When Will Packer set a meeting the weekend of July 23 with OWN staff to kick off his new producing deal at the network, Oprah Winfrey was sure to be there in person. The CEO's presence emphasized the importance of the channel's relationship with the red-hot Girls Trip producer as it navigates an ultracompetitive market for A-list black talent.
Earlier in July, writer-director-producer Tyler Perry, whose partnership with OWN since 2012 had helped the network find stability during its rocky infancy, announced a massive overall deal at rival Viacom under which he will produce 90 episodes of TV annually for BET and other Viacom cable networks and work with the Paramount movie studio.
Since then, OWN has unveiled several new collaborations, among them the Packer deal, which will see him develop scripted and unscripted projects for OWN as part of parent Discovery's investment in the newly launched Will Packer Media. Winfrey's Harpo Studios also has signed Ava DuVernay to a rich first-look TV and digital media deal in addition to giving her OWN drama Queen Sugar an early season-three renewal.
"This is the signaling of this new era of prestige scripted content that we're moving into," says OWN president Erik Logan. "That evolution of the network is what Oprah has been tasking us to do and create and drive toward — to elevate the storytelling and to find new ways to connect with our viewers."
Also invested in Packer's eponymous media company is Universal Pictures, where Packer has had a first-look deal since 2013. Universal has always found success with diverse behind-the-camera talent. The studio’s most profitable blockbuster franchise, the Fast & Furious series, has only had one white director at the helm of its now eight-film canon. Packer-produced films like the Ride Along movies and Straight Outta Compton and, most recently, the Malcolm D. Lee-directed Girls Trip, have all paid dividends for the studio.
"We have always had a strategy to have a diverse slate at Universal, not only from a filmmaker and talent perspective but in terms of the type of stories we tell," says Universal president of production Peter Cramer.
The Tuesday before Girls Trip hit theaters on July 21, Universal locked in a first-look deal with Lee. Since then, the R-rated comedy has picked up $65.5 million in its first two weekends at the box office, on a $20 million budget. This move followed a May pact with Jordan Peele, who signed with Universal shortly after his directorial debut, Get Out, passed $190 million at the global box office and he became the object of multiple studios' affections.">
We want to be their home, it's that simple," says Cramer of the recent deals. He emphasized that the studio looks for diversity on all fronts, including the story and scope of the projects that get a greenlight. "We don’t want to do the same thing over and over again, and, thankfully, the audience is responding.”
Universal already has dated new projects from both Lee and Peele, a comedy starring Kevin Hart called Night School out in September for the former and an untitled thriller out in March 2019 for the latter. The moves by Universal, Viacom and OWN come against a backdrop of dispiriting statistics about Hollywood's lack of racial and gender diversity behind the camera. A new USC Annenberg study reveals that of the top 100 grossing films domestically that hit screens in 2016, only seven black filmmakers held the director position.
The hyper-prolific Perry is considered the big fish in this pond. He has "been a big part of the network's growth," acknowledges OWN's Logan. But while Perry's dramas The Haves and the Have Nots and If Loving You Is Wrong are averaging a combined 5.5 million viewers a week, the 2016 launches of acclaimed dramas Queen Sugar and Greenleaf (which are averaging 4.5 million viewers between them) proved the network doesn't necessarily need Perry's name above the title to draw viewers. And Logan says it will be "business as usual" with the filmmaker as he prepares to move to Viacom.
Case in point: OWN is getting ready to launch another new comedy from Perry, The Paynes, in early 2018 with a 38-episode first season, and Perry will remain at OWN until the Viacom deal kicks in in 2019. Adds Logan: "The good news is that Tyler's not going anywhere for a while."
A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.