The Hollywood Gospel According to Tyler Perry
Tyler Perry has a story he likes to tell about Hollywood being out of touch with African Americans.
Back in 2002, when the comedian and playwright made the rounds at the major studios to pitch film projects based on his gospel-inspired act, people didn’t know what to make of him. He remembers one Paramount Pictures executive even telling him: “Black people who go to church don’t go to the movies.”
Perry set out to prove that executive wrong. First, he partly bankrolled an independent feature film version of one of his plays, “Diary of a Mad Black Woman.” Then, to motivate his fans to go see it, the charismatic, 6-foot-5 Christian incorporated the white studio exec’s assessment of blacks’ moviegoing habits into his live act.
“You should’ve heard the roar of these thousands of black people in the room,” Perry said, remembering the typical reaction at his sold-out 3,000-seat venues. “They were fired up and angry and ready to go to the movies.”
What happened next made Hollywood sit up and take notice: “Diary of a Mad Black Woman,” which was made for $5.4 million, opened last February and grossed more than $50 million in theaters (not to mention selling 3.3 million units on DVD). Its audience was predominantly black. On Friday, almost exactly a year after “Diary’s” debut, Perry will release his second feature film, “Madea’s Family Reunion.” With this movie, which like “Diary” features Perry as a pistol-packing grandma on a mission of redemption, the New Orleans-born auteur is attempting to broaden his reach.
Having shown that black churchgoers can also be filmgoers, Perry -- inspired by the likes of Bill Cosby before him -- is out to introduce himself to mainstream white America.
“What is important to me about this movie is that the stories and messages are for anyone,” said Perry, who says a recent test screening drew raves from a white audience near Sacramento. “Anyone who needs to learn about forgiveness ... will enjoy it no matter who they are.”
With “Madea,” which Perry wrote, produced, directed and stars in, he has finally gotten his Hollywood imprimatur. Lionsgate, the studio that co-financed and distributed “Diary,” footed the bill for “Madea” and has committed to Perry’s third feature, expected in 2007.
To hear the 36-year-old self-described mogul-in-the-making tell it, “Madea” is just the beginning. With a nod to friend and mentor Oprah Winfrey, Perry -- who has an advice book coming out in April, a television sitcom and an animated series in development and a production studio the size of a city block in the planning stages in Atlanta -- is out to become an entertainment industry franchise.
“He is a force of nature,” said John Feltheimer, chief executive of Lionsgate, who admittedly has a stake in that being true. “He speaks with a unique voice to a specific audience. We want to be a partner in everything Tyler does.”To hear Perry tell it, he was drawn to inventing stories because his real life was so grim. The third of four children raised in a working-class family, Perry says he was a victim of physical abuse. His father’s “answer to everything was to beat it out of you,” Perry once told Jet magazine. When he told his mother his dreams of becoming a performer, she discouraged him.
“My mother said to me, ‘You are never going to make it, so stop what you’re doing,’ ” he recalled, without bitterness. “That was her way of protecting me.”
In the early 1990s, he left New Orleans for Atlanta. After hearing Winfrey talk on her show about the healing power of journal writing, he began putting his childhood experiences on paper. Eventually, the journal entries became inspirational plays.
In those early years, he was so strapped that he lived intermittently in his car. But in 1998, Perry’s play about survivors of child abuse, “I Know I’ve Been Changed,” sold out the House of Blues in Atlanta.
Soon he was touring the gospel theater circuit, an African American institution that the civil rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois had once called theater “for us, by us, about us and near us.”
It was during these tours of the South and Midwest that Perry learned the power of word of mouth. He was championed by the faith-based community, whose preachers took to their pulpits and lauded his plays.
Perry’s work could be blunt -- it squarely addressed such issues as drug use, spousal abuse and broken families. But much like the ministries themselves, he leavened the hard themes with music and comedy even as his characters embraced the tenets of Christianity: hope, faith and redemption.
Some in the African American community have been critical of Perry, saying he relies on stereotypes for his characters. Moreover, some see Perry’s Madea as a caricature, a modern version of the “Mammy” -- a domineering, masculine black woman.
But there is no question that Perry struck a chord by creating recognizable characters who struggle with real problems. Which is why, long before Mel Gibson’s 2004 blockbuster “The Passion of the Christ” taught Hollywood the power of church-based marketing, the gospel circuit was making Perry rich.
“Churches and pastors work so well with his plays because they see them as an extension of the ministry,” said the influential Texas evangelist Bishop T.D. Jakes, whose novel “Woman Thou Art Loosed” was adapted for the stage in the late 1990s by none other than Perry.
Perry early on grasped the importance of branding. From the start, he refused to begin a show unless his name was on the theater’s marquee. If his name did not appear prominently on the tickets, he would order theater owners to reprint them.
“Whoever made the mistake had to pay for it,” he said. “When you have a few thousand people waiting to see you, you can pretty much demand a few things.”
He has been meticulous about building the Tyler Perry image. His website, www.tylerperry.com, is a gallery of softly lit portraits: Perry in a black suit on a chaise lounge; Perry in a dark pinstripe suit, staring deeply into the lens.
“Once I started doing the Madea character, I realized that people needed to see my face,” he said. His goal: for people to view the outspoken, dress-wearing Madea and the handsome executive as “two separate brands.”
As his celebrity grew, he got a surprise visit from the woman who’d inspired him: Winfrey. She introduced herself as a fan of his work after one of his live shows. They became friends, and she offered the advice he still lives by: Never lose control of your brand.
Forbes magazine says Perry sells more than $100 million in tickets, $30 million in videos of his shows and an estimated $20 million in merchandise. He has a 12-acre estate outside Atlanta. He named the 26-bedroom spread Avec Chateau, which in French means “with home,” to remind him how far he’d come.
But now he had a new challenge. With a loyal following in the millions, Perry was ready to conquer Hollywood on his own terms. Or so he thought.
“He came out here and it was like, ‘Who are you?’ ” said Nia Hill, founder of the independent film promotion company Momentum and producer of one of Perry’s first plays.
Perry’s agents at the William Morris Agency eventually landed him a half-hour sitcom on CBS. But when executives began ordering rewrites of his material, as is common in the industry, Perry wanted to quit.
Perry turned to Reuben Cannon, a veteran producer whom he would soon make his partner. Cannon advised him to hold off on TV.
“He was being directed by the network ... telling him what is funny and what is not,” said Cannon, who likes to call Perry “Howard Hughes without the weirdness.” “I said, ‘Come back to television when you become a movie star.’ ”
Perry got out of the CBS deal and devoted himself to the “Diary” screenplay. In 2003, after a year in Los Angeles, he tried to find a distributor. His first meeting was with a Paramount executive who no longer works at the studio.
It was this exec, Perry says, who told him that churchgoing blacks didn’t go to the movies.
“I sat there completely mortified,” Perry recalled. “I was like, ‘He did not just say that to me.’ ”
The executive acknowledges meeting with Perry, but denies making the comment and says he would never say such a thing. He also recalls he wanted Perry to work with a proven producer at Paramount and that Perry declined. Perry confirmed this.
After his meeting at Paramount, Perry met Julia Dray, then a senior vice president at Fox Searchlight, the specialty division of 20th Century Fox, who caught his show at the Kodak Theatre.
Blown away, she went backstage and told Perry she wanted to make a film with him. Perry agreed. But after he turned in a script, the studio told him it wanted to hire a more experienced screenwriter to “polish” the characters. This, too, is common, but Perry again said no.
“Searchlight lost the golden goose,” lamented Dray, now a producer at an independent company, Broken Lizard.
In a last-ditch effort, Perry’s agents sent his script to Lionsgate production head Mike Paseornek. As the last remaining major independent studio, Lionsgate is known for taking risks on low-budget films.
Paseornek admits he had no idea who Perry was. So he and Feltheimer called white Hollywood executives and asked if they had ever heard of him. None had. But when they asked African Americans, the response was passionate.
After seeing Perry live, Paseornek was “floored.” Within a week, Lionsgate made a deal giving Perry what Winfrey had told him to hold out for: complete creative control.
“If a few middle-aged white guys living in the insular world of Hollywood are going to make decisions for Tyler Perry, then we should not be in the Tyler Perry business,” Paseornek said.
The studio put up about $2 million of “Diary’s” $5.4-million budget and agreed to split the back end of the film’s profits with Perry. Within two days of the film’s opening, Lionsgate went further, buying the distribution rights to Perry’s entire video catalog of plays. The studio also has the long-term rights to any movie that includes Madea as a character.
Lionsgate put up all of “Madea’s” $6-million budget. But Perry still gets half of the back end of the film’s profits.
There are already indications that “Madea” will have broader appeal. Exhibitors who passed on “Diary” have shown more interest in “Madea.” The film will be released on 2,000 screens, 500 more than “Diary.”
Lionsgate is aggressively targeting the spiritual community by printing 30,000 prayer cards to be distributed at more than 1,200 churches nationwide. On one side is Perry wearing a large gold cross; on the other is Madea surrounded by a golden cloud resembling the Holy Spirit. On Thursday, Perry will appear on the Trinity Broadcasting Network.
If all goes according to plan, “Madea” will drive interest in the other Perry properties. He has filmed 10 episodes of a sitcom that is being shopped around to broadcasters.
His plans to build a production studio in Atlanta include three soundstages and a 2,400-seat theater. When it’s finished, he says, he will start his own cable network to broadcast music videos, news, movies and other programming.
Perry remembers his mother telling him that all he needed in life was to “make $300 a week, get some benefits and live happily ever after.” He actually needs more: “I totally see an entertainment empire.”