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Tyler Perry struggles to draw white moviegoers

Tyler Perry is faced with a quandary that, bluntly put, amounts to this: How black is too black for broader acceptance?
/ Source: Hollywood Reporter

Tyler Perry is faced with a quandary that, bluntly put, amounts to this: How black is too black for broader acceptance?

The filmmaker’s chitlins circuit-to-Hollywood career arc has been a true American success story. Yet because of his audience demographics, Perry finds himself at a good news-bad news crossroads.

The good news is that Perry can be consistently counted upon to deliver $20 million-plus openings. “Remarkably, he’s done this playing to a predominantly African-American audience,” Lionsgate distribution president Steve Rothenberg said.

Indeed, Perry clearly holds the distinction of being the best-drawing filmmaker targeting urban moviegoers.

The not-so-great news: Perry’s movies just don’t seem to be crossing over to mainstream audiences.

That latter observation is perhaps a bit unsurprising as Perry’s comedies feature over-the-top caricatures of inner-city characters and his humor is consistently based on the modern black experience. Yet when that focused appeal produces a huge 63% second-session drop — as with “Tyler Perry’s Meet the Browns” this past weekend, an especially big slide for a comedy — it could mean the time has come for the filmmaker to tweak his approach.

Or not. Lionsgate executives won’t go on the record about Perry’s crossover prospects, but there’s been little for them to grouse about.

Getting into the Tyler Perry business has been like acquiring a license to print money for Lionsgate, whose executives seem content to let the filmmaker chart his own where-from-here strategy. “Browns” opened during the March 21 frame with $20.1 million and went on to gross $32.5 million through its first 10 days — not bad for a film costing less than $20 million to make.

So what to expect down the road? The filmmaker isn’t openly tipping his hand, but the early evidence is that he might be seeking to broaden the appeal of his movies while taking care to preserve core support.

Certainly the casting of Perry’s next film, which he now is shooting in Atlanta, seems to hint he’s aware that white moviegoers need more prodding to check out his movies. Other aspects of the project, however, appear well in the mold of his previous films and shouldn’t turn off any loyal supporters.

In “Tyler Perry’s The Family that Preys,” Kathy Bates plays a wealthy socialite who is a friend of a working-class woman portrayed by Alfre Woodard (“Beauty Shop”), with the plot revolving around extramarital intrigue involving the characters’ adult children.

Perry’s movies — like his previous stage plays, on which they are occasionally based — tend to deal with moral questions and how family and religion can help steer a course through life’s challenges. This one is no different, but two potential problems loom: Perry’s role as a husband of one of the more virtuous characters is relatively minor, and Perry’s recurring Madea character, a gun-toting grandmother much loved from previous movies and plays, is missing.

The filmmaker’s only box office underachiever was a film in which Perry didn’t appear, the February 2007 release “Tyler Perry’s Daddy’s Little Girls.” “Girls” opened with $11.2 million and grossed $31.4 million domestically, not bad for the average urban comedy.

A year before that, “Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Family Reunion” — in which Perry took on several roles, including Madea — opened to $30 million en route to $63.3 million overall. Both the opening and domestic total for “Reunion” remain the highest for any Perry-directed film.

It also could prove a hindrance that “Preys” is an original screenplay, as prerelease awareness will be lower than usual, even among Perry fans. Patrons of his most popular movies already were familiar with the films’ characters and themes from video recordings of Perry’s plays, which have been widely marketed in the black community.

On balance, will the inclusion of Bates and a few more white actors help “Preys” push Perry into broader acceptance in the moviegoing universe?

Perhaps. But it’s also possible that for the foreseeable future, Perry’s films will open big but burn through their target audiences quickly.

So while other producers of urban-targeted films will continue to envy Perry’s connection with his core public, his movies will continue to represent a textbook example of industry parlance for films with short legs: “Two weeks and out.”