Tyler Perry’s empire began with one simple play, “I Know That I’ve Been Changed.” The legit production took him six years and his life savings, twice, to stage.
Little did he know how apt that title was. Today, Perry’s empire is staggering: 10 feature films (as a director), three TV shows, one bestselling book, a 200,000-sq.-ft. studio complex outside Atlanta and a constant stream of live stage plays.
“Tyler accomplishes more in a day than the rest of us could hope to accomplish in a lifetime,” says Mike Paseornek, president of motion picture development and production for Lionsgate, Perry’s production and distribution partner.
That bottomless work ethic brought Perry to the top of Forbes’ list of Hollywood’s highest earning men, taking in $130 million between May 2010 and May 2011 and beating out the likes of Jerry Bruckheimer, Steven Spielberg and Leonardo DiCaprio.
Perry wrote “I Know That I’ve Been Changed” after hearing Oprah Winfrey say that to write things down was cathartic. The young Perry started keeping a journal, and those early writings — spawned from an abusive and impoverished childhood — eventually emerged as a musical.
Perry first tried to stage his show in Atlanta in 1992, but no one came. His money spent, he shut down production but was not deterred. He spent the next six years living in motels and even sleeping in his car to scrape together $12,000 to give it another shot.
“It’s always been that way for me,” says Perry. “I’ve always bet on myself.”
When Perry restaged the play in Atlanta in 1998, it was a smash. Soon, Perry was touring his shows across the country, selling out theaters and connecting with his audience.
“I’ve been going on tour for years and am doing my research in those moments,” Perry says. “I know my audience.”
Lionsgate believed that research would pay off and initially invested $1.25 million in Perry, says CEO Jon Feltheimer.
“From a financial perspective, I understood that the risk was fairly minimal,” says Feltheimer.
It was a wise investment. According to Lionsgate, Perry’s films have collectively earned $1 billion in revenue when including worldwide box office, DVD sales and other ancillary income.
Around the same time that “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” was premiering in 2005, Perry was working on a TV sitcom with Chuck Lorre, exec producer of “Two and a Half Men,” “The Big Bang Theory” and “Mike and Molly.”
“I would do all of these different characters and realized the notes and the control the networks had over what was happening,” says Perry. “I said ‘I won’t do this,’ and went back to Atlanta.”
Says Joe Drake, Lionsgate’s co-COO and motion picture group president: “If Tyler finds himself in a situation where he doesn’t believe something is going to work, no logic in his mind says he should continue down that road. Every time Tyler has bet on himself, it’s worked for him.”
William Morris agent Mark Itkin paired Perry with hungry syndication entrepreneurs Mort Marcus and Ira Bernstein. The pair had started their own company, Debmar-Mercury, and successfully sold Comedy Central’s “South Park” into broadcast syndication. (Debmar-Mercury is a subsidiary of Lionsgate, which acquired the company in July 2006, partly due to Debmar-Mercury’s relationship with Perry.)
Marcus and Bernstein told Perry that they could persuade TV stations to test 10 episodes of his sitcom, “Tyler Perry’s House of Payne.”
“If it’s a hit, they will buy it,” Marcus told Perry, who agreed to spend his own money to produce the episodes.
The summer 2006 launch was a major success.
“In every single market, the show was up 60% to 70% over its previous time period,” says Bernstein. “It wasn’t just an anomaly in Atlanta, it was every market.”
That performance caught an unexpected eye: Turner’s Steve Koonin, who was in the market for an African-American sitcom.
“The test was really the breakthrough idea,” says Koonin. “We ran it on WTBS, Turner’s local station in Atlanta, and it was the highest-rated program on our air, and many nights the No. 1 on all of TV. We felt that if we could generate those kinds of ratings in a top-10 market, then it was a good bet for cable.”
Although Perry, Marcus and Bernstein had originally intended to produce “House of Payne” for firstrun broadcast syndication, TBS made it financially clear that it wanted the show. Marcus and Bernstein cut a deal for TBS to acquire 100 episodes of “House of Payne.” That’s a big upfront commitment, but it also allowed TBS to pay much less for the show than it typically would have for an original sitcom.
Marcus and Bernstein then sold the show to broadcast stations to premiere in off-net syndication one year later. All told, the initial cycle of “House of Payne” is estimated to be worth $200 million, including cable and broadcast license fees and barter advertising sales.
“House of Payne” premiered on TBS in 2007, and instantly became ad-supported cable’s top sitcom of all time. In its first two telecasts, the series averaged 5.6 million viewers and 2.9 million in the adult 18-49 demo.
TBS, in fact, recently ordered 42 more episodes, which will bring the total number to 264, making the show the longest-running African-American sitcom in TV history.
Looking to repeat “Payne,” the cabler went forward with “Meet the Browns,” which Debmar-Mercury sold using the same model. Again, the show was a ratings standout.
This November, TBS will premiere its third Tyler Perry-produced skein, “For Better or Worse,” based on his films “Why Did I Get Married?” and “Why Did I Get Married Too?” Should the show get past the initial 10-episode trial period, Perry will be off to races on another 90 episodes of his third television series.
All who know him say Perry’s success is impressive, but he’s still just getting started.
Says Lionsgate’s Paseornek: “He’s the quickest study I’ve ever seen. We’ve only begun to see what Tyler Perry can bring to the entertainment industry.”
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