Playwright, writer, actor, producer, director and philanthropist Tyler Perry, the honoree of this year’s World Screen Trendsetter Award, weighed in on the importance of content ownership, the power of television to change attitudes and his model for COVID-19-safe production in his MIPCOM Online+ keynote conversation with Anna Carugati.
Perry arrived as a major new force in Hollywood with his 2005 feature film Diary of a Mad Black Woman. Written, created by and starring Perry, the film beat expectations to open at the number one spot at the U.S. box office. In the years since, Perry has written, directed and produced more than 1,200 episodes of television content, including House of Payne, The Haves and the Have Nots, The Oval and Sistas. He has also directed and produced more than 20 feature films, generating more than $1 billion at the North American box office. He owns and operates Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta, encompassing 12 sound stages, spread out over 330 acres of land that once housed a Confederate army base. His entertainment empire has generated more than $2 billion.
In conversation with Anna Carugati, World Screen’s group editorial director, Perry reflected on his journey to Hollywood and how he drew inspiration from his mother. “My mother, who passed in 2009, is still my North Star. Growing up in a household where there was tremendous sadness, she was abused by her husband, my father, having to endure all of that was a tough upbringing. But had it not been for her love and kindness and constantly showing me hope, I don’t know where I would be.”
Television had a defining impact on Perry as a child. “Television was such an escape for me. People ask me how I write so much. It’s because in trauma, I developed this space to go to in my brain to escape into these different worlds. I could stay there for hours. Growing up as a kid, television helped create a lot of those worlds.” Gilligan’s Island was a favorite, Perry said (before singing part of the classic show’s theme song). “I loved the show on so many levels. I remember as a kid thinking they were little people that actually lived inside of the television; I wanted to go inside and take them out so I could have them in my life. As I got older, [I loved] all of the Norman Lear shows—The Jeffersons, All in the Family, Good Times and so forth.”
Perry started journaling as a young adult after watching Oprah Winfrey say that writing was a cathartic experience and soon began penning his own plays. Those early days were difficult, but Perry remained determined. He spent $12,000 to get his first play produced, “and no one showed up. But out of those 30 people there, there was someone who wanted to invest. So for seven or eight years, I would try a play, it would flop over and over again in every city. And then in 1998, it hit. That changed everything. The audience showed up. That was one of the defining moments in my career.”
Between 1998 and 2004, Perry was doing some 360 to 380 performances a year of the live shows, which were sold out across the country. “I wanted to figure out, how do I continue to meet the needs of this audience who is so hungry for content, hungry to see themselves. So I thought, I’ll try film. From there, I went into television. It was the same thing. The need kept getting greater and greater.”
On his most famous creation, Madea, Perry said, “She’s a no-nonsense, wise Grandma that I think we all had, and she’s missed now because grandmothers are much younger now, and they have hair dye! That’s what endeared her to so many people. And her candor, she wasn’t politically correct, she’s streetwise, and she had love, but she also had a pistol. I think a lot of people related to her.”
House of Payne was Perry’s first television project, running for years on TBS before being revived at BET last year. “I got to know the characters,” said Perry on the attraction of episodic television. “The show is approaching 200 episodes. These characters have had long lives, and they ran parallel over these 14 years with people’s actual lives. The characters get to live broader, longer arcs, and you really get to know them.”
Perry continues to act in feature films. It’s an art that has informed his other endeavors. “The acting helps me in directing actors because I understand what they deal with, what they need. I think every director should take an acting class or two. Also, editing helps me understand as well; spending hours and hours in the edit rooms has allowed me to cut down hours and hours of my day shooting.”
The desire to set up his own studio emerged from Perry’s firm belief in the power of ownership. “My father built houses when I was a kid. The guy he worked for would give him $800 for his work, and then I watched that guy sell the house for $80,000. I always wondered why [my father] wouldn’t build the house for himself; he had all the skills. I always wanted to be the guy who owned the house. During the first years of production, I realized how much money I was wasting on renting [the equipment]. So I started buying everything, and pretty soon I had a huge amount of everything you needed to make television and film, except the building. So I bought my first studio. It was a little box, maybe 5,000 square feet. I thought I had everything I needed! And the first time the cast and crew showed up, I realized I didn’t have enough space. I bought another studio and then ended up in the one I’m in now, which was once a Confederate army base. This very land was where Confederate soldiers plotted and planned for how to keep Black people enslaved. Now I own it. There are still streets here [in Atlanta] named after Confederate generals that are being taken down as I’ve erected monuments to Black people like Denzel Washington and Oprah Winfrey and Cicely Tyson and Whoopi Goldberg. It speaks to a lot of the hope of what this country has become and can continue to be if people would just open the doors.”
Four of Perry’s series have been able to return to production at his facility. All cast and crew are sequestered on the property for two weeks at a time, with COVID-19 tests every three to four days and required use of masks and face shields. “To have a crew member on another movie, at the beginning of the pandemic in America, die was very sobering to all of us. I knew I had to do everything I could, above and beyond, to ensure that the cast and crew are safe. Especially because Black and brown people are the ones dying the most from this disease.”
Complying with COVID-19 safety precautions is raising costs, by as much as 20 percent on some shows, Perry said. The partnership with ViacomCBS has been key to managing some of those extra costs. “When I went to Bob Bakish [president and CEO] and Scott [Mills, president of BET Networks] and said, here’s what we’ll need, there was no argument. Little did I know I would need a lot more, but rather than being the kind of partner that says, I didn’t ask for enough, I just wrote the check for the difference. To their credit, [they] understand how we could not get this wrong. I am so grateful to have partners like that.”
Perry did a sweeping deal with Viacom back in 2017. It was ten years in the making, Perry said. “We had come close, and it just did not work out. It took Bob Bakish coming in to make the deal happen and realizing the importance of the partnership. It has been phenomenal.” The Oval and Sistas have been breakout successes on BET, with Ruthless and Bruh driving viewership at BET+, the SVOD platform that launched just over a year ago and now has over a million customers.
Asked about the power of television, Perry referenced what happened on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in 1965, when police attacked civil rights protestors. “What made the civil rights movement so powerful were the images from television. That is television at its best. You can take an image and show it to the world, and it can effect change. That is exactly what happened with George Floyd’s horrific murder. The very visual of watching it played out spoke to every human being on this planet who had a heart. That is the power of an actor, writer, director, news anchor; that is the power of television. When it is used the right way, for the right thing, it can change the world.”