Shut out of entertainment’s mainstream, Hollywood’s newest billionaire wrote, produced and starred in his own American success story.
“Damn, it’s hot out here,” says Tyler Perry, who isn’t making it easy on himself, clad in all black but for the shock of a white mask, as he directs a 12-person crew through a scene for the BET comedy Sistas. Last year, Perry might have avoided shooting in Atlanta’s July sun, but in this coronavirus era, you take any window you can, and “Camp Quarantine” at his Tyler Perry Studios is trying to pioneer post-pandemic entertainment making.
“Get out of the car,” he calls out to an actor in a cop car who walks over to a silver pickup driven by show regular Devale Ellis. Then he feeds Ellis his line—“What’d I do?” No one seems to have seen the script. When you’re looking to get an entire season of primetime television in the can in 11 days—all before the rest of Hollywood has made it out of hiding—corners must be cut.
Away from the shoot, sitting alone on a metal folding chair in the center of a cavernous and empty soundstage, a container of Lysol wipes at his feet, Perry explains his method. “I mostly go on my gut and my instinct. I like to challenge the system and see what I can do differently.”
That’s an especially winning strategy in a system that feels stacked against you. Mostly dismissed by the Hollywood establishment and even some other Black luminaries (Spike Lee once derided Perry’s crass slapstick approach as “coonery buffoonery” before later relenting), Perry has succeeded for two reasons: He has honed a product that too many others viewed as destined for the discount bin. And he made sure to control it all.
The 51-year-old entertainer owns the entirety of his creative output, including more than 1,200 episodes of television, 22 feature films and at least two dozen stage plays, as well as a 330-acre studio lot at the edge of Atlanta’s southern limits. He used that control to leverage a deal with ViacomCBS that pays him $150 million a year for new content and gives him an equity stake in BET+, the streaming service it debuted last September. Forbes estimates Perry has earned more than $1.4 billion in pretax income since 2005, which he used to buy homes in Atlanta, New York, Los Angeles and Jackson Hole, Wyoming, as well as two planes. Quite a lifestyle for a once-homeless playwright raised in poverty in New Orleans. Today, Forbes estimates his net worth at $1 billion, with a clear path to future membership in The Forbes 400.
“I love when people say you come from ‘humble beginnings,’ ” he says. “[It] means you were poor as hell.” It also makes success sweeter. “Ownership,” he adds, “changes everything.”
Rallying Around Madea
Anatural ham, Perry grew up making his mother laugh with impersonations. He was dealing with more than poverty: He describes an upbringing by an abusive man who he later learned was not his father. He was inspired to write out the stress he was feeling after watching an episode of Oprah Winfrey’s talk show, and spent his 20s touring small theaters around the country performing the plays he wrote, produced and starred in—a crash course in what was to come.
“You got to understand, I had no mentors,” Perry says. “My father doesn’t know anything about business, and my uncles and mother, they know nothing about this. I didn’t go to business school. Everything I’ve learned, I’ve learned in progress.”
After dropping out of high school, he gained knowledge any way he could. In his early 20s, he worked at the Windsor Court Hotel in New Orleans, home to the annual National Association of Television Program Executives conference. The young Perry would use badges left behind in empty rooms to sneak into closed gatherings. One highlight: meeting game-show host Pat Sajak.
He began writing scripts while selling cars and serving as a bill collector. He eventually cobbled together $12,000, which he used to rent space at a community theater in Atlanta to produce a work he had drafted in his spare time.
The play, I Know I’ve Been Changed, was a story of child-abuse survivors. It was hardly an overnight success. At one point it wasn’t generating enough money to enable him to pay his rent, and for three months, he lived out of his car on and off while he tweaked the production, working out the kinks until it started to garner some notice. He designed the set, made the programs and hung the lights; he even sold snacks during intermission.
“It took me I don’t know how many days to finally get him convinced that the writer, director, does not do this,” says Arthur Primas, Perry’s promoter for more than two decades.
Perry toured relentlessly, slowly building a strong following among Black Americans, particularly the churchgoing set—older women like his mother, who had their burdens to bear and relished the chance to have someone give them a voice and, even better, a laugh. His iconic character, Madea, a straight-talking grandmother with a bad wig, a large stomach and even larger breasts, delivered her homespun moralism with brutally honest humor, becoming a must-see spectacle on the so-called “Chitlin Circuit,” a loosely defined network of small theaters in Black communities nationwide.
“I was aware of the traveling plays, but I never really took them seriously because . . . I considered myself a person who appreciates theater and Broadway,” Winfrey says. “But I went to see one in Los Angeles, and I was not just moved by it, I was changed by it.”
She invited Perry on her talk show in 2001, when he was in his early 30s. Onscreen they shared the requisite inspirational language of tenacity and renewal, but backstage they mined another seam altogether: money. Winfrey, who by then owned her show and Harpo, the company that produced it, offered Perry a secret, one he was already beginning to learn on his own: the importance of “writing your own checks” and being fully in control.
She became a friend, sounding board and, perhaps most importantly, a catalyst. Even before he made his first film or TV show, Perry hauled in more than $100 million from theater ticket sales, moved $20 million worth of merchandise and collected another $30 million selling videos of the performances.
It was time for him to go to Hollywood.
Retreat To Atlanta
The introduction was made at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre, a 1,200-seat Italianate building opened in the 1920s, the dawn of Los Angeles’ ascension as an entertainment capital. In 2001, Perry booked a three-night run of Diary of a Mad Black Woman, an event designed to bring out the kingmakers—producers, executives, lawyers, and monied benefactors—who could make him a star. The show sold out, but the seats weren’t filled with power brokers, just locals and some assistants sent to see what all the fuss was about.
“The fact that I am here on this land, the very fact that hundreds of people-black and brown people- come here to make a living, that is affecting change.”
“I couldn’t walk down the street without people screaming, ‘Madea, Tyler, Madea!’ ” Perry says, recalling his days on the road. “And then I got to Hollywood, and they had no clue. No clue to what I’d done, who I was or the following I had.”
One of the assistants who had seen the show worked for Chuck Lorre, the acclaimed showrunner high on the success of hits Grace Under Fire, Cybill and Dharma & Greg. After hearing about the play, he decided he’d try to pitch a sitcom built around Perry. The networks wouldn’t bite, though, so Lorre moved on to Two and a Half Men, the Charlie Sheen show that became a breakout hit for CBS.
“There was about a 10-year period where everything went on a deep lull and there was nothing being made for people of color,” Perry says. So he retreated to Atlanta, where he continued working on his stage plays and a film script. But he couldn’t stop thinking about television. A recipe for syndication he remembered from sneaking into those sessions at the broadcasters’ convention stuck with him: 100 episodes, a loyal audience and a willing distributor.
“The ignorance I had about Hollywood was so wonderful, looking back on it,” he says.
He rented a warehouse behind a strip club in south Atlanta and turned it into a soundstage, investing in the tools of the trade he knew little about—lights, booms, mics, set decorations—and began shooting. He focused on scenes of a multigenerational Black family living together in Atlanta, the origins of his first sitcom.
A break came in 2006, when two struggling broadcast networks, UPN and WB, merged to create a new one called CW. The new network needed content, and Perry had it. He went back to Hollywood, this time armed with 10 full episodes of television shot, paid for and ready to air. CW bought it and aired it as House of Payne, which pulled in ratings wildly above expectations. Executives at the much larger TBS network took note. Before Perry had filmed another scene, he landed a guarantee that TBS would air at least 90 new episodes of his show that he would own outright. The network offered $200 million to get him away from CW, pure gold for such cheap productions—“primetime programming on a soap opera budget,” as one top agent calls it—that spent nothing on writers, directors, producers or showrunners. Perry pocketed a huge haul: an estimated $138 million.
“It was so out of the box, such a different paradigm,” says entertainment lawyer Dan Black, who says Perry’s deal is still referenced in negotiations today. “You can get meaningful fees and meaningful back-end, but if you own the content, that’s very, very impressive and not an easy thing to do.”
Though he was clearly drawing huge crowds, the overwhelmingly white Hollywood executive set still didn’t quite get it. Perry’s attempt to rework Diary for film yielded little more than suggestions for rewrites and plot turns that would be more palatable for “mainstream” audiences.
“ ‘Black people who go to church don’t go to the movies,’ ” Perry recalls one executive telling him at the time. “I came from a place where Black people had already embraced me and loved me. I was completely happy there, and still am.”
So he forged opportunity out of others’ ignorance. He made Lionsgate CEO Jon Feltheimer a proposal: He would put up half the money, collect half the profits and keep control of the content. The studio held the right to deduct all marketing costs from his cut, which Perry knew would be minimal, considering his following, as well as another 12.5% in distribution costs. The sweetener: Perry would eventually own it all outright.
“ ‘What do you want [Diary] to do?’ ” Perry recalls asking.
“Well, if it makes us $20 million I’ll be very, very happy,” Feltheimer replied, referring to its lifetime box-office haul.
“I said, ‘OK, great—$20 million the first weekend?’ ”
Diary, which cost $5.5 million to make, grossed $51 million in theaters and has since brought in an additional $150 million in video rentals, on- demand viewing, DVD sales and TV licensing.
While most of Hollywood shrugged off the movie’s success as a fluke, Perry and Lionsgate began pumping out Madea movies—11 of them over 14 years, all made on speedy production schedules and minimal budgets. By the time Perry decided to retire the franchise in 2019, it had grossed more than $670 million at the box office and netted him about $290 million in fees and profits, Forbes estimates.
That’s all now starting to come home, as those Lionsgate titles begin reverting to his control. With the help of financial adviser John Cary at Atlanta’s NextGen Capital, Perry is starting to exploit the films more aggressively overseas, with early success in South Africa, South America and parts of Europe, all while continuing to self-finance hundreds of new TV episodes and at least one new feature film every year.
Revenge On Rebel Soil
Poetically, Tyler Perry Studios, America’s most prolific production venue for entertainment for Black audiences, was once a Confederate military stronghold. Renamed Fort McPherson, the army base was used to house prisoners during the Spanish-American War and World War I. Its historic brick homes and structures have hosted luminaries including Franklin D. Roosevelt and Colin Powell, and its rutted 18-hole golf course, Perry says, once rivaled Augusta. The challenge for Perry, who once lived in a car he parked nearby, is to make it the setting for the denouement of his Horatio Alger narrative.
From the outside, it’s a hard piece of real estate to be excited about, bordered on the north by a long stretch of barbed wire, to the east by a mile-long stretch of train tracks and to the south by the din of State Highway 154. It’s sandwiched between two neighborhoods that have seen better days, with rows of middle-class houses, some spiffed up with bright landscaping, most with faded paint and chipped siding. More than a few are littered with old mattresses left to the elements.
Inside the gates, though, is a paradise no one enjoys more than Perry. During a visit last fall, he zipped around in a Polaris Ranger to the new soundstages he opened and christened with the names of showbiz legends including Oprah Winfrey, Spike Lee, Sidney Poitier and Denzel Washington. As he drove, he called out the highlights—a strip mall, a yacht, an empty soundstage, a house fronted by four façades—and then, after rumbling over the abandoned golf course, gestured toward his favorite new purchase: a replica White House.
“The ignorance I had about Hollywood was so wonderful, looking back on it.”
“I own the lights. I own the sets,” Perry says, before settling into a couch in his office on the top floor of a modern, renovated four-story structure he calls the Dream Building. “So that’s where the difference is. Because I own everything, my returns are higher.”
He paid $30 million for the property in 2015 and has since spent $250 million building a studio operation that’s now more than twice the size of the storied Warner Bros. backlot in Burbank, California—all of it paid for with the cash he’s brought in churning out movies and television programming for the past 15 years. The acquisition was a masterstroke, giving him a place to build a top-tier movie facility in a state that aggressively courts Hollywood productions, as well as a huge swath of land smack in the middle of one of Atlanta’s red-hot economic Opportunity Zones.
“I love land the way some women love shoes,” says Winfrey, one of the few people to see the property when Perry was considering making an offer. “I said ‘If you don’t take it, I will.’ It was astounding to me. I am officially in awe.”
In truth, it was a deal that perhaps only Perry could have made. He’s been operating out of Atlanta since he released Diary in 2005; in the ensuing 15 years he has produced at least one feature film every year, as well as 13 more television series, nearly all of it filmed in and around the city.
When it came to the fading army base, Atlanta was in need of a development partner who might inspire commercial activity that could help revitalize the otherwise forgotten section of the city’s southern edges. Perry had an in—not only via his rapport with President Obama, who at the time could have nixed any deal for the military land—but through his history of offering jobs to local crews.
His timing couldn’t have been better. In 2008, the Georgia Film Office had piled on tax incentives for production companies, and Perry made his purchase amid the streaming revolution, which triggered an arms race for content that has spurred a boom in demand for soundstages.
Thanks to his lucrative library of television series and films, and his 330-acre studio, Tyler Perry ranks among the richest entertainers in the world. Here’s how he stacks up against film and TV’s other billionaires:
1. George Lucas
In 2012, the Star Wars creator sold Lucasfilm to Disney for $4.1 billion in cash and stock
2. Steven Spielberg
The three-time Oscar winner’s films have grossed more than $10 billion at the box office—and he gets a cut of every ticket sold.
3. Oprah Winfrey
It was Winfrey who, in part, taught Perry the importance of ownership: She owned her talk show, as well as the company that produced it
4. John De Mol
One of the biggest names in reality TV, de Mol cofounded Endemol, the company behind Deal or No Deal, Big Brother, and Fear Factor.
5. Tyler Perry
Two decades after Madea debuted on stage, Perry has amassed one of the most valuable individually owned libraries in Hollywood.
Even during the pandemic, he’s keeping it all humming. With Madea retired and an exclusive deal with Winfrey’s OWN network expired, Perry set his sights last year on BET, which has been struggling for direction and has now practically built the BET+ streaming service around him. The network will pay Perry $150 million annually to produce a minimum of 90 episodes of new TV each year until 2025. BET, its streaming service—which hit a million subscribers in August—and other Viacom properties get exclusive rights to air those shows for five years, as well as the reruns of his House of Payne, Meet the Browns and For Better or Worse, plus some of his early stage work, which Cary is beginning to exploit. After that half-decade, the rights to all those BET-funded shows revert to Perry. The first two—The Oval and Sistas—became BET’s two top-rated programs in their first seasons.
The best part? “I don’t have a noncompete,” Perry says, which means still more projects, such as A Fall From Grace, which debuted in January on Netflix to terrible reviews—and 26 million streams in its first week. He also plans to start financing productions from other Black creators whom Hollywood has overlooked.
Fueled by those Georgia tax breaks, meanwhile, others are on hand to soak up extra capacity as well. Perry has rented studio space to major productions including Walt Disney’s Black Panther, the Will Smith sequel Bad Boys for Life and TV’s The Walking Dead. Last year Disney, Warner Bros. and other major studios, as well as new entrants like Netflix, Amazon and Apple, spent a combined $100 billion on original content, according to Frank Patterson, CEO of Pinewood Atlanta Studios, a rival lot 20 miles to the south.
With his studio humming, Perry is taking a page from Disney and Universal for lot development, with plans to build restaurants, shops and an entertainment complex with a theater and a theme park–like experience. Think Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville, but with the feel of a down-home Southern kitchen. Perry admits that such a venture will take him outside of his comfort zone in terms of scope, control—and debt, since his business has always been, extraordinarily, a self-financed, all-cash operation. His plans also include housing for trafficked women and LGBTQ youth, and an academy to teach kids who grew up like he did the things he never learned—financial literacy, for one.
The risk, though, is worth it. “I can go outside and take this dirt and put it on my hands and know that there were Confederate soldiers here walking this land, plotting and planning everything they could to keep us Negroes in place,” Perry says. “The very fact that I am here on this land, the very fact that hundreds of people—Black and brown people—come here to make a living, that is effecting change.”
–Madeline Berg, Forbes Staff