MIAMI — Tyler Perry took time out of his “Madea’s Farewell” live stage tour and spent his Martin Luther King Jr. holiday giving an inspiring speech to aspiring producers and students gathered here for the annual NATPE convention.
Perry was the keynoter Monday at the conference’s first ever “Living the Dream: A Career in Content” session aimed at educating and fostering networking connections for budding creatives, those in entry-level industry positions and film and TV school students. The session was presented by the NAACP, the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts and Discovery.
Perry told his story of rising from modest means in New Orleans to tackling the film and TV business entirely on his own terms. He stressed the importance to the packed house at Miami’s Fontainebleau Hotel of following his lead by maintaining ownership of their IP and finished products. “You have to make sure you own everything that you’re doing,” he instructed. From the Atlanta home base of Tyler Perry Studios, the auteur-entrepreneur operates with a level of independence few top producers aligned with major studios can claim.
“I am living proof that it can happen,” Perry said of success in entertainment. “Even when the people who love you try to hold you down sometimes. Dream for yourself. Work, work, work, work.”
Perry repeatedly noted that he got his start in the 1990s and early 2000s, “before diversity was cool” for Hollywood. And he stressed the importance of having something to say beyond donning a dress and wig to play his Madea creation. He knew his stage show was connecting people on a deeper level than slapstick drag humor.
“While I was making people laugh I got the opportunity to talk about really poignant stuff that our community wasn’t really talking about,” he said. By the end of some of his performances, “I would feel the healing going on in the room.”
Among the other lessons Perry imparted:
Focus on your brand. Perry has insisted on putting his name in all of his movie and TV titles, starting with 2005’s “Tyler Perry’s Diary of a Mad Black Woman,” as a matter of branding. He joked that he might have overdone it with “Tyler Perry’s Tyler Perry.”
Don’t worry about being underestimated. Having distributors underestimate the potential of his movie series based on his successful plays was a blessing in disguise because it allowed Perry to cut advantageous deals that gave him ownership of his content. “You can make the best deal when you’re underestimated,” he said. He recounted the story of forging a new business model for scripted TV comedies in securing a 90-episode order from TBS for “House of Payne.” He credited former Turner Entertainment chief Steve Koonin for being “crazy as I was” in agreeing to make the mammoth order. The series ran 264 episodes from 2007-2012.
Recognize the power of faith. Perry said his belief in himself and his abilities allowed him to persevere even when only 30 people showed up for his first theatrical presentation in Atlanta. You need “emotional endurance and high risk tolerance” to keep going in the face of rejection and other obstacles. “Believing in yourself is the most important,” he said. By 1998, his stage tours were selling out around the country. “I was like Elvis in the black community,” he said. “It was really, really cool.”
Go with your gut. After he set his sights on tackling Hollywood, Perry told the crowd how he was relieved when comedy hitmaker Chuck Lorre turned him down for a sitcom development pact at CBS because he knew it wasn’t the right fit for him, despite his respect for Lorre. Instead, Perry went back to Atlanta and self-financed the first 10 episodes of ‘House of Payne.”
Forgiveness is powerful. Perry spoke of his own relationship with his father in discussing how working on true forgiveness allowed him to let go of debilitating anger. He’s also had a rapprochement with director Spike Lee after Lee was quick to criticize Perry’s characters and comedy milieu as reinforcing stereotypes. “We’ve become really good friends,” he said.
Never stop hustling. Perry told the tale of working in housekeeping at a hotel in New Orleans when the NATPE confab came to town in the 1990s. He went out of his way to vacuum a certain hallway for eight hours one day in order to run into Oprah Winfrey — who would become his future business partner in OWN. He later found a badge of a convention-goer who left early so he became “Ira Feinberg” for the day and checked out the scene on the convention floor, back in the heyday of first-run syndication and TV station profitability. (“I got to meet Pat Sajak!”) As such, being invited back to speak at a summit on Martin Luther King Jr. Day was deeply meaningful to him. “I will never, ever, ever take anything for granted,” he said.