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Interview Exclusive HTF Interview: James Lopez, President of Will Packer Productions (Little) (1 Viewer)

Neil Middlemiss

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James Lopez serves as President of Will Packer Productions, the highly successful production company that has enjoyed a string of hits-and nine consecutive number one openings at the box-office-in the past few years. They’ve produced the Kevin Hart smash hits Ride Along, Ride Along 2, Think Like A Man, The Wedding Ringer and Night School, comedies like Almost Christmas and Girls Trip, and the dramatic thrillers No Good Deed with Idris Elba, and Breaking In with Gabrielle Union. And James Lopez has helped produce all of them.

Lopez was named President of Will Packer Productions in 2018, and previously served as Senior Vice President of Production at Screen Gems (A division of Sony Pictures Entertainment) and prior to his work in the film industry, played key roles in marketing multi-platinum artists such as T.I.

He spoke to us for an extended interview during a break from his constantly busy work schedule, taking a break from set visits, production meetings, and script readings to talk about the comedy Little, which is available now to rent and purchase at all major retailers in DVD, Blu-Ray, and Digital.

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HTF: How did Little come to Will Packer Productions? I know that the idea came from the incredibly talented brain of Marsai but how did you and team come to produce this project?

James Lopez: The idea came to my partner, Will Packer when Marsai was 10 years old. Marsai and Kenya Barris work together on Black*ish, and Kenya brought the idea to Will [Packer]. Marsai came into a meeting and it was an extraordinary pitch. She was very detailed, acted out scenes. She was very targeted in terms of what the story was, and it was very impressive coming from a 10-year-old girl. And four years later, we were on set shooting it, which is crazy.

So, this came out of [Marsai’s] brain and, in the process, we took it over to Universal, and they totally got the vision for it. [Of course,] in the time between her pitching the project and us being on set in production, her star had risen [with Black*ish] and the show had won multiple awards and up for multiple Emmys, so the timing felt right. Will and I were working with [Director]Tina Gordon on another project, and she felt like the natural fit to rewrite the script and direct. Then once we had all our ducks in a row, we went back to the studio and said, "Okay. We're ready now." We timed it during her last hiatus and got the film in production. And less than a year later, it was in theaters.

HTF: Films directed by black women are so rare in the world today. Is that an important decision you make for each project that comes along, that you want the right kind of representation behind the camera as well as in front of it?

James Lopez: Absolutely! Our company has experienced tremendous success on the support of black women. That particular audience for us is key in a lot of the projects we do. Because of the loyalty, because they really help market, push, and promote projects that they believe strongly in and enjoy that we felt it was important. Also, being in business with Marsai and her family, we felt it was important for her to see by example a project that was shepherded and had black women involved at every level.

And we felt that Tina's touch with comedy and the fact that not only is she such a funny person in life but she’s a great writer as well, we thought that it was the right person to take on the directing duties. It was my idea to bring her on as a writer but Will's idea to go to the studio and go up to bat for her for the directing job, and it was a great decision. We have a project in development with her now that she's rewriting and will also be directing for us. But we felt it was important that-- the numbers of African American female directors is crawling in the drama space. But there's not a lot in the comedy space really, and we felt strongly that if Tina were given the opportunity that she would rise and shine. And she's proven that she's able and more than capable of directing a studio comedy, and that's why she's getting the opportunity to do the next one. And there'll be many more for her.

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HTF: Well, that's great to hear. I think it takes someone taking a chance on a filmmaker to do something that can open up the possibilities for others, too. As you said, a black female directing a studio comedy is rarefied air. But once you prove that you can do it, it opens other doors and you can usher in people behind her to do that. So, I think that's a critically important step.

James Lopez: Absolutely.

HTF: As president of Will Packer Productions, what does a typical day look like for you? I mean, are you bouncing between productions and sets? Are you discussing the next project or projects? Or is it all of that and more?

James Lopez: All of the above. So right now, we are actually in post-production on our first romance-drama called The Photograph, written and directed by an African American director named Stella Meghie from Toronto. Stella brought us this beautiful script [and]. we fell in love with it, developed it over a year or so, and got it to the point where we felt strongly enough to push it to studio level. She's in post on that and editing. We're seeing a cut of the film next week for the first time. The Photograph stars Issa Rae and Lakeith Stanfield, and has a February 14th, 2020 release, so the studio's giving us a Valentine's Day release. But it's a romance-drama. And again, we look for holes in the marketplace, and there's not a lot of romance-dramas being made Hollywood right now but even less so for people of color or starring people of color. Even though it's a universally themed project and we definitely want audiences of all stripes to come out and support, in particular, we want to see our black women revered and loved on screen, and this movie does that. And it's a beautiful story.

“In terms of my day, I'm constantly keeping up with the post process, talking composers with the director, music-supervise, and going to the editor room in New York to see the film for the first time and give notes. So that's what we do when we're in post.”

In terms of my day, I'm constantly keeping up with the post process, talking composers with the director, music-supervise, and going to the editor room in New York to see the film for the first time and give notes. So that's what we do when we're in post. We also are in development on numerous projects. Tina Gordon is rewriting a project called Praise This for us right now, which is going to be our first kind of musical. We hope to be in production sometime late Fall which means it's getting on top of the writing process and giving notes and getting pages from Tina and then going into the pre-production process and budgeting and scheduling. And then the rest of them we have right now are just development projects that we hope to go into production at least on three of them next year. So, it's constantly juggling as much as you can, pushing forward on getting as many projects as you can in production. And if you're pushing six, then you hope for three that actually go. And that's kind of the average. I try to get at least half of the ones we've got pushing for production into production.

And then there's also reading. Right after we get off this call, I'll be sitting down and reading a script that's pretty urgent for me to read because it's going out to the rest of the town in about a week. And I have a jump on it, so I want to make sure that I first read something that we may be interested in jumping on as producers before everybody else does. I try to read, if I can, one script a day. It's not always possible depending on my meeting schedule, but I try. On weekends, I try to read at least four. It's crazy!

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HTF: Very busy. I’ve seen multiple definitions of black cinema, but to me it’s stories that tell uniquely African American stories or have an almost exclusively black cast. And I wanted to ask you what you think the state of black cinema is today. I think the landscape has changed. I interviewed John Singleton before he passed away, and we talked about the few renaissances in black cinema, it sorts of ebbs and flows. And I think we might be in another flow period because the kinds of stories we're seeing told are different. There's a lot of different voices in black cinema at the movie theaters now. So, in the '90s and early 2000s, we had The Best Man and The Wood. We had stories that were sort of romantically themed black cinema. And it seems like now the breadth of the canvas is widened, so we get stories that are about topical issues, The Hate U Give. We get voices that are that sort of surrealism like Sorry to Bother You. And we get the movies you guys have been putting out, When the Bough Breaks, The Perfect Guy, Breaking In, thrillers that just happen to feature black casts. And I think that's an important sign of this particular renaissance. But I wanted to ask you if you think we're finally starting to break open the flood gates of black voices in cinema?

“At the end of the day, the color that the studios and the financers care about is the green. The only thing that has changed is opportunity.”

James Lopez: I believe so. I think it's a great time. It's all based on commerce though. If you're putting out what the audience wants to see and there's support for it, then the studios will continue, or the finances will continue to support those projects. At the end of the day, the color that the studios and the financers care about is the green. The only thing that has changed is opportunity. The audience has always been there. What has changed is the opportunity. And the gatekeepers are starting to realize when people are given opportunities and given a new voice or story told from a different point of view, people come out. The Asian audience has always been there. They just have been invisible in film until Crazy Rich Asians comes along. That audience has always been there.

“I think the general audiences viewing habits have changed and have become more comfortable with seeing predominantly black-led casts and not turning away and thinking that is not for them.”

And I think what also has changed a little bit in terms of black cinema is that maybe the first renaissance back in the '90s when John came along and the Hughes Brothers and all those films in the early '90s that I grew up watching and wanting to emulate in terms of those productions is that many of those films played exclusively to the African-American audiences. And in cable or DVDs, they found a broader audience. But I would venture to guess that those box office returns were primarily on the backs of African American viewing audiences. I think the difference now-- you can't have a hit like Girls Trip make $140 million worldwide with an exclusively black audience. Can't happen. So, I think the general audiences viewing habits have changed and have become more comfortable with seeing predominantly black-led casts and not turning away and thinking that is not for them.

Will and I also pride ourselves on making sure that our projects are universally themed and are inclusive. So, you may see a predominantly black cast. You may see Gabrielle Union breaking in. But at the end of the day, it's a story about a mother trying to protect her cubs in that house and trying to get in and save her children, and that's universal. Seeing four beautiful African American women go down to New Orleans behaving badly is universal. It's reconnecting with your friends after years and trying to get through maybe some past issues. And at the end of the day, the movie's about friendship and having a good time and reconnecting. That's a universally themed project. We try to make sure that when we're developing things that there is something in it for everyone. And we cast it the way that we feel it needs to be cast, and I think that is what has changed in this new renaissance is that we're telling stories that are relatable to everyone and not as much exclusive. And if the project is good, people will come and support it. And I think that is what is leading this new renaissance is that these projects are resonating outside of the perceived intended audiences.

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HTF: Yeah. Well, I think that's exactly right. When I met my wife to be, she introduced me to films like The Best Man and The Wood. And she'd tell me that I probably won't get all the references, largely because I'm English, so there's a couple things working against me for some of the cultural uniqueness of these stories. But, although films like The Best Man, may have played to mostly African American audiences back in the day, I think you are right, these are stories that anybody can relate to, that anybody can find funny. Even if you don't get 100% of the references, you're still going to have a really good time. I think that once someone goes to the theater and watches When The Bough Breaks or The Perfect Guy or The Hate U Give and recognize the universality of some of the topics being discussed, they find themselves in those stories and characters even if they don’t look like them, and they'll always want to go back. I think we might just have been at that tipping point where it's finally caught on to the masses because they're hungry for something different and that something different is stories with slightly different cultural perspectives on familiar themes. So, I think that's a really winning approach.

James Lopez: Yeah. I mean, people of color in the United States have always supported films historically that may not have any representation for them in it, so it's not such a far-fetched thought that the same can't be the case in reverse. It's like at the end of the day, these are stories, and people are people. And as long as people can get over their hang-ups on what the poster shows and give a story a chance, I think the business would be very healthy for it.

HTF: The thriller and the comedy projects you guys have been working on have turned out well for you. And you've got the romantic drama coming out next year, and a musical that you're working on. Are there other genres that you're anxious to try and find the right project to expand into? Obviously, horror with Get Out and Us have been clearly resonating, so is horror something you'd want to get into? Is there a science-fiction or a fantasy, or it doesn't really matter? If the project's good, you'll go in that direction.

“As long as the material is good and we feel we are the right ones to execute it, there's no boundaries to the genres we want to explore.”

James Lopez: Yeah. As long as the material is good and we feel we are the right ones to execute it, there's no boundaries to the genres we want to explore. We do have a couple of projects in the horror space. We have a script we read recently, a grounded sci-fi thriller that we're going to be producers on. We do have a project that takes place in Ancient Africa, a massive period piece that's called Warrior Queen [as well]. It's an important story that's been in development at Universal for a couple years now. So, we are expanding our brand. And the way we think about taking those projects on is whether we're passionate about them or not, number one, and whether we feel it's a good business to be in terms of the genre. But we are not exclusive to projects that are just comedies or thrillers. We are searching and actively developing things beyond that scope, and hopefully those projects will see the light of day in the next couple years and will help expand our brand and what we're known for.

HTF: Let’s talk about the cast on Little. Regina Hall, Issa Rae, and, of course, Marsai, that is a very funny group of people. You worked with Regina on When the Bough Breaks. You're working again with Issa Rae on The Photograph. Is that important to you to work with the good talent and to find new ways to work with them again?

James Lopez: Yeah. We have kind of a family of actors that we've worked with several times. I’ve worked with Michael Ealy on five films. We've worked with Kevin Hart on six films. We've worked with Regina Hall on five. We're always with them because we enjoy working with them. Our sets are very family-oriented. We like being around these collaborators. And if the projects make sense, we try to work with the same people over and over but also making sure that we're giving new opportunities to folks as well.

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HTF: Who out there in the landscape, filmmaker, actor, actress, that you haven't yet worked with are you dying to work with?

“I would like to work with Ryan Coogler one day. One of my favorite directors is Denis Villeneuve. I think he's brilliant. If I should be lucky to ever have a piece of material that he would want to direct, that would be amazing.”

James Lopez: I would say, in terms of talent out there, on the directing side I would definitely like to work with Ryan Coogler one day. One of my favorite directors is Denis Villeneuve. I think he's brilliant. If I should be lucky to ever have a piece of material that he would want to direct, that would be amazing. Actresses or actors, there's so many that I've yet to work with. Trevante Rhodes, I think he's a brilliant talent. I think obviously Michael B. Jordan. Constance Wu, I would love to work with her one day. One of my favorite comedians right now walking this earth is Ali Wong. I would love to work with her. Great actor who I've had the pleasure of sitting down with, but we haven't figured out what to work on yet, Michael Pena. There's just so many. It's just way too many to mention. Oscar Isaac, I think he's brilliant in everything that he does. I would love to work with him one day. John Boyega, we have a personal relationship, but we just have not figured out the right project yet. Lupita Nyong'o. The list is far too many. Who knows if I'll ever get to work with any of them? But those are the ones for me that immediately come to mind.

HTF: Let me wrap up with something I’d love to see perhaps remade is a film with John Boyega from several years ago called Attack the Block, a very London movie. Terrific piece.

James Lopez: I have a personal connection to that film.

HTF: Oh, you do? Because I think it would be a wonderful film to see adapted over here.

“I remember watching [Attack the Block] the first time and I was so blown away by Boyega's performance, and I was like, "Who is that, this kid looks like a young Denzel."”

James Lopez: When I was an executive at Screen Gems at Sony Pictures, that film debuted at South by Southwest here in the States, and he and a few colleagues were there. Sony Pictures Acquisitions picked it up for distribution and the film ended up being released through Screen Gems, so I saw several iterations of that film from the early stages. I remember watching that film the first time and I was so blown away by Boyega's performance, and I was like, "Who is that, this kid looks like a young Denzel."

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HTF: Yeah, that's a great film. I'm not usually huge on remakes but I think there's something you could bring over that and really make an American film work very, very well. It would lose some of the unique London flavor, but an American version of that I think would absolutely kill. That's my two cents for what it's worth [laughs].

James Lopez: There's another film that when I was there, we were developing as a remake too. For me, it was probably the best action film I've ever seen in my life. It was directed by Gareth Evans

HTF: Oh, The Raid?

James Lopez: Yes, The Raid! We developed The Raid remake, but it just never saw the light of day.

“[T]he future for us is being more diverse in the types of products we're choosing and taking more chances and taking on bigger subject-matters, so we're very excited”

HTF: Oh, that's a shame but it's exciting that you get to work on that stuff. Exciting that you get to be a front-row to try and bring some really great talent and some really great scripts to audiences that other studios might pass on because they haven't got the courage to do it, so I'm grateful for what it is you guys produce and put out.

James Lopez: Yeah. I appreciate that you enjoy what we've been doing. And like I said, the future for us is being more diverse in the types of products we're choosing and taking more chances and taking on bigger subject-matters, so we're very excited. Another project you should be aware of that's in development now that we're very excited about is a project called Beast. And I won't give away too much on it, but it's man versus the elements. And it's probably something we will end up producing in South Africa. It's a pretty big project for us. We have high hopes for it. But it takes us into a genre that we haven't done. It's an action project taking place out in the elements in nature and on a safari, so we're very excited about that one as well.

HTF: Oh, that sounds exciting. Well, I look forward to whatever you've got coming up next. Thank you so much, James.

James Lopez: Thank you, Neil!
 

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