This week I was asked to speak at an evening program at a local temple on the ever-popular topic of "Jews in Hollywood." I brought along a true Hollywood Jew, Sony Pictures' Amy Pascal, who spoke quite eloquently and insightfully about her faith and how it's sometimes tested by her job. Being my usual contrarian self, I veered off topic, asking Pascal why, if America had managed to elect an African American president, was Hollywood still light-years away from the day when there could be a black studio chief.
As I was driving home, I realized I'd been even more clueless than ever. Hollywood already has a black president and his name is Tyler Perry.
A star in every sense of the word, having written, acted in, directed, produced and promoted a string of hits in film, TV and theater, Perry is really in a class by himself. He has a new 30-acre studio complex in Atlanta that opened last October, with the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Will Smith and Sidney Poitier on hand for the opening celebration. The complex is equipped with five soundstages, so Perry can shoot his films and TV shows there, including his new show, "Meet the Browns," which after a successful test run on TBS in January, will relaunch early this summer, with an 80-episode commitment from the network.
Even though Perry is a huge presence in the African American community, he is still, well, undervalued in Hollywood, perhaps because he has until now been largely a self-contained hit machine, working outside the major studio system. His agent, William Morris' Charles King, argues that Perry is a classic showbiz entrepreneur. After all, Perry owns his own studio, his movies, his video library (he's sold 25 million DVDs of his stage plays) and his TV shows. In fact, if you were to compare Perry to anyone in Hollywood, it would be George Lucas, another uncompromising outsider who saw the value in owning his artistic output. "Tyler is on his way to becoming a mogul," says King. "He's an entrepreneur in the same spirit as Oprah, George Lucas, David Geffen or Barry Diller."
If there were any lingering doubts about Perry's clout, he showed it again last weekend, opening another hit, "Madea Goes to Jail," which made $41 million in its opening weekend. Largely lost in the media whirlwind known as the Oscars, "Madea's" performance was nothing short of astounding: It was not only the biggest opening in the history of Lionsgate, the studio that releases his films, but was the biggest opening weekend performer since "Twilight" debuted way back in November.
As Media by Numbers box-office guru Paul Dergarabedian, who has a way with words, put it: "Tyler is as consistent at the box office as Pixar or Harry Potter." It's true -- Tyler Perry is now officially one of Hollywood's most reliable brands. "Madea Goes to Jail" may have been his biggest opening-weekend hit to date, but it was hardly a fluke. He's released seven films in barely four years that have an average gross of more than $45 million, and that's counting the new film's opening-weekend-only numbers. In terms of box-office consistency, that easily puts Perry ahead of far better-known stars, like George Clooney, Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy, just to put a few names on the table.
What's especially fascinating about Perry is that even after his consistent run of hits -- all made for under $10 million -- he is still underestimated by the scrum of box-office pundits who predict the industry's opening weekend business. The best known prognosticators, including Box Office Guru and Box Office Mojo, all pegged the film at around $25 million, a figure it easily surpassed. Why was everyone so wrong about the opening?
A big part of the issue is that Perry still largely operates in a parallel universe. Even after America has elected a black president, it remains a country that is, especially when it comes to TV and movies, culturally divided. "Madea's" audience was still overwhelmingly African American and Latino, with whites making up only about 5%. Lionsgate execs suspect that "Madea" opened bigger than Perry's other films because it reached a younger black audience. In the past, Perry has appealed largely to older women.
As Lionsgate production chief Mike Paseornek explained: "Tyler's audience just doesn't track well to begin with, which is probably why he's constantly being underestimated. The box-office predictions are in particular geared to films that appeal to younger moviegoers. I mean, how many times do you go out to a movie on a Friday night and see a line of older women around the block?"
Perry's drawing power was underestimated from the start. Paseornek remembers having lunch with a rival studio executive the Friday that Lionsgate opened Perry's first film, "Diary of a Mad Black Woman," which went on to make $50 million after a $21.9-million opening weekend. "The film was already playing on the East Coast when the guy said to me, 'What do you think -- could you do $5 million this weekend?' " Paseornek recalls. "And I just grinned and said, 'We're already past that now.' "
Like many entrepreneurs, Perry is always looking for new worlds to conquer. Eager to broaden his horizons, he took a small part in J.J. Abrams' "Star Trek," which opens in May. And Perry is interested in working as an actor for other directors, so he could team up with an established star in a "Rush Hour" or "48 Hrs."-style action comedy. So far the studios have been a little slow to call with offers. But I'm betting that will change as Perry keeps rolling up the grosses. In Hollywood, money changes everything -- so hail to the chief.