel like, ‘That’s the boss,’” said Good, who also starred in “Think Like A Man” and its 2014 sequel. “With Will, it just always feels like we’re all on the same journey and we’re all just trying to put some great things into the world.”

Though he had the backing of a partnership with Screen Gems, Packer still hustled like an indie producer. Packer got the cast involved in promoting the film ahead of the peak Twitter era, Good said. “We went everywhere, to like every Black college, and we were just on the ground, grass-rooting it.”

“Will and [Hardy] decided to use that as a way to put this movie out into the world and to make people feel like it was theirs and it belonged to them,” Good added. “It was word of mouth … ‘Tell your friends, take your family — this is for us.’”

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Packer and Hardy put out a number of other blockbusters before dissolving their professional partnership in 2014. Since then, Packer has delivered a steady stream of his own box-office hits, while also finding success in television with A&E’s Emmy-winning “Roots” remake in 2016 and the fan-favorite reality show franchise “Ready to Love.”

Amid the accolades, Packer says he most treasures hearing from fans who say their child wanted to go to an HBCU because they saw “Stomp the Yard.”

Kids aspire to what they see. That’s the power of this medium. It makes things tangible for them, especially if you don’t have access to those worlds,” Packer said. “I have been told that multiple times, and it never, ever ceases to really impact me in a major way.”

The controversy surrounding the Oscars telecast changes has, in headlines at least, overshadowed the historic milestone in Packer’s appointment. This year’s ceremony marks the first time an all-Black team has produced the show: Packer’s co-producer Shayla Cowan is chief of staff at Will Packer Productions and has worked with him for years, starting as his assistant on the 2010 sequel “Stomp the Yard: Homecoming.”

While the industry’s focus has largely revolved around the ins and outs of the ceremony, Friday said he was struck by an announcement about the Governors Ball, the glitzy after-party that Wolfgang Puck has catered for more than 25 years. Packer announced recently that the famed restaurateur would team with Black-owned culinary collective Ghetto Gastro in a collaboration that the producer said “breaks boundaries and brings a new flavor to” the storied event.

“It’s a fantastic way to impact this industry,” Friday said. “Who thinks about the caterer?”

The ceremony will also feature HBCU students as trophy presenters, celebrating institutions like the one that nurtured Packer on a worldwide stage — and amid a rash of threats against dozens of the schools.

Packer’s tweaks also extend to arguably the most visible part of the ceremony: the return of a host for the first time since 2018. Regina Hall, Wanda Sykes and Amy Schumer will take on the job together.

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Packer is known for championing underappreciated talent, and Hall, who has starred in five of Packer’s films, starting with “Think Like a Man” in 2012, is a prominent example. She’s “criminally underrated,” Packer said. “She is absolutely masterful. I think she can do anything.”

For her part, Hall said she appreciates the “ease” of collaborating with Packer. “He has a way of making work feel fun and he takes the weight off of it,” Hall said. “He could be so stressed right now with the Oscars. But I would never know it from him … He really creates and holds such a safe space as an artist to navigate in. That’s one of the reasons he’s incredibly special.”

When Packer thinks about the Oscars ceremonies he’s seen over the years, a few moments come to mind: Ellen DeGeneres’s pizza party. Chris Rock hosting. Denzel Washington and Halle Berry winning best actor and actress at the 2002 ceremony.

The Oscars that stand out to me the most are the ones where I felt some type of a connection to the people that were on the stage,” he said. “That’s what I’m trying to create this year.”

“Let’s get as many people under the tent as possible … movie lovers of all stripes,” he continued. “And if they enjoy it, and if it’s an entertaining show for them, then the whole industry benefits.

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