Thursday, April 21, 2011
KPBS film critic Beth Accomando looks to the career of Tyler Perry.
Atlanta filmmaker Tyler Perry makes films outside of Hollywood. His latest release, "Madea's Big Happy Family" (opening April 22 throughout San Diego) looks to build on his highly successful franchise.
Tyler Perry doesn't screen his films for the critics. That's not because he's afraid of what they might have to say but rather because he simply doesn't need them. Perry's "Diary of a Mad Black Woman" surprised everyone with its box office success in 2005. No one expected this low budget film based on Perry stage play to find any kind of audience. But it did and in a big way. The film cost about $5 million and grossed ten times that much. Needless to say that made the distributor Lionsgate very happy and they have been distributing Perry's features ever since.
Perry found his success by building a strong following as the owner of a theater company that toured the country and catered to African-American audiences. He then turned those plays into DVDs that further strengthened his fan base before finally breaking into feature films. He also uses social media like Facebook, Twitter, and mySpace to mobilize his fans for each new film's release.
From an artistic point of view, his films are wildly erratic, jumping from faith-based drama to slapstick comedy, and sometimes within a single scene. But his films please his audience and continue to build a following. So I admire his ability to make exactly the films he wants outside of the mainstream industry.
Recently, the mainstream media seems to be trying to reignite the verbal feud between Perry and Spike Lee. Headlines have shouted: "Tyler Perry To Spike Lee: 'Go Straight To Hell.'" But the comments from Lee seem to be the ones from 2009 when Lee criticized Perry's films for harkening back to "Amos 'n' Andy." And Perry's response seems as much aimed at Lee as at the media for repeatedly bringing that criticism up. Perry's defense is that no one is criticizing the exaggerated Jewish or Italian characters from network comedies, and those characters are drawn with the same kind of broad strokes as Perry's most extreme characters. Perry has developed a brand and it's a brand that certain audiences and many African Americans are eating up.
Perry has been quoted as saying: "I know my audience, and they're not people that the studios know anything about." He continues to tap into that underserved audience of faith-based fans and African American moviegoers with his latest film "Madea's Big Happy Family." "Diary of a Mad Black Woman" introduced movie audiences to Aunt Madea, a character Perry plays in drag.
I spoke with Harry Medved, spokesman for the movie ticketing destination Fandango, about Perry's success.
What has Tyler Perry been doing that has helped make him so successful?
HARRY MEDVED: Tyler Perry has been very clever in trying to establish a brand in his own name. Almost like Walt Disney did. People come to know his name as being above the title and delivers a certain kind of moviegoing experience. We find that every time there's a Tyler Perry movie that's going to be in the cinemas it's going to be huge advance ticket sales on Fandango. Because people just scoop up the tickets en masse, it's kind of like a big family reunion every time Madea is in town.
What do you see contributing to Perry's success?
HM: Perry discovered this untapped audience that was pretty long-termed underserved by Hollywood there just weren't any movies for people in the faith-based crowd and the fact that he employs so many African American actors in his films is really refreshing because you get films like "Battle: Los Angeles" where you have one token ethnic actor per role and they all have their silly ethnic line to repeat and it just doesn't feel real. Now I'm not saying that Tyler Perry is a documentarian by any means but the fact that he has a majority of his cast is usually African American is refreshing. And he definitely has tapped into this audience that has been long underserved by Hollywood.
Perry's films do well across the nation. Do San Diego filmgoers reflect that?
HM: Looking at the actual San Diego ticket sales it's about 35% of ticket sales for the San Diego market is going to "Madea's Big Happy Family." The fact that "Madea" is 35% of ticket sales right now is a pretty strong showing considering that there is a lot of competition. Especially from the animated adventure "Rio," which is in 3D and you would think it would be the favorite choice for families with Easter and Spring break. So San Diego does mirror the rest of the nation. Whether you are in a big city or small one Tyler Perry has his audience and people will follow his movies no matter how good or bad they are.
Perry eschews the more mainstream media when promoting his films, correct?
HM: He has a huge online following. They do a lot of Facebook promotion and there's a lot of Twitter promotion for his films but the other thing about Tyler Perry's movies is that they are done incredibly cheaply, he's got about 300 employees down at his studio in Atlanta that he built himself and is just a one man powerhouse he does everything on his films whether it is acting, producing, directing, even like preparing the food. He kind of brings new meaning to the word auteur. There's no way you could think of any of these films without Tyler Perry in them.
He no longer screens his films for the press either.
HM: A lot of times the studios need to prescreen their films to get a little word of mouth going and awareness, well Tyler Perry doesn't need that. He just doesn't. No one sees his films before they come out. And it doesn't matter because you don't need to cause you know what you are getting. And the critics are often pretty tough on Tyler Perry's films. So he just goes who needs them, let's just go straight to the audience. And the films always do well. Not one of them has lost money yet.