"I’m really just starting to understand filmmaking," says one of America’s most profitable auteurs. "These last two movies, I’m finally starting to understand the camera. ‘Oh, you mean I can use it for more than just to record the picture? I can actually have some style?’ "
Tyler Perry laughs. He can afford to.
There might have been a time when people doubted him, but after totaling $200 million in grosses from four films that each cost less than $10 million, they’re not the ones laughing. He even smiles when he confesses that the plays that started his empire were written without formal training.
"I couldn’t afford to see theater, so I would sneak into a lot of shows in the second act," he says at the Four Seasons in Los Angeles. "So I didn’t really understand the form. But August Wilson was a huge inspiration. I saw shows like ‘Medea’ and ‘Hot Mikado’ that really, really inspired me, but I knew those types of shows don’t completely resonate with my audience. So I tried to take the best of what I had learned from them and marry it with what I knew would work. And it’s been pretty successful for me."
Tall (6 feet 6) and bespectacled, Perry, 38, is soft-spoken and polite. But beneath this quiet exterior is the juggernaut whose current film, "Meet the Browns," is his fifth in four years; whose plays have reportedly grossed $75 million; and who recently inked a $200 million deal for 100 episodes of his sitcom, "House of Payne." And his first book, commentaries from his signature character, gun-toting grandma Madea, premiered at No. 1 on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list.
The consistency of Perry’s audience will be tested again with "Meet the Browns." His only film so far that hasn’t opened at No. 1, "Daddy’s Little Girls," neither featured him nor sprang from his plays. "Browns," which stars Angela Bassett, is based on one of Perry’s most successful stage outings and introduces to the big screen the popular character Leroy Brown (David Mann), but Perry’s appearance is limited to a cameo as Madea. So are fans coming to his movies to see him or his plays?
"Madea is a character, but Tyler Perry is a brand, much like Disney’s a brand," says Reuben Cannon, who has co-produced all of Perry’s films. "There is a trust among the consumers that ‘I know you will not disappoint me and I will leave feeling better than when I came in.’ "
Devout Christian Perry’s career has been characterized by leaps of faith. From leaving his native New Orleans for Atlanta’s burgeoning theater scene to bankrupting himself to mount his first play – a musical about adult survivors of child abuse, inspired by his own experience – to largely funding his own projects today, he has made a habit of gambling on himself. And since the remounted production of that first play became a smash hit, he has been winning.
"As I was doing this play about how (the victims) had forgiven the people who had abused them, I hadn’t forgiven my own demons. So as I did that, I began to get clarity about a lot of things," he says of the lessons he learned between the disastrous 1992 premiere of "I Know I’ve Been Changed" and its triumphant 1998 revival. "I had one last opportunity to do the show, but I felt different. I felt freer. I went out and did the best I could and hired all of these local actors who were pretty popular in their areas and their churches, and the show sold out. Eight shows that weekend. We went on from there to sell out all over the country."
Perry’s ensuing string of plays dominated the so-called "Chitlin’ Circuit" that caters to black, urban audiences in mostly Southern and East Coast venues. His boldness in funding projects himself has not only made him a bona fide multimedia mogul, but it’s also given him complete creative control. According to many critics, however, that’s not a good thing: His movies have averaged a very low 29 percent on Rotten Tomatoes’ Tomatometer (measuring critical consensus). Writers often decry formulaic plots and perceived stereotypes in his work. But audiences, along with Perry himself, pay no attention.
"You know when I stopped? I was doing a show here at the Kodak Theatre and there were two critics who sat in the same row on the same night. One loved it; one thought it was the worst thing that had ever happened at the Kodak," he says. "So no, I don’t read a lot of them."
Perry’s works haven’t been overtly political, but that figures to change with the script he’s now writing: He says "For the Love of You" is based on the love story of Barack and Michelle Obama. In the meantime, while he and his Atlanta productions have poured dollars into that city’s coffers, he has been reluctant to do the same for the city of his birth. His current production, "The Family That Preys," starring Alfre Woodard and Kathy Bates, shoots in New Orleans – but only for one day.
"I’m not interested in pumping money into an economy that is completely ignoring all those people who are still struggling and still living in FEMA trailers," he says. "I think they’re trying to drive them out of the city, and I’m really, really annoyed by it."
Even if Perry’s films become more topical – something that rarely translates into box-office gold – it might still be unwise to bet against him.
Cannon refers to a 2006 Business Week article analyzing actors as if they were stocks, figuring Tom Cruise and Tom Hanks were returning 40 percent to 50 percent on every dollar invested in their movies. The producer paraphrases the article’s most surprising assertion: " ‘The best bet you could have made would have been Tyler Perry. He has returned 120 percent.’ "
MEET THE BROWNS (PG-13) opened this weekend at Bay Area theaters.