Perry aims to go over well abroad

Times Staff Writer

Tyler Perry debunked the Hollywood myth that movies and television shows about family, relationships and God were too narrow and folksy to resonate with a large audience.

His latest film, “Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married?” has pulled in nearly $40 million in only two weeks and outdid such films as George Clooney’s “Michael Clayton” in its opening weekend.

But can Perry take on the rest of the world? The Atlanta-based writer-actor-director wants to build an international following, shattering a Hollywood stereotype that African American-themed movies have little currency abroad.


He’s taking a page from the global success stories of such stars as Will Smith and Denzel Washington and the gospel-inspired play “Mama I Want to Sing!” which has toured the world for more than a decade.

Today, Smith is one of the world’s most popular stars, grossing hundreds of millions of dollars here and abroad not only from action films but dramas such as “The Pursuit of Happyness.”

“We are challenging the status quo,” said Charles King, Perry’s agent at the William Morris Agency. “We do not believe that there is not an international audience for Tyler’s movies.”

Several major studios are now courting Perry, promising to push him internationally. These offers are particularly appealing because his current distributor, Lions Gate, has had a disappointing track record abroad.

Only two of Perry’s four movies have opened internationally. The films, released in such countries as Poland, Iceland, South Africa and Brazil, grossed a pittance there.

Lions Gate declined to discuss its international plans for Perry. Perry declined an interview request.

But taking a place on the world stage is no small endeavor and does not depend entirely on a studio’s distribution muscle. Stars must work overtime giving countless publicity interviews in new territories with newspapers, TV shows and magazines, not to mention the obligatory appearances at premieres.

Certain genres do better than others. American comedies, for instance, are a tough sell. Although “The Wedding Crashers” grossed $209 million domestically, it brought in only $75 million abroad. “Knocked Up” took in only $58 million internationally, compared with $149 million here.

Films with African American themes tend to struggle internationally, even when they include global stars. For instance, the 2002 hit “Barbershop,” starring Ice Cube, grossed $76 million domestically and only $1.3 million abroad, according to Box Office Mojo. “Dreamgirls,” with Eddie Murphy, Jamie Foxx and the internationally famous Beyonce, grossed $51.2 million abroad while bringing in $103.3 million at home.

“You have to make sure you have a relatable emotion through the movie,” said James Lassiter, Smith’s business partner, who has traveled the world with the star. “You have to check your ego and go into a territory and recognize that nobody knows you. You go back again and again and by the third time, you are a star.”

Smith began building an international base early on. In 1995 Smith and Lassiter (with the help of producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer) convinced the studio behind “Bad Boys” to send them to the Cannes Film Festival, where the world’s media congregate every year. What was going to be a two-day trip turned into two weeks of interviews and stops throughout Western Europe. The film grossed $75 million abroad, far exceeding the studio’s initial projections of $5 million, Lassiter said. “Bad Boys” was Smith’s first breakout hit internationally, and was followed by the hugely successful “Independence Day.”

“The fact that we traveled earlier in our careers gave us the sense that America is not the world,” said Lassiter, noting that Smith’s music albums and his hit TV show “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” in the early 1990s took him to the world stage before he was in movies. “Tyler Perry’s movies can double what they do domestically with the right plan for selling them around the world,” he said.

Perry’s films are overtly Christian, something that does not generally appeal to audiences in Japan or Germany. His movies tackle issues that, although not exclusive to African Americans, are touchstones in that community. They include spousal abuse, drug dependency and the responsibility of males to stand by their families.

The themes are what attracted African Americans to Perry at home, where he nurtured a loyal black fan base for about a decade when he toured the country with his plays.

When Perry first set out four years ago to get distribution for his Christian-themed film, based on his play “Diary of a Mad Black Woman,” Hollywood executives told him that African Americans who went to church did not go to the movies. None of the majors would take a chance on Perry on his terms so he cut a nonexclusive deal with Lions Gate, the independent studio known for its horror films “Saw” and “Hostel.”

Lions Gate gave Perry total autonomy and released the $5-million movie, which was co-financed by the star. It grossed more than $50 million.

Perry’s two other films also were hugely profitable, but for the most part did not cross over to nonblack moviegoers. The audience that saw “Why Did I Get Married?” in its first weekend was 90% African American, according to Lions Gate.

Perry sees the international market as a key factor in growing his brand. On average, international box office accounts for more than half of a movie’s revenue stream.

“It’s a global economy so you have to have a global audience,” said Reuben Cannon, Perry’s producer.

Perry and his team were banking on the international appeal of Janet Jackson, who stars in “Why Did I Get Married?” But so far, Lions Gate, which owns the worldwide rights, has not provided a concrete distribution or marketing plan for the movie’s international release.

Disappointed, Perry’s team is now putting together an international strategy of its own for the star’s next film, “Meet the Browns,” which is due out early next year. The film does not have an international distributor.

Perry may have a better chance today than he would have had 10 years ago. The barrier of the so-called black factor has been broken down by the universal appeal of hip-hop.

Now, perhaps the most challenging films to sell overseas are comedies starring middle-aged white guys, said Tomas Jegeus, co-president of 20th Century Fox’s international division.

“It’s not a race issue anymore. Hip-hop culture obliterated that even in countries like Korea,” said Jegeus, who is Swedish. “We laugh at different things around the world and that is why comedies don’t generally work. The biggest issue is, ‘Is it entertaining and do I identify with it?’ ”

Washington’s publicist, Alan Nierob, said in Europe it also helped to do a little Shakespeare. When Washington agreed to play the part of Don Pedro of Aragon in the 1993 Kenneth Branagh film, “Much Ado About Nothing,” his acceptance among the French and British grew.

“The more they see you the more familiar they become with you and your work,” he said. “The actors that are successful overseas work the world really hard.”

With some effort, something as traditionally African American as gospel music has worked abroad.

Writer-creator Vy Higginsen said she toured the world beginning in 1988 with her hit play “Mama I Want to Sing!” Japanese audiences cried, stood in line for autographs in the rain and came back for repeat performances, she said.

In Venice, Italy, at the Teatro Goldoni in St. Mark’s Square, the sold-out audience threw flowers on the stage and gave the show a 15-minute standing ovation. She said she could not find a single black face in the crowded theaters in Switzerland and Austria.

“I don’t know what ingredients it takes to hit the international button,” said Higginsen, whose play has been made into a movie, starring R&B; star Ciara, that will be released next year.

The producers behind the film invited Japanese distributors to Ciara’s concerts last week in Tokyo to begin building awareness.

“It’s the sound, the voices of a people in a story, but our message is universal,” she said. “Even through adversity you can still overcome and you can follow your passion and dreams.”

King, Perry’s agent, said he was undeterred by the naysaying.

“In the past, the studios used to say that movies about blacks or starring blacks wouldn’t play outside of the South,” he said. “That was a battle that was fought and won.”