Making It: How HBCU Education Helped Shape Will Packer

Graduating magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering is not the typical pathway to becoming a successful filmmaker, but then again, there’s nothing typical about Florida A&M University graduate Will Packer. Despite the fact that his course of study was not directly related to what he would ultimately do for a living, Packer attributes a good deal of his success to his alma mater.

“Attending an HBCU set the foundation for me to be successful in my career,” says Packer, a proud recipient of FAMU’s highest honor, the Meritorious Achievement Award. “The nurturing environment and the unyielding push for excellence [at FAMU] provided me with the analytical skills that I have needed to navigate the business world. I go back and give back every chance I get.”

He befriended colleague and future business partner Rob Hardy while attending the Tallahassee-based university, and the rest, as they say, is filmmaking history. In 1994, while still in school, Hardy and Packer started making films. Later, when major studios turned down their projects, the pair marketed them independently.

“We didn’t know what we didn’t know,” Packer told a group of young men gathered in Atlanta for the University System of Georgia’s African-American Male Initiative in September, of his and Hardy’s tumultuous journey. “We just knew that we were dreaming in color.”

After graduation, they both turned down lucrative engineering jobs to move to Atlanta to launch their own production company, Rainforest Films. The company’s first theater-released motion picture, Trois, became the fastest million-dollar-grossing film distributed by African-Americans when it earned $1.2 million.

Since then, the duo has enjoyed success with a bevy of blockbusters, including Trois 2: Pandora’s Box, The Gospel, Stomp the Yard, This Christmas, Obsessed and Takers. Last April, Think Like A Man, the film adaptation of comedian Steve Harvey’s New York Times best-selling book, opened number one in the box office, grossing $33 million (ending The Hunger Games’ four-week reign in the top spot). Packer is also responsible for brokering a profitable partnership between Rainforest and Sony’s Screen Gems to produce and distribute urban films.

In 2011, he and Hardy marked another historic milestone when they joined forces with fellow businessmen to launch Bounce TV, the nation’s first-ever free broadcast television network marketed exclusively to Black audiences. Bounce targets African-Americans, primarily between the ages of 25 and 54, with 24-hour programming that includes movies, live sporting events, documentaries and inspirational faith-based programs.

“It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities when we were approached by Ambassador Andrew Young, Martin Luther King III and Ryan Glover,” recalls Packer. Bounce reportedly is available to 80 percent of Black homes and 60 percent of all U.S. households.

Since 2000, Packer has also snagged coveted spots on several high-profile lists, including Giant magazine’s “The Giant 100,” Jet magazine’s “Who’s Hot To Watch in 2008” and Black Enterprise’s “Most Powerful Players Under 40” and “Top 25 Money Makers in Hollywood.” He has also been honored with the key to the city in his hometown and “Will Packer Day” has been proclaimed in the cities of Chattanooga and Fort Lauderdale.

Packer appreciates the role of historically Black institutions in shaping productive members of society.

“If it weren’t for HBCUs, we wouldn’t have some of the great leaders that we have today,” gushes the St. Petersburg native. “[HBCUs] provide a great foundation for success.”

Packer has plenty of advice for college students, especially young men, in pursuit of their dreams.

“You are going to be told ‘no’ so many times that it is going to make your head spin,” he told the crowd in Atlanta. “Do your homework. Do your research and know what you’re stepping into before you get powerful enough to go against [the grain]; you have to go with it.”

He also warns that friends be chosen wisely.

“A lot of time, we don’t realize how much we’re judged by the company we keep,” adds Packer.

As for aspiring filmmakers seeking direction, his advice is simple:

“Just do it; go out and make your own film,” he says. “Thanks to technology, you have so many more opportunities now to make movies than we did. It’s not as expensive as it used to be back when we started. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do it; you can. Just get out there and do it.”

Of all of his many accolades, Packer says he’s most proud of how he and Hardy have navigated an especially arduous field.

“Being able to enjoy a level of success in this industry that is so difficult and challenging is huge to me; especially since there were so many people that thought I could not do it,” Packer says. “That’s a big deal to me.”