15 min read.Updated: 20 Nov 2020, 10:17 AM ISTNed Zeman, The Wall Street Journal
The writer, director, producer and studio head has built an entertainment empire, including one of the industry’s largest coronavirus bubbles—making his work more impactful
By all rights, this should have been Tyler Perry’s best summer ever. August was particularly auspicious, given the announcement that one of the entertainment industry’s richest and most prolific multihyphenates (actor-writer-director-producer-mogul–studio chief) would receive the Television Academy’s 2020 Governors Award at this year’s Emmys for “his unprecedented achievements in television" and “his commitment to offering opportunities to marginalized communities."
The first accolade was no surprise, given that Perry, 51, has put out 14 TV series (including House of Payne, The Oval and Sistas) to go along with his 22 movies (among them the lucrative Madea series) and 22 plays. Most of Perry’s works have been produced by his own Tyler Perry Studios, which occupies a 330-acre estate in Atlanta and is one of the country’s largest production studios.
The second citation stems from the fact that the industry’s most innovative empire is owned and operated by a Black man who employs an incredibly diverse group of people to serve a largely Black audience. His projects have generated upward of $2 billion in box office and TV revenue. By September, when Forbes declared Perry a billionaire, he had every opportunity to celebrate. He owns two private islands in the Bahamas and a 1,200-acre spread in Atlanta, where he’s building a 35,000-square-foot megamansion.
And yet this summer brought no revelry to “Tylerland," as his friend Oprah Winfrey calls it. For starters, the coronavirus pandemic ground the studio to a halt in March, leaving productions in purgatory and threatening the livelihoods of 800 full-time staffers, plus the hundreds of vendors and part-timers who rely on the studio. Then came the George Floyd crisis, which both gutted and transformed Perry.
“I’ve seen a fundamental change in him since that time," Winfrey says. “It literally changed how he emanates as a human being. His whole vibe changed."
“How could it not?" Perry says, via Zoom from one of his studio’s 12 soundstages. Even when alone in a cavernous soundstage, he projects both size (6-foot-6, 280 pounds) and presence. He seamlessly shifts between Southern folksiness and boardroom focus. He’s the guy who can play both a cranky old woman (Mabel “Madea" Simmons) and a silky defense attorney (in Gone Girl).
“There’ve been plenty of low points," Perry says, referring to the deaths of his friends Kobe Bryant and Chadwick Boseman. “And then George Floyd for sure. Watching that play out—eight minutes, 46 seconds. Add to that a pandemic, where you’re on lockdown and you could not turn away from cable news. It was definitely beginning to erode my spirit."
Days later, after the police shooting of Jacob Blake had roiled the nation anew, he explains how Team Perry managed to create one of the entertainment industry’s first Covid-19 bubbles—and shoot four full TV series in it—while carrying the emotional weight of recent events.
“Here’s what you have to understand," Perry says. “I work with a lot of Black and brown people. So when you say ‘weighing heavily,’ this is our daily lives. But we have to find a way to keep going and find the strength to fight another day." He adds: “Hope grows inside of people like me, and it’s very, very hard to kill, because from childhood we were always hoping just for something great."
The way Perry presents himself is born of both nature and nurture. “I don’t think it’s as difficult for me as it is for Black women," he says. “But there have been many times when I’ve had to walk into boardrooms and have meetings with white people and, being the only Black face, had to be absolutely careful of how I crafted things, of how I said words, because of the very presence of me towering over these people…. I was taught that very early by my mother: ‘Because you’re tall, and because you’re Black, you’re always going to be seen as a threat—to police officers, to people.’ " He nods. “I can still hear her voice." (His mother died in 2009.)
Perry’s upbringing in an abusive environment figures heavily in both his development and his work. In a 2010 interview on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Perry describes his childhood as a “living hell," adding that “some of it was so horrific that I found a way to leave myself. I could go to this park that my mother and my aunt had taken me to.... Every time someone was doing something to me that was horrible, that was awful, I could go to this park in my mind until it was over." Their neighborhood in New Orleans was poor and unsafe. By the time Perry was kicked out of high school, for verbally attacking a counselor, he says he’d been sexually abused by four separate adults.
Perry focused his energy on writing, which he’d been doing ever since the day he’d turned on Winfrey’s talk show and seen a Black woman explain how she’d exorcised her own brutal past by spilling it all out in regular journal entries. “If you write things down," Winfrey said, “it’s cathartic."
Perry’s journals soon morphed into plays, most of them dramatic comedies inspired by the locals he’d known, loved and feared. The more he wrote, the lighter he felt. Having fled New Orleans in the early ’90s for a fresh start in Atlanta, where he worked a series of random jobs, Perry put up $12,000 to produce I Know I’ve Been Changed, a musical about adult survivors of child abuse.
When the production tanked, however, Perry found himself broke, homeless and suicidal. He lived in his car or in rundown motels. The cycle continued for five years: Suck it up, save money, restage the play, watch it fail. When the play finally caught fire, in 1998, Perry attributed its success to grace. His Christian faith, he says, helped him shed his anger and persevere until his little play began selling out in city after city.
This period marked the birth of Madea, a gun-toting, linebacker-size piece of work played by Perry in drag. The character was inspired by Perry’s mother and his aunts (and was goosed along by Eddie Murphy, who urged Perry to play a woman). Madea became the breakout character in Perry’s play Diary of a Mad Black Woman, which begot a 2005 film adaptation.
Perry’s next film, Madea’s Family Reunion, made him a brand. He plowed $6 million into the movie, which opened at No. 1 and grossed $63 million. That pretty much all of the profit went straight to Perry, rather than to corporate overlords, validated a business model that would make Perry one of Hollywood’s top-paid entertainers.
It was a business strategy already established by Winfrey, who started mentoring Perry soon after seeing one of his plays in Los Angeles in the early 2000s. Like Perry, she’d once been underestimated by the powers that be; rather than depending on others for funding when The Oprah Winfrey Show was taking off, she owned the show and the studios in which it was produced. “The owning yourself thing," she says, pointing skyward, “it’ll take you, like, whoooosh!"
Even after Hollywood came calling, Perry retained sole ownership of his movies, including the nine subsequent Madea iterations he wrote, produced and directed before finally retiring the character last year. (Lionsgate distributes them.) His TV deals with the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), Black Entertainment Television (BET) and the streaming service BET+, of which he’s a part owner, are more complex but still quite lucrative.
In 2006, Perry took things even further by founding Tyler Perry Studios. Independence from Hollywood allowed him to control everything: budgets, set designs, schedules and even the day’s morning prayer when in production. He works fast, often knocking out two episodes in a day—a rate far in excess of the industry standard. According to actor Tiffany Haddish, Perry scolds those who use the Lord’s name in vain—“In the Bible Belt, that’s blasphemy," she recalls him saying—but occasionally unleashes profanity-laced rants. “You never want to be in a situation where he has to pull out the MF-word," Winfrey warns. “If he ever has to pull out the MF-word, I would say back away slowly."
Haddish recalls hearing rumors about Perry before she landed a role on his series If Loving You Is Wrong, which had a five-season run on OWN. “The myth is that he doesn’t pay very well, that he doesn’t really support his actors," Haddish says. “Or ‘He’s very difficult on set; don’t talk to him on set.’ It’s not true. He does support everybody. He listens to you." He once bought her a Tesla.
The studio was so productive that Perry went looking for more space. He paid $30 million for the 330 acres the studio now occupies. That the lot is located at Fort McPherson, a former military base that housed Confederate soldiers, was not incidental. Each of the studio’s 12 soundstages now bears the name of a different Black entertainment icon, among them Winfrey and Spike Lee.
Notably, Lee was once among a cadre of Black critics who argued that Perry made schlocky soap operas that trafficked in stereotypes—“coonery and buffoonery," in Lee’s words. Eventually, though, Lee stopped criticizing him, and the two became friends.
To many Black folks, Winfrey says, a Tyler Perry show “feels like when a pastor would come to town and you would have a re-viiii-val meetin.’ That’s exactly what goes on in there. It’s a revival of spirit. It’s not just people laughing at jokes onstage or laughing at Madea. It’s a place where people come to lay their burdens down and forget what’s going on in their everyday life for two hours and to experience a reflection of themselves in a way that makes them feel empowered about their own lives."
Scott Stuber, a top Netflix executive who has known Perry for years, thinks Perry’s commitment to his particular audience is what sets him apart. “He knows his audience," Stuber says, “and he respects them. He is committed to serving his audience. That’s actually his biggest innovation."
In early July, Tyler Perry Studios became the largest production company in the industry to launch its own coronavirus bubble. The idea first hit him in April, after the studio had halted production on its BET series The Oval and was poised to delay others. Anxiety reigned. He’d already lost one of his longtime crew members, hairstylist Charles Gregory Ross, to Covid-19.
“I realized that I had several hundred employees," Perry says. “Some of them are former prisoners who were in prison for 10 and 20 years, and they’re just great people who are so grateful to have this second-chance opportunity. And they’ve bought houses and cars, and their lives have changed. So I found myself in a position of, OK, what are you going to do? I’m fortunate enough to go sit and wait this thing out for a vaccine for a year and a half. But what about them? What about their kids?"
Fortunately, Perry had a home-field advantage. Being in Atlanta, which houses the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Emory University, he consulted top infectious disease experts and officials. They helped his team develop a 30-page reopening plan that painstakingly detailed safety protocols: transportation, medical staffing, personal protective equipment, quarantine facilities, housing, catering standards, cleaning crews, temperature checks and, most important, rapid and reliable testing. The whole operation has thus far cost about $19 million, an expense co-financed by BET.
Perry’s large-scale bubble launched while Hollywood’s old-guard studios were still scrounging for masks. Camp Quarantine, as Perry called it, was everyone’s canary in a coal mine—a prospect he found both powerful and awful.
“I thought, Can we do this?" Perry recalls. “Or even, Is this worth it? And know that I needed to not only protect their livelihood but most importantly protect their lives. What a difficult decision to make."
But after the first couple of weeks, he says, “I learned a lot more about how this works—made sure people were wearing their masks and social distancing and doing everything they were supposed to do—then I was able to get to a point where I got comfortable enough to think we could pull it off."
A Zoom tour of the lot reveals a rolling green expanse that looks more like a golf course than a studio. Most “campers" sleep in tidy wooden cabins, but Perry occupies a tricked-out bus.
“I’m a loner by nature, so it doesn’t bother me at all," he says. “People say, ‘Oh, my God, you’re in quarantine.’ No. We have movies on the lawn in the evening. We have four or five different kinds of food trucks. We have an alcohol truck. It’s an adult summer camp, and we have not had any complaints."
Like many others here, Perry spends about two weeks in the bubble, leaves it for almost a week, then returns to the bubble (where he quarantines for several days and is tested) before repeating the cycle. The routine allows him family time with his partner, model Gelila Bekele, and their 5-year-old son, Aman. Seeing them leaves him restored, if not relaxed.
“Relaxed," Perry says, “is the complete wrong word." He tilts forward. “I still carry the anxiety of worry because I have 377 people checking in. I’ve tested and tested and tested them. But what I run into is, What if the virus is on a surface that someone brought into the camp? It’s on their luggage. It’s inside their luggage. Or it’s in a plastic bag."
By mid-September, the studio had run 11,814 Covid-19 tests and seen only 18 positives. That’s a positivity rate of .15 percent. Georgia’s rate, by contrast, was 8.2 percent.
Inevitably, Perry has been fielding calls from Hollywood producers and studio executives eager to play catch-up. “I am being watched very closely," he says, smiling. “And I’m completely open to it—what do you need to see?"
The bubble did not insulate Perry from reality. He had become even more steeped in the racial justice movement since May, when George Floyd died at the knee of a Minneapolis police officer.
“When I saw George Floyd step out of the car, I said, ‘Oh, my God.’ A lot of people recognized him as being Black in that moment. But I saw Black and tall and intimidating because he was towering over these white officers. And I know what that can make them feel like. And I’ve found myself many times trying to be smaller in a room, rather than being the fullness of who I am."
The killing shook Perry to the degree that he reached out to Floyd’s family and offered them spiritual and material support. He chartered planes to fly Floyd’s loved ones to memorial services. In the following weeks, he paid for the funerals of Rayshard Brooks, a Black man gunned down by an Atlanta cop, and Secoriea Turner, an 8-year-old Black girl who was shot near the scene of Brooks’s death.
“I feel like I cannot turn away, because there’s so much going on at every moment," Perry says. “I never watched cable news or the 24-hour news cycle—up until this president."
When asked what he’d say to President Trump, Perry uncharacteristically struggles for words. “I don’t know how much I could say to Trump," he says. Later, he acknowledges that Trump’s racially incendiary rhetoric plainly discourages him. “Of course it does," he says. “Unfortunately, when you don’t have any leadership speaking to peace, or speaking to calm, or even speaking to understand either side, it makes it all much more difficult."
Although Perry publicly backed President Obama, he says, “I’m not a person that likes politics or wants to get into it. But I’ll probably be more active during this election than I ever have been."
Admittedly, Perry says, “I probably wouldn’t be as affected if I wasn’t a parent—if my child wasn’t coming of age and asking questions. Seeing it through the eyes of a father, it has changed everything in tremendous ways. It makes me want to be more active. It makes me want to be more outspoken and thoughtful about change."
Case in point: Amid the recent uproar about Confederate monuments, Perry discovered that four streets on his studio’s lot are named after Confederates. Soon, he hopes, those streets will bear “the names of my ancestors who were slaves."
Meantime, he’s building his own sort of monument. Perry’s Atlanta property sits on a 1,200-acre lot in the woodlands not far from the studio. His family already occupies the house, but the grounds, which will include a massive pool and an organic farm, remain a work in progress. White Bay Cay, his two-island retreat in the Bahamas, tends to be his favorite vacation spot. He also spends a lot of time at his hilltop home in Beverly Hills—a Tuscan-style mansion (eight bedrooms, 12 bathrooms) befitting Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, who reportedly stayed there when they first moved to California—a fact that Perry, laughing, declines to confirm or deny. He also has homes in New York and Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
If all of the above seems a tad over the top, well, Perry has a response to that. “All of this is about legacy," he says, referring to both his wealth and his properties. Like Winfrey, he’s promulgating that which has long eluded Black America: generational wealth. And he views his Atlanta estate as a beacon.
“There’s no Black people that have left a monument and a home that ended up being a historic place in this country, to this degree," he says. “I just want to be a North Star for any kid, Black or brown—or white—who comes from nothing to realize you can do anything."
Also, there’s someone he wants the next generation to meet. Madea’s retirement, Perry says, “may have been a bit premature, because I had no idea the country was going to fall into this kind of despair and darkness and anxiety. I know what this character’s meant for years: Joy. Pure, simple joy. Laughter. Good wisdom. I’d sit onstage and look out and see 10,000 people laughing and having a good time. And I think that laughter and humor is needed now more than ever."
He’s pushing hope. That’s his thing. “You have to understand where I come from and what I’ve gone through," he says. “I’ve had to have hope. So even after everything that’s going on in the world—the pandemic and the racial inequality and police brutality—I have to remain hopeful. It lives in me." •
This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.