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Tyler Perry is Variety‘s 2020 Showman of the Year. For the full cover story, click here

Before Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, Tyler Perry communicated with fans the old-fashioned way — by chatting with audience members at the end of his plays and collecting their email addresses. It was a way to stay in touch with his fans both personally (sending information about banal activities like going to the store) and professionally (tipping them off to upcoming shows). “It endeared us together,” he explains. And, over time, the growing list has become a powerful tool in his arsenal.

The industry got its first taste of the power of Perry’s audience in 2003, after the playwright booked six shows at the Kodak Theater for his production of “Madea’s Class Reunion.”

“I asked them how many people they had working the box office, and [they said], ‘We have one,’ Perry recalls. “I replied, ‘No, you may want to bring in four or five,’ [and they said], “Oh, no, we don’t need that for this.” I sent the email out, sold out all those shows. The woman [at the theater’s] wig was crooked, she was so shocked at what had happened.”

The same thing happened with Perry’s first foray into Hollywood, “Diary of a Mad Black Woman.” Debuting the Friday before the Oscars in February 2005, the comedy earned $21.9 million in its opening weekend, knocking Will Smith’s “Hitch” off the top spot.

“I don’t know if anyone would have predicted it — other than Tyler, who told me we were going to open at No. 1,” remembers Mike Paseornek, the Lionsgate executive who championed the project. “I wasn’t sure that we’d open at No. 1, but I felt pretty confident that we were going to do big business.”

Lionsgate’s marketing team got a big assist from Perry, who would routinely send out email blasts to his fans reminding them that the film was coming out.

“There’s big movie stars out there, and granted, they have audiences that come to see them. But when someone would say to me, ‘Oh, you have to meet so-and-so — he’s the next Tyler Perry,’ I would say, ‘Well, does your artist have a firsthand relationship 300 days a year with his audience?’” Paseornek says.

“Tyler will perform 260-300 days a year. And he’s getting instant feedback every night.” Perry has continued to go onstage after the final curtain up through his most recent outing on “Madea’s Farewell Play,” which wrapped in February.

Though loyal, Perry’s fan base is often underestimated. “That mailing list, that hunger that they have, can’t be tracked; nobody can really reach them. That’s why the tracking for all of my movies was always so far off,” Perry explains, referring back to the box office numbers for “Diary.” “It blew their mind because [Hollywood] didn’t know how to penetrate into the community.”

When Perry sent the email to his fans about the production of “Madea’s Class Reunion,” there were about 170,000 names on the mailing list. That number has since grown to 800,000. But does he still use the list today?

“It’s been quite some time because of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and people are consuming their information that way,” Perry says with a sly smile. “So I use it when I need to.”