Is Tyler Perry the most powerful black man in Hollywood?
Tyler Perry’s real estate in Hollywood has accrued such high value over the past decade, he now steers the ship of what some consider an unrivaled dynasty.
The 43-year-old’s immense success has made him one of the most prominent figures in the entertainment industry, an actor, producer, writer and director who discovered the zeitgeist, aggressively rode its wings, and mounted a multi-million dollar regime.
Most significantly, he did so all at his own direction.
“He’s the cornerstone of black entertainment,” Janet Jeffries, an executive at Lawrence Bender Productions, tells theGrio. “He makes so much money domestically that a studio like Lionsgate will always be in the Tyler Perry business – whether he does the Madea movies or he does these dramas – because they pay for themselves. If it’s a Tyler Perry movie, you do it. It’s like, if you’re going to do a Quentin Tarantino film, you look at Quentin. If it’s a knockoff, you’re going to say, ‘Oh well, it would have worked if it was Quentin.’ There are certain people in the industry that you look to as those touchstones, and [Tyler] is the one for that [audience,] and the only one, unfortunately.”
Masterminding a template
The path to success for Perry has been less a matter of artistic revolution and more a testament to his business acumen.
As a filmmaker, Perry created his brand by establishing what Jeffries and others consider a formula for comedy: placing slapstick, hyperbolized characters in problematic situations, which they tackle through family units.
The storylines are meant to reflect the dynamic of the African-American household, and were introduced with the debut of Perry’s most well-known and scrutinized character, Madea, in the 2005 film Diary of a Mad Black Woman.
Following her arrival, the character spawned six incarnations, building a franchise under Perry’s reign worth over $400 million.
Additionally, the mogul has broadened his reach by embracing the world of television, creating the shows House of Payne, Meet the Browns, and For Better or Worse.
“I remember having this conversation with Marlon Wayans,” recalls Allison Samuels, Senior Writer for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. “Marlon had gone to a studio to pitch a story, and they were like, ‘Oh great, we’ll take it to Tyler Perry.’ He was like, ‘Well, why would you take it to Tyler Perry, it’s my idea?’…So, I think from that standpoint, they obviously feel that if it’s anything that has to do with the black community, he is the person who can get it done, who can put it out there, who can make it work, who can sell it, and who can make it a box office hit.”
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it
Perry established his mold by extracting details from personal life experiences, and capitalizing on common ideology relatable to his demographic. He does so without layering the plot with dramatic social undertones or complex philosophy.
When he abides by the rule, it works. When he veers astray, he finds less success, but the effect is minimal due to his devoted fan base and overarching power sources.
“Tyler Perry went pure commercial, and he tapped into that audience by not only poking fun at himself, but stereotypes,” remarks Jeffries. “He can do a lot of things because he has his own facility, and he has his own money, which he can put into these things and do it cheaply. So in a way, he’s able to do anything he wants because he already has it on tap for himself. Now do they always work? Not really…Obviously, he steers away from the Tyler Perry brand with Alex Cross, and that didn’t work at all. So, as far as power, he’s able to do it individually because he has the means, but if he were looking for other people to put money into it or offer support, I don’t think he would be as successful.”
Samuels adds, “I thought Alex Cross was a bad decision on [the studio’s] part. No criticism of him, I think it was just ill-advised not understanding who his core audience is.”
Where Spike Lee went wrong
Perry’s big screen megalith becomes even more remarkable when compared to a director like Spike Lee, who has also tirelessly worked to bring the black experience to the big screen.
Lee’s films approach African-American culture from a grittier, more art nouveau stance. They have achieved critical praise from movie elites and film buffs, but pale in comparison to Perry’s when it comes to box office earnings.
Perry’s film Madea Goes to Jail, for instance, grossed a total of $90 million domestically. That’s greater than six of Lee’s more popular titles – Do the Right Thing, Bamboozled, Miracle at St. Anna, Summer of Sam, She’s Gotta Have It and He Got Game – combined.
While Lee found greater success with films like Inside Man and Malcolm X, neither surpassed the $90 million mark Madea Goes to Jail brought in, and his most recent release, Red Hook Summer, took in a paltry $338,000.
By contrast, the worst Perry’s done at the box office was For Colored Girls, which took in $38 million.
Of course, Lee has been one of Perry’s most outspoken critics, likening his films to Amos n’ Andy and charging him with buffoonery.
“Somebody like Spike Lee might have a little bit of a stigma because politically he opens his mouth,” Jeffries observes. “It’s tough because [Perry] has a formula, and he hits all the notes, especially with the comedic, lighter stuff.”