Diary of a mad businessman (cont.)
Considering the scope of Perry's accomplishments, you might think that major studios would be breaking down his door. Surely he must be the toast of Hollywood - and of black America. That's all true, up to a point. And then it isn't true at all.
The studios "kind of look down on his work," says director John Singleton, who catapulted to fame with 1991's "Boyz n the Hood." "It's like they don't want to go there." Not only is Perry's art not high-brow - Madea, his signature character, has been known to carry a pistol and enjoy a joint or two - it's religious and often incredibly sad, and that just isn't how Hollywood wants to do funny black people.
It turns out that isn't how a lot of black people want to see themselves either. "In terms of getting an audience into the theater, yes, I give him success," says Ron Himes, founder of the St. Louis Black Repertory Company, who worries that Perry's and other touring plays are displacing traditional theater. "But in terms of developing an audience, I'm not as sure, because it's not necessarily a given that someone who's introduced to theater by a Tyler Perry play seeks out an August Wilson production for their next theater outing."
"It's a black anxiety," says Niyi Coker, a professor of theater and media studies at the University of Missouri. "We're afraid to let white America see us like this.... It's like saying, 'I don't want them to hear me singing the blues,' but it's okay now because they have accepted it. Why does it only have to be okay when they've okayed it? That is backward thinking."
Similarly backward is Hollywood's historical neglect of black audiences. "There was a trend to doing gimmicky black movies," says Michael Paseornek, Lions Gate's president of film production. "Put a few rappers in, put some songs in, deliver any old thing. Well, the audience stopped coming, but Tyler's brought them back."
Perry is a walking reminder of how the industry's oversight could begin to be costly. And for Hollywood traditionalists and those served by the existing system, Perry's willingness to flout convention could set a worrisome precedent. "If you're Jerry Seinfeld or Ray Romano and you want to do a new project, why would you ever go through a traditional TV network again?" asks Turner Entertainment Networks president Steve Koonin. "The ability to go direct to consumer with a financing and marketing partner like TBS certainly outweighs the perils of having a 26-year-old cancel your show."
Perry is an obvious poster child for such a movement. "I haven't sold one thing, from day one - not one song, not one show, not one script - nothing," he says, "and I will not sell a thing. I want to leave all of this to my children."
As Matt Johnson, Perry's lawyer at entertainment firm Ziffren Brittenham, points out, Perry's been able to maintain that stance and still get groundbreaking deals because his partners know they're almost guaranteed a return on their investment. "So on the film side, he gets his cake because, like A-list folks - Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, Will Smith - he gets significant first-dollar-gross participation," Johnson explains. "And he gets to eat it too by owning the copyright and receiving 50 percent of the true profit. And on the video side, he essentially gets 100 percent of the profits; we're just licensing the distribution rights to Lions Gate."
Don't think he beat it out of them, though. Perry's so loyal to Lions Gate that he actually told Paseornek to call him directly if he ever thought Perry's lawyers were taking advantage of the studio. Paseornek says he's had to use that card only once, but after he did, "five minutes later, we were closed." Definitely un-Hollywood.
One thing most people seem to agree on is Perry's impact. As an example, he's invaluable: "Tyler is willing to bet on himself," his William Morris agent, Charles King, says. "If more artists were to look at it from that perspective and think longer term - take less money or take no money on the front end, have an ownership position, have more creative control - they'd be more artistically fulfilled, and in the long run fare much better economically."
But will Perry change the industry? Unclear, says Paseornek, because he's seen what it takes to be Tyler Perry. "I don't know how you say that Tyler is anything but maybe the most unique person we've ever seen in our industry," he says, remembering a time when, while discussing song rights on the phone with Perry, he heard a crowd in the background and it dawned on him that Perry was moments from taking the stage. "To live through it with him, you realize it's unprecedented. He's Tyler Perry, and nobody else is."
Sitting in his office at TPS, wearing his usual tracksuit and Nikes, Perry is the picture of relaxation. It isn't quite the suit and tie he put on for Oprah recently, but Oprah's teasing comment still applies: "You're looking very successful."
We sit down to our final talk, he at one end of his coffee table, me at the other. "It's all right, you can come sit over here," he says, pointing to a closer couch. I relocate and place my recorder on the table. He picks it up without a word and lays it on the arm of his chair. It's as though everything - me and my tools included - are part of one huge set for him.
That's just who he is, and he isn't about to give it up. "I don't think I'll ever be able to turn things over to somebody else because I'm very hands-on," he says. "I would love to have another Tyler Perry. If I could find somebody - if I could find my clone - man, I could really do some things, you know?" It remains to be seen how long he can keep up the energy to do it all by himself - particularly if he decides to do a network down the road, as he's said he might.
"I'll always serve the niche," Perry says, "because they are me. They held me up and walked me through and brought me to this point. But with each film, each play, we're trying to pull it a little higher, and we'll just keep stretching and see how far they're willing to go."
So has finally having the respect of white Hollywood changed Tyler Perry? A bit. He does, after all, have a small entourage now: At the moment it's his trainer, assistant, contractor and bodyguard. But it is without a doubt the most reluctant entourage anyone's ever seen; the trainer whispers eating directives as if it weren't his job, and Perry's given the bodyguard strict instructions not to "fall all over him" - otherwise known as the sole purpose of a bodyguard.
And that house in the Hills? "I hate all the furniture in it," he says, confessing that he rented everything from the previous owner. "But come back in three months, and it'll be totally different, a place where people can come in Hollywood and just have good, real conversations, without any pretenses."
In a town that's known for dashing dreams, Perry's been able to hold himself apart, succeeding enough to live in Hollywood without being of it. And rather than treat his blackness as a hindrance, he's brought a major piece of black culture with him - taking the chitlin' circuit from well-kept secret to mainstream stardom and using it to build an empire. There's no reason to believe that he's going to change for anyone. And for the time being, at least, it looks as though it's actually Tyler Perry who's changing Hollywood.
From the February 19, 2007 issue