As the actor, producer and comedian tops the rich list, he's the £500m man you've probably never heard of.
Fame can be a fickle mistress. Sometimes, it’s downright baffling. How else can Hollywood explain the fact that its most valuable human commodity is currently an actor and film-maker who most of the world have never even heard of?
His name is Tyler Perry, although outside of a relatively small, but fiercely loyal demographic of black America, he’s more frequently referred to as “Tyler Who?” In public, he can pass unnoticed. Unless, that is, he just happens to be carrying a handbag, and wearing a floral dress which is the size of a small marquee.
This disguise, completed by a wig, latex fat suit, and a layer of somewhat vampish make-up, transforms Perry, a large, amiable man who turns 42 today, into a 70-something woman called Madea. And she is at the unlikely centre of an empire that now straddles the worlds of film, TV, publishing and theatre like a colossus, measuring its value in the billions of dollars.
When Forbes magazine published its annual list of the highest-paid men in entertainment yesterday, Perry’s name registered triumphantly in first place. He beat such luminaries as Steven Spielberg (3rd) Elton John (5th) and Simon Cowell (6th). Leonardo DiCaprio, the world’s next-most-lucrative actor, came in at eighth.
Perry’s earnings, in the past 12 months, are estimated at $130m. That’s $20m more than his nearest competitor Jerry Bruckheimer, the film producer behind Pirates of the Caribbean. And it dwarfs the earnings of the world’s most valuable sportsman Tiger Woods, who came 10th, scraping by with a meagre $75m.
If you’re still wondering who Tyler Perry is, and how on earth he does it, then it’s safe to make a couple of assumptions. Firstly, that you don’t live in the US, where his two sitcoms Meet the Browns and House of Payne are broadcast on what feels like constant loop by the cable TV networks. And secondly that you don’t follow the American box office charts.
In the past two years, Perry has cranked out five films, all of which have been break-out commercial hits, and two of which went straight to number one. He has directed, written, produced all of them, and starred in all but one. By the standards of Hollywood, they were all produced on tiny budgets, averaging around $15m each. But together, have grossed just shy of $300m.
Most of Perry’s titles have a similar stchick. They revolve around Madea, a grey-haired matriarch with a fierce tongue who carries a revolver in her handbag. And they follow melodramatic plots that complete several somersaults before generally allowing a hapless female protagonist to be rewarded by finding a good man. The overall feel is Shakesperean comedy meets Carry On.
His comedy is peppered with music, toilet-humour, and the occasionally politically-incorrect joke. And Perry’s female-skewing casts are drawn almost entirely from the minority community. In an industry run largely by white men, who are attempting to make ever-more expensive movies which must cater to broad demographics to turn a profit, this narrow focus makes his oeuvre unique.
Go to any US cinema on the night a Tyler Perry movie opens, and you will see just how unique. His fans tend to be black women, of a certain age. They are well-dressed, respectable, and like Perry, of an avowedly Christian persuasion. While they may not be regular filmgoers, and do not read his (often awful) reviews, they are also fiercely loyal.
This demographic may be limited, and most of his films are not even released outside the US, but, it’s also big enough to consistently generate around $50m at the box office. Since the films are cheap and quick to make, that leaves healthy potential for profit.
Perry found success the hard way. Born Emmitt Perry Jr, he was raised in New Orleans by a heavily abusive father, also called Emmitt. Two neighbours repeatedly molested him between the ages of five and 12. “When that happens, it completely destroys your world,” he once told Ebony magazine. “I was an angry teenager. I would fight, kill and stab. I was angry all the way up to my twenties.”
As a younh man, he tried to commit suicide, twice, and was kicked out of high school. At 16, he changed his name to Tyler, moved to Atlanta, and wrote a play about his childhood called I Know I’ve Been Changed.
When it was first staged, in 1992, it flopped, wiping out his savings, and forcing him to take a string of low-paid jobs. From time to time he was homeless, and slept in a car.
But in 1998, Perry’s luck changed. He redrafted the play, adding music and hiring singers from local churches to appear in a production. Then he began touring local churches and community centres to talk about it. I Know I’ve Been Changed became a word -of-mouth hit. Soon, a touring production was selling out theatres, 300 nights a year.
The next year, Perry wrote a new play, and repeated the trick. In 2000, he did it again. After five years, his mailing list of fans contained a million names. Since he wrote starred in, directed, and produced all his plays, he also kept all of their profits, supplementing his growing income with a lucrative side-business selling DVDs of the shows.
In 2005, Perry decided to make a film. But his project, a feature version of the play, Diary of a Mad Black Woman, was ignored by every major Hollywood Studio. Confident that they were making a big mistake, he struck a unique deal with Lionsgate: they would pay half the $5m budget, and in return get to distribute the title. He would retain control of the property, and half its profits.
On Diary’s opening weekend it duly made $22m, gaining first place in the box-office charts. It eventually grossed $50m and sold 2.5 million copies on DVD in its first week. Fifty percent of that cash went straight to Perry. There were no agents, studio executives, or overpaid marketing men grabbing a share.
Ten subsequent films have achieved similar results, with an identical business model. Today, Perry makes two or three movies a year, at a production facility he owns in Atlanta. His TV series, launched in 2007, each shoot 100 episodes annualy there as well.. Given his relative anonymity, he often gets described as the “antithesis” of a Hollywood movie star. But so long as he’s out-earning Spielberg, he’s probably having the last laugh.
Independent News Service