Will Packer Explains How Handing a Copy of His Student Film to Warrington Hudlin Changed His Career
By Will Packer as told to Reniqua Allen-Lamphere
This article is the fourth in a series about gatekeepers in the professional world taking a chance on those with nontraditional backgrounds. Read the full series here.
The series is published in partnership with The Economic Hardship Reporting Project.
I didn’t know anybody in the film business at all. I was definitely first everything in my world, in my orbit, for the film business.
My initial desire before going to college was to start my own business. I didn’t know what the business was. I didn’t know exactly the route to get there, but I wanted to get my MBA because I was told by a high school guidance counselor that it was the way to be an entrepreneur. I got a scholarship to attend Florida A&M University (FAMU) as an electric engineering major because my math and science scores were so high. I never had a true passion for engineering, but my dad was an engineer. I knew a lot about it, and the bottom line for my parents was there’s money in them, there hills, right? My parents told me “they are giving you major scholarship money, full ride stipend, so go get an engineering degree. It’s a great degree, you can do anything with it.”
So, I ended up at FAMU and while I was there met a guy named Rob Hardy. I knew I wanted to leave there and go to business school. He knew he wanted to leave there and become a film director. I didn’t have the ambition and passion at that time that he did. But I said, “you know what? I’m gonna help you make your first movie.”
We had no equipment, no resources, nothing. We borrowed old equipment from a local television station. We used a little bit of money that we raised from our student government to buy Super 16 millimeter film and we shot our very first movie, which was called Chocolate City. Chocolate City was about life on a historically black college or university (HBCU) campus as we knew it. We were the actors, we were the crew. And we shot this movie, and sent it out to Hollywood.
Not a single person out there cared about it at all.
However, on our campus, it was a big deal. I realized even though Hollywood didn’t know anybody in this movie and couldn’t care less about this small, Super 16 millimeter grainy guerilla movie about a bunch of Black college kids, those Black college kids and their friends cared about it a lot.
By the time we were done showing that movie on our campus and around the city of Tallahassee, and we did a little distribution deal with Blockbuster video, we had made somewhere on the order of about a hundred grand.
“IT’S PROBABLY NOT GREAT. BUT THAT’S NOT THE POINT.”
I never ended up going to business school. When I graduated, I had an opportunity to intern on a movie that was shooting in Jacksonville, Florida. That’s where I met Warrington and Reggie Hudlin. I’ll never forget while on the set of Ride, I went up to Warrington Hudlin. I had a copy of Chocolate City, with the fresh shrink wrap and I said, “hey, I just want you to know it’s a real pleasure to be here. I’d love to be able to send you something.” He was listening, but his eyes were kind of glazing over. He was always very pleasant, but he didn’t lock in until I pulled out that copy of Chocolate City.
I said, “this is my movie that I made when I was in college.”
And he goes, “whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. You made that movie?”
And I said, “yeah, this is it right here. I’d love for you to watch it.”
He takes it, looks at it, he goes, “I’m gonna be honest with you. This movie’s probably trash. It’s your first movie. You didn’t have any money. It’s probably not great. But that’s not the point. This in my head separates you from everybody else out there.” He said, “in Hollywood, people are always talking about what they’re going to do, what they’re about to do, what their plans are, but you’ve actually done something. You’ve got something to show.” He said always be somebody that is doing something and not talking about something. And I just took that to heart. It stuck with me to this day. I am forever grateful for that piece of advice to be somebody that’s not just a talker.
When I made my next film after Chocolate City, Warrington’s Black Filmmaker Foundation set up screenings for us in New York and L.A. My first film screening ever outside of Tallahassee was with the Black Filmmaker Foundation. We were at the Creative Artists Agency (CAA) screening room and we sent out invitations to people all over Hollywood. It got some great folks to show up because we had this foundation behind us. We never would’ve had that level of access were it not for Warrington.
Hollywood is one industry where the challenges can feel insurmountable. It can feel very daunting because you get somebody of note that says you suck. You’re not good enough. You’re not cut out for this. And you just believe them. Like, who are you to argue with so-and-so who has this title behind their name?
When you’re first starting off, like I was, you need someone to champion you, to support you, and to tell you, “hey, it’s okay that nobody liked your movie. You didn’t get picked up, you got told ‘no.’ It’s okay. Get back up.” You need somebody with some kind of credibility to tell you that there is a possibility of success for you.
Being someone that is in a marginalized group, having other people in that community support you is career defining. It’s much more important because you’re not walking into spaces where you’re automatically in the club. There are some people that are automatically in the club based on their name, their look, their demographics, or their ethnicity. That’s typically not Black folks. They’re not enough of us in positions of power to say, “hey, come on in, you’re ordained and we’re gonna give you your first three shots.” It doesn’t really happen.
It’s not always somebody that looks like you, but it is somebody that understands that folks that look like me are not in the majority and are not typically the folks that are given the opportunities. And so if it were not for someone saying, “I’m going to give you a shot regardless. I’m gonna give you a shot because I know you may not have gotten one.” Then I wouldn’t get the shot.
So many of us sit where we sit because somebody reached out. If you want to find that person to help you get over the hump, bring something to the table. Be someone that’s done something. Don’t be someone that’s coming in and saying, “hey, I’m thinking about . . . I wanna do . . . I dream of doing . . . I have ambitions” That’s everybody. How can you separate yourself? The first thing is, be somebody that has something to show. Do something, go out and execute. Understand that the first project may not be the best thing ever made. It’s okay. It’s your first project. Get it out of the way, get that done and then do three more.
And then you’ll find people along the way who can help you because you’re in a position where you know their help means even more.
Reniqua Allen-Lamphere is a producer, journalist, and author of It Was All A Dream: A New Generation Confronts the Broken Promise to Black America.
Co-published with Fast Company.