In June of this year, Tyler Perry brought the house down at the BET Awards. During his acceptance speech for the Ultimate Icon honor, Perry issued a powerful call to action on the necessity for African American proprietorship as a path to wealth-building and influence. It’s an idea that has been a critical motivator for Perry since his days on the so-called Chitlin Circuit, a historical network of venues that provided black entertainers safe spaces to perform.
Now, Perry controls rights to all of his film and TV work, and the 50-year-old multihyphenate is set to become the outright owner of one of the largest studio lots in America — the first African American to ever do so. On Saturday, Perry will host the official grand opening gala of his new $250 million Atlanta studios, which occupies the former 330-acre Fort McPherson military base, which he purchased in 2015.
In a phone interview this week, Perry said he first started dreaming about owning his own property during his childhood in New Orleans, as the son of a subcontractor father who built houses for a white entrepreneur. “He’d come home, so happy that he made $800 on a home he’d built, but then I’d notice that the white man would sell the house and make $80,000,” Perry said. “So I then knew that I always wanted to be the guy who owned and sold the house, rather than the guy who built it.”
The studio was once a Confederate Army base, and that irony is not lost on him. “[It] meant that there were Confederate soldiers on that base, plotting and planning on how to keep 3.9 million Negroes enslaved, and now that land is owned by one Negro,” he said in his BET speech. “So while you’re fighting for a seat at the table, I’ll be down in Atlanta building my own.”
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Some 50,000 square feet of the site are dedicated to standing permanent sets, including a replica of a luxury hotel lobby, a 16,000-square-foot mansion, a mock cheap hotel, a trailer park set, and a real 1950s-style diner that was relocated from a town 100 miles away; it also hosts 12 soundstages.
Even though Saturday’s gala will mark the studio’s official opening, the studio has been operating for a couple of years, while still under construction. Marvel’s “Black Panther” was the first feature filmed there, followed by everything from HBO’s “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” to Dwayne Johnson’s “Rampage,” and Ryan Gosling’s “The First Man.” AMC’s “The Walking Dead” is currently filmed on the lot.
But Perry himself isn’t producing these projects, and it might seem like a logical next step for him to develop a black-owned film production and distribution studio, which would be the first of its kind — and might go a long way toward addressing the industry’s diversity challenges. However, Perry is reticent to embrace the role of studio mogul just yet.
“It’s a lot of work to run an entertainment company, and it takes a lot of sacrifice and concentration,” he said, “Some people just don’t want to own the house, because they don’t want the responsibility, and I get it. And you can’t be upset with them for that, which means you just have to wait for the ones who do.”
But he’s keeping the door open to future possibilities. “Man, I’m still so young and I got another 20 or so years to go, because there’s still a lot more that I want to do,” he said. For now, his focus is on continuing to build out his namesake, Tyler Perry Studios, which he said will physically expand to rival some of the world’s largest.
In the near term, Perry is developing film and TV content under the broad multi-year exclusive deal he inked with Viacom in 2017, which includes a range of film and television projects: his co-ownership of BET+, the standalone OTT service which launched on September 19; creating series for cable TV network BET; and developing films under a first look agreement with Paramount Pictures on the feature side.
While the TV deal didn’t kick in until May 2019, with new series “The Oval” and “Sistas” premiering on BET later this year, the feature film component has already delivered last year’s Tiffany Haddish comedy “Nobody’s Fool.”
Perry also recently teamed up with former Lionsgate marketing chief Tim Palen to launch Peachtree and Vine Productions, which will serve as a hub for other creatives of color. (He declined to detail any projects in development or talent in the company’s sights at this time.)
Perry may be leading the charge in black entertainment, but he’s spent much of the last 15 years dealing with backlash. The “Madea” franchise on which the Tyler Perry empire was built accounts for more than half of his 20-film library, and almost all of them have been met with near-universal pans. Perry’s movies make money, but he’s not exactly a revered auteur. This kind of sustained assault might start to take a toll on even the thickest of skins, but Perry never let any of it dampen his enthusiasm.
“For every critic that said how horrible my films were, and typically they weren’t black, I got thousands of letters from people telling me how much the work was literally changing their lives,” he said. “Had I focused on the criticism, I wouldn’t own this studio today. I could not have gotten here without Madea.”
And with that kind of attitude, it shouldn’t be a surprise that he’s not chasing awards, either. While Perry has won several film and TV honors over the years, none of his work has garnered serious Emmy or Oscar season traction. “I came from outside the system, and I remain so far outside the system, that these things have never been of interest to me at all,” he said. He called winning awards “a very political process” that he would rather avoid.
However, Perry is more than ready to bid farewell to the contentious Madea character for good. Prior to premiering “A Madea Family Funeral” earlier this year, he promised that it would be the final film in the franchise. However, that wasn’t the first time the mogul expressed a desire to bury the character, which has been a tremendous source of wealth for his growing empire. “Funeral,” which grossed close to $74 million on a budget of roughly $20 million, ranks as the second highest-grossing movie in the franchise, suggesting that there’s still very much an appetite for the character. So is Perry really committed to burying Madea for good?
“Look, as far as I’m concerned man, she’s done,” he said. “I’m 50 years old, and there’s so much more that I want to focus on. So you can mark my words, it’s time for her to go.”
However, he did tease interest in a “Madea Cinematic Universe” that would see secondary characters from the series go on their own adventures. And he’s said he was thrilled to be working in an increasingly diverse, inclusive, and content-hungry environment that permits him to even consider that possibility. But he was reticent to refer to the current spate of black film and television as a “renaissance.”
“Going back to the blaxploitation era, we’ve repeatedly seen this sudden thirst to tap into us, that happens about every seven to 10 years, before it fades,” Perry said. But, whether or not the “thirst” will be sustained, he said he was glad to be relieved of the pressure he’d been under to be “everything to all black people” for many years, as more African American creatives are given admission through Hollywood’s pearly gates. He name-checked Ava DuVernay, Donald Glover, Lena Waithe, Justin Simien and Issa Rae, as some of the rising stars he now considers as peers.
Looking ahead, Perry said he hoped that more African American creatives find ways to adopt his proprietorship mantra. “If I see more of us own what we produce, and I’m in any way responsible for that, then I feel I would’ve done something,” he said. “That’s what Oprah did for me. And if I can do that for other people behind me, then I’ve done all I want to do, because that is what’s going to change this entire industry.”
But Hollywood is just one piece of the equation. Given his oratorical skills and wealth, might there be a future in politics for Tyler Perry? “Never, ever going to happen in a billion years, buddy,” he said.