I'm Matt Holzman with The Business Brief, a guide to what's happening in and around the business.
In 2004, a guy from New Orleans named Tyler Perry showed up in Hollywood. He had the temerity to suggest that the studios might want to turn his wildly popular stage productions into movies. And they all said no. Perry then hooked up with indie studio Lions Gate, and five years later, he continues to beat the big boys at their own game. His low-budget, big profit movies have grossed something like $400 million so far, and that doesn't even include I Can Do Bad All by Myself. His seventh and latest came in first at the box office this past weekend with $24 million – it probably cost half that.
So why hasn't Hollywood come crawling back to Perry on bended knee? Is it because he's black?
Kind of. The common wisdom is that the studios dismissed Perry because the white execs he pitched weren't familiar with his stage shows; stage shows that featured a big mama character named Madea played by Perry in drag. Madea, by the way, is said to be the contraction of "mother dear" that's used lovingly in the south.
It may be that the studios had never heard of Madea or Perry when he showed up. But, these are pretty smart folks, and I'm sure they did their homework. I'd say it was something less sinister than institutional ignorance or racism. Sure, Hollywood doesn't get middle-aged, church-going black women, but even if they did I'd say it was just a little much to expect the studios to invest millions in an untested filmmaker who wanted to make movies in which he would star, dressed like a gray-haired old woman.
I think that even if Perry had been the whitest man in America pitching a sure fire hit, the studios still would have turned him away. Because the real issue was not race, or ignorance of the entertainment needs of middle-aged black women, but control. Perry demanded complete control over his movies, and nobody gets complete control with the studios' money. Nobody.
In retrospect, Perry should be thrilled they turned him down, because they would have wrecked his thing by watering it down and mis-marketing it. He's not just succeeded doing it his way, he's succeeded because he's done it his way. And that's true in TV as well as in film. Unable to get a network deal for his show House of Payne on his terms, he produced ten episodes and gave them away for free. After it proved to have an audience, Perry signed a $200 million, 100-episode deal with TBS for the show. The man is smart with a capital "cha-ching."
Despite his success, if Perry really wants his revenge on Hollywood, he'll have to broaden his appeal. And he might just do that with his planned movie version of the 1977 Obie Award-winning play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Enuf. It's a significant enough work to get him taken seriously as a director and the show has enough awareness with white folks that it could be his first crossover film.
Given his smarts and his talent and his drive, Hollywood better beware if Tyler Perry manages to get out of the entertainment ghetto. Because you can bet that he'd go all Madea on the business, and the po po ain't gonna' help.
I'd love to know what you think. You can comment on today's thoughts or subscribe to the podcast at KCRW.com/TheBusinessBrief. For KCRW, I'm Matt Holzman.