By Courtney Garcia, theGrio.com (Article originally published on theGrio.com.)
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.
“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.
Watch the Trailer for “Medea Goes to Jail”
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.”
Samuels agrees, deeming Perry’s films “escape movies” which are easier for audiences to digest.
“You laugh and forget how bad unemployment numbers are for African-Americans, and you forget how high the prison rates are for young black men, and you forget all the problems of the world,” she points out. “I still think though, there are movies that encourage and entice us to think more about other issues, and unfortunately, I just don’t think black directors get encouraged to make those kinds of films…Even when films like that are moderately successful by black filmmakers, you still don’t see the encouragement to make more – only when they bring in a ton of money. That’s just not the way it works in white Hollywood.”
Beyond Lee, Perry’s clout exceeds most other black filmmakers. Take Antoine Fuqua. His latest film,”Olympus Has Fallen,” has earned twice the amount of Perry’s new film “Temptation” in the same amount of time, but Fuqua has been struggling to get a project off the ground for the past three years.
Similarly, the Hughes brothers’ last project together, 2010’s “The Book of Eli,” raked in an impressive $94 million at the box office, yet they’ve only made seven films since they broke out in 1993. Perry made over half that amount in 2012 alone.
To be clear though, it’s not just black Hollywood that Perry dominates, it’s the entire movie business.
In 2011, Forbes ranked him the highest-paid man in entertainment, earning $130 million a year over such other powerbrokers as Steven Spielberg, Jerry Bruckheimer, and Simon Cowell.
No Oscars. No blockbusters. No dramatic war films or science fiction epics. Perry did it all his own way, and shows little sign of changing his tune.
“He doesn’t have to evolve because the box office receipts continue to grow without him evolving,” says Samuels.
Furthermore, as Jeffries suggests, Perry answers to himself.
“I don’t think any studio looks to send him material because he generates his own mostly,” she explains. “If nobody else in Hollywood supported him, he would still be able to do it because he’s got the money and the facility, and it’s all at his fingertips. He’s a lucky, lucky man. He’s probably one of the most successful in Hollywood because of what he’s built.”
Monetary figures and star ranking aside, Perry has become a provocative construct of the American social thread: a black man who came from nothing to lead a white-run industry, but one who is both loved and hated within his constituency.
With every addition to the “Madea” franchise, the rolling argument of whether Perry has used his influence for the destruction of the African-American identity finds new voice.
Does he promote stereotypes? Does he repeat himself? Or do the figures speak for themselves?
“There’s a certain part of the African-American community that supports him wholeheartedly, that’s the church community, the black working class,” Samuels says. “There’s a certain section of the black community that feels his comedy has not evolved over the years, and they wish he would grow… There is that level, particularly from inside black Hollywood, that has been hesitant to criticize him publicly. I think Spike has done it at his own peril. People have become critical of him for being critical of Tyler because you’re not supposed to criticize other African-Americans, particularly when they’re successful.”
“But Spike had a valid point,” she continues. “Particularly when it comes to men dressing up in dresses and stuff like that, which is considered to be degrading. That is a debate that has gone on forever in black Hollywood. When do we stop doing that? When is it a minstrel show?… Because Tyler’s so successful, he’s at the center of it, and that’s why people continue to talk about him because of those movies and because they do so well. But they do so well because a lot of African-Americans go to see them. So you have to sit there and wonder if this is what African-Americans want to see, who are you to judge, who are you to complain that it’s not good enough? That is where the conundrum comes.”
Joining Forces with Oprah
Despite what negative criticism he may reap, Perry remains on top of the world, and therefore it seems only fitting he joined forces with another media mogul, Oprah Winfrey, to expand his regime.
Perry and OWN announced their partnership last October, describing it as an exclusive, multi-year deal which includes two original scripted shows to be executive produced, written, and directed by Perry.
Samuels believes this could be a chance for artistic breakthrough.
“Oprah could be the catalyst for Tyler to evolve,” she remarks. “Because her network has certainly evolved over the last 12 months, so maybe she can be that spark to say, well let’s get some of these characters more developed, let’s get some of these storylines a little more developed. Maybe she can be that person in his ear because I think if he listens to anyone, it will be her.”