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Tyler Perry reveals his secret to success

Director-actor-writer has managed to tap into an audience that was being completely ignored by Hollywood. By Miki Turner
/ Source: contributor

Even though Tyler Perry is a dude who has gone from living in his car to setting up camp on a posh estate outside of Atlanta, Hollywood’s most enigmatic filmmaker doesn’t believe in fairytales.

Why? Because he believes his steps are divinely ordered. That means he’s not lucky, nor does he have some animated fairy following him around sprinkling stardust on him with her magic wand. The man has just been blessed.

And with that blessing comes responsibility.

“The Tyler Perry brand is a brand that represents and means family, it means forgiveness, it means God, it means hope,” said Perry during a recent interview to promote his latest film “Daddy’s Little Girls.” “Whenever anyone has come to see a play or come to see a movie, these are the things that they know they are buying. For this particular brand I’m very clear of the box it has to stay in and who created the box for me to play in.”

Considering the returns he’s made on the paltry financial investments in his plays and movies, it’s no wonder Perry gives all credit and glory to a higher power. The success of his first two films — “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” and “Madea’s Family Reunion” — baffled just about every Hollywood executive in town when they both won their opening weekends.

Additionally, both films were made for under $8 million and went on to earn $50 and $63 million respectively. The subsequent DVD sales of those films brought in even more Benjamins. And even more impressive is the fact that collectively DVDs from his plays and movies have netted more than $250 million, putting him on the top of that list.

A formula that worksOn Wednesday his third film, “Daddy’s Little Girls,” starring Gabrielle Union, Idris Elba and Louis Gossett Jr., will hit theaters and it, too, is projected to open at No. 1 and make tons of money for the man behind Madea and the perennially happy folks at Lionsgate. 

Still, it’s no wonder the same executives who were dazed and confused by the box office returns of Perry’s first two efforts, which he wrote, produced, directed and starred in, are still a little perplexed by his continual success.

Despite the fact that Perry’s writing can be a little thin and his themes — boy-meets-girl, boy-has-issues-and-abuses-girl, girl-dumps-boy and boy-is-saved-by-divine-intervention and girl-forgives-boy — can be a little repetitive, Perry has developed into a can’t-miss, money-making machine in less time than it takes Rosie O’Donnell to stick her foot back in her mouth on “The View.”

But when you look at the steps Perry has taken to ensure his success and expand his bank account, it’s not really all that difficult to understand why he is where he is.

“You can count on him to deliver a unique film that you haven’t seen anywhere else,” says Perry’s producing partner Reuben Cannon. “He tapped into a market that loves and appreciates him and now he’s gaining support from other demographics.”

Cannon is right. Perry’s work is so relatable that he’s been able to reach a niche audience that had been largely underserved and/or ignored in the past by studio executives who think that the term “urban market” encompasses every African American from 8 to 80 and that they all want to see the same thing.

More than hoodies and hoochiesRealizing that African Americans were being fed a steady stream of films featuring hoodies and hoochies, Perry set out to make uplifting, empowering and inspirational films that would be a welcome relief from the common fare. Since his plays had been wildly popular, he transformed his theater productions into low-budget films, starting with “Diary.”

To get the word out, Perry and Cannon wisely launched their initial grassroots marketing campaign in the church. The black church has traditionally been the pulse of the African American community and what’s said in the church definitely doesn’t stay there. The word spreads down main drags, through beauty and barbershops, high school locker rooms, nursing homes, daycare centers and even pops into Starbucks.

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And another reason he’s been able to flourish is because Lionsgate not only puts up the money for the films, but also allows Perry to maintain ownership and have complete creative control.

He’s free to be. And the studio has money to burn. It’s win-win.

“It’s a great deal,” said Perry, who now shoots his films in a 70,000 square foot studio he built in Atlanta. “Working in Atlanta and away from this town has helped me have a lot of freedom. Plus the people who go to my plays — from the 30 people I started with to the 30,000 in the theaters now, they carried me into Hollywood and gave me this opportunity to do it my way. They said ‘we’re here with you. We’re going to show up and be there for you.’”

Perry’s plays had been popular largely because of the Madea character he plays in drag. She’s a cantankerous, no-nonsense older woman that audiences have embraced and seemingly can’t get enough of. Madea is so delightfully entertaining that it’s often easy to overlook the fact that Perry’s writing can be a little thin and his stories rather repetitive.

Madea takes a break“Daddy’s Little Girl,” a film about a devoted single father (Elba) fighting to regain custody of his kids and dealing with the complexities of falling in love with a woman (Union) in a much higher tax bracket (they got issues!), represents the first time Perry hasn’t slipped into a dress, or appeared in one of his films.

“Madea is on vacation,” Perry said with a smile. “She’ll come back in two or three years. I just felt like I was over-exposed. I was everywhere. With the two movies, the book (“Don’t Make a Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings”) and the plays and everything, I had done every talk show there is to do. I needed a moment to just get away from it and get behind the camera and do a positive story celebrating black fathers who do right by their kids. That’s not something you ever see on screen.”

But will the absence of his iconic alter ego affect his box office receipts? Cannon doesn’t think so.

“There’s such confidence and faith and so much brand loyalty in Tyler Perry that they’ve come to expect a film of quality, a film of integrity and something new and daring which is what ‘Daddy’s Little Girls’ is,” Cannon said. “It’s a celebration of black fatherhood. Madea will be back and when she does it will be a major event.

But, while Madea may be on an extended holiday Perry certainly is not.

Next month he’ll start shooting his next feature, “Why Did I Get Married?” He’ll start another film, “The Jazzman’s Blues” in June. Additionally, he’s scheduled to shoot 100 episodes of his syndicated TV show “House of Payne” before the end of the year, he’s also working on another sitcom “Meet the Browns” and he’s also penning another book.

That pace is beyond prolific. But again, Perry feels that it’s all a part of what he’s been called to do.

“I’m very, very careful about the Tyler Perry brand,” he said. “I get a lot of offers to do other things, but I’m very careful about this audience and my relationship with them.

There’s a level of expectation. Everyone else is the sex and the booty shaking and the this and the that and the niggas and the hos and the bitches. It’s very important for me to stay away from that. If everybody else is doing it, why do it? Everybody else is doing it and they’re doing it well, so let me show that there’s a whole other side to black people that most of the world does not get to see.”

Miki Turner is a freelance writer/producer in Los Angeles and can be reached at