“Tyler who?” was an oft-heard question in Hollywood last week, after Tyler Perry’s $5 million film “Diary of a Mad, Black Woman” grossed an impressive $22 million its opening weekend, pushing the Will Smith starrer “Hitch” out of first place at the box office.
“Some people are still clueless,” Perry’s agent Charles King, of the William Morris Agency, said Feb. 28, when the calls starting rolling in. “People keep calling, saying, ‘Who is he? I want to see his movie.'”
Many callers were execs who just three weeks ago were dismissive when King brought up the subject of Perry.
Yet in fickle Hollywood, today Perry is mentioned in the same breath as Mel Gibson, Michael Moore and the filmmakers behind “The Blair Witch Project” — i.e., producers of unusual films that, against all expectations, hit it big.
Lions Gate, which released “Diary” — the studio and Perry split the cost of the film down the middle, each putting up $2.5 million — has already dubbed Perry a “franchise” and has set a release date (February 2006) for the next Perry installment, “Madea’s Family Reunion.” Lions Gate also just made a deal to release seven of Perry’s plays — the fodder for his films — on DVD.
The plays have always been the thing with Perry, it’s just that most non-African Americans weren’t aware of them, and still wouldn’t be, had “Diary” not been adapted to the bigscreen and made a splashy debut.
Since 1998 Perry has been a tour de force among church-going African-American communities, primarily in the South, where Perry is from (a New Orleans native, he lives in Atlanta), and in urban hubs such as New York and Los Angeles.
In October, “Madea’s Class Reunion” sold out seven consecutive nights at the Kodak Theater in L.A. In January, Perry returned for 10 more sold-out shows.
His performances and merchandise have totaled $80 million, and his sprawling Atlanta manse has been showcased in glossy magazines.
Perry’s plays are rooted in the African-American “Chitlin’ Circuit,” but have a contemporary, comedic update.
His style is unapologetically over-the-top and his dialogue doesn’t shy from being saucy. His subjects tend to be the sorts of things that cause women to chortle and raise their fists in rage, i.e. problems instigated by ne’er-do-well men.
The plot of “Diary” revolves around Helen McCarter, a devoted housewife who’s booted out of her house on the eve of her 20th wedding anniversary when her husband decides he’s more interested in her best friend.
As in most of Perry’s material, the show-stealer is Madea, Helen’s firecracker of a grandmother (played by Perry in drag), who helps Helen plot her revenge and whose mouth could use a good washing out.
The reviews for “Diary” have not been outstanding. Variety called the film “an ungainly hodgepodge of vaudeville-style comedy, turgid soap-operatics and joyful epiphanies of gospel-flavored uplift.”
While to crix, that may not sound like art, crix — who tend to be uber-educated and white — aren’t exactly Perry’s core aud.
“I’ve never set out to write anything for critics or to cross-over,” Perry told Variety, adding that nonetheless he thinks his themes are “universal.”
Reviews aside, the success of “Diary” is a reminder to Hollywood that black women — more than 65% of the film’s aud is black women over 25 — are an under-served, and sizeable, group of moviegoers.
Hollywood has always courted black males to various extents, from the blaxploitation movies of the 1970s to the “Boyz n the Hood” variations of the ’90s. As filmgoers pointed out during Chris Rock’s Oscarcast visit to the Magic Johnson Theater, comedies like “White Chicks” are always popular.
However, with the exception of a few releases, such as 1995’s “Waiting to Exhale,” and made-for-TV movies such as ABC’s upcoming “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” based on the book by Nora Zeale Hurston, entertainment for black women has not been a priority in Hollywood.
Tom Sherak, a partner at Revolution, which produced this year’s Ice Cube comedy “Are We There Yet?,” was at Fox when “Waiting to Exhale” was released. Sherak says black women should not be underestimated as a significant aud, in part because as a group they are more likely to see a movie a second time.
“What I learned on ‘Exhale,’ was that African-American women so embraced that movie that they then dragged African-American men to see it. It became like a concert.”
Despite the success of “Exhale,” the film did not inspire many follow-ups in the genre.
“A lot of people thought ‘Exhale’ was lightning in a bottle,” Sherak says. “I don’t think so, I think it was really tapping into a group.”