Last fall, in a showdown that could have been scripted in a studio writing room, a small-budget, little-advertised film with no major stars to speak of took down two Hollywood heavyweights.
Given writer/director Tyler Perry's track record, box-office prognosticators shouldn't have been surprised when Why Did I Get Married? managed to trounce both the much-hailed George Clooney vehicle, Michael Clayton, and Mark Walhberg and Joaquin Phoenix's edgy thriller, We Own the Night. After all, his first film, Diary of a Mad Black Woman, earned $50 million dollars on a paltry $5 million investment. His second, Madea's Family Reunion, raked in $63 million.
Yet when Married beat out the other two films on their opening weekend by an almost 2 to 1 earnings margin, the question on the entertainment media's lips was, "How did we not see this guy coming?" The answer to that question speaks more to Hollywood's willful ignorance of Perry's fan base than to the filmmaker's lack of profile.
Some pundits argue that the oversight was evidence of Tinsel Town's continuing disregard for African-American audiences. But it's hard to make that charge stick when film executives are lining up to give rappers like 50 Cent and Snoop Dogg juicy parts in major releases and Academy voters award Oscars to hip-hop songs like "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp."
By contrast, for all his success, Perry has said he can't get serious face time with the industry's biggest decision makers. "Nobody is offering me The Departed, which I absolutely feel like I could do," Perry complained to Entertainment Weekly last year. He recalled a meeting after his first two films when a studio head wasn't even sure who he was: "The guy goes, 'So who are you now and what do you do?'"
Considering that Business Week ranked Perry a more profitable celebrity than either Tom Cruise or Tom Hanks in 2006 (long before Married's big win), it seems likely that it's not his color that has caused Perry to fly under the media's radar, but his faith.
Perry, 38, took a unique path to movie mogul-dom. It began after the emotional scars of a childhood marred by abuse led him to pen his first play, the forgiveness and redemption-themed I Know I Have Been Changed. It was well-received and led to further plays as he made a name for himself on what was termed the "chitlin circuit"-Southern venues that rose to prominence during segregation.
The phenomenal success of those live productions, which grossed $100 million before any were adapted for the big screen, reinforced for Perry that a large portion of the black population was being ignored by mainstream movies. Instead of the Bible-believing church-goers that made up his theater crowds, he saw only drug-dealers and gangsters on film.
"I know my audience, and they're not people that the studios know anything about." Perry said. "I don't know why there is that disconnect in Hollywood. I hope they see there are movies to be made about black people falling in love and respecting their families. It's a little narrow-minded to think they can only be carrying guns or rapping."
But while Perry doesn't glorify either gangstas or guns in his films, he doesn't ignore them, either. That his characters are required to confront fatherlessness, drug addiction, and other socioeconomic issues that have hit the African-American community particularly hard isn't unusual. What is unusual is the realistic way they respond to them.
In Madea's Family Reunion, for example, protagonist Vanessa informs her love interest that because she has begun a personal relationship with Christ, she can't have a sexual relationship with him unless they're married. It was a moment that made many critics sniff derisively, but Perry sees it as more authentic than the vague references to "spirituality" and "goodness" he sees in other movies.
"Most films cop out on religion," he argues. "They keep it generic and watered down so it won't offend. My films are redemptive, and unashamedly Christian in their resolution. There are many filmmakers who are believers, but they believe very quietly. It's like they are in the closet about their religion. I'm not afraid to have a character say, 'I am a Christian' or 'I believe in God' because real people on this earth believe this and they say it all the time."
True to form, Perry says it quite often himself. During a Q&A session after one of his theater productions, he told the audience about a network's offer to produce a sitcom if he would tone down his religious content.
After the hisses and boos directed at the television execs died down, Perry assured his fans he wasn't even tempted to accept: "I was like, you gotta be kiddin' me. If you don't want my God here, you don't want me here, either. God has been too good to me to go and try to sell out to get some money. That's OK. I will sit in a corner and be broke with the Lord before I will sit there and have them give me millions and sell my soul. It ain't gonna happen."
The extended punchline is that Perry did get to produce a sitcom on his terms. House of Payne, which airs on TBS, is breaking records as the highest-rated sitcom to debut on cable.
Perry's successes on both the big and small screens, not to mention a best-selling book in the voice of his most popular character, politically incorrect granny Madea, ensure that Hollywood is finally ready to pay attention to him. On the eve of his fifth motion-picture release, Meet the Browns, insiders reveal that fans can expect to see him in more mainstream productions-like J.J. Abrams' upcoming Star Trek prequel-and that he is now getting the calls from studio heads that eluded him for so long.
With Perry earning hard-won respect from Hollywood, the question is not-given the ongoing clarity of the Christian messages in his films and his loyalty to his fans-whether the industry is going to move him. The question is whether he will be able move the industry. Some of his colleagues, like Michael Paseornek, president of film production at Lionsgate, hope that he will: "Tyler has changed Hollywood in that the studio is recognizing the value in a market they never saw before."