Movie critics shake their heads in disbelief. Roger Ebert said he got more angry mail protesting his one-star review of Diary of a Mad Black Woman than any other review he had ever written. But audiences love Tyler Perry's movies. And his plays, his DVDs, and his book. Soon, they will love his television series. Critics and commentators are put off by the way Perry's works defy categorization. In my reviews, I've said that they are a mash-up of low comedy, high melodrama, and unabashed spirituality. But this reflects and enhances the stories he tells about families who -- like real-life families -- often contain all of that and more. For me, what makes his work so powerful is another factor that can be disconcerting to critics -- the unabashed and undiluted sincerity of his commitment to spirituality and to family.
I've read a good deal about Tyler Perry, but the article I have enjoyed the most is the one in the current Fortune Magazine because it talks about Perry's success as a businessman.
Perry, 37, is building a maverick media company by translating "urban theater" - the often melodramatic, revival-style stage plays that tour the country catering to black audiences - into mainstream movies and television shows. It's a niche he has come to dominate so thoroughly that he is able to do things in Hollywood that most others - especially newcomers - simply can't.
The best thing about his financial success is that it has bought him a level of freedom as an artist that is close to unprecedented in Hollywood. The studios admit that they do not understand his audience and so they give him complete control and are happy to get whatever revenues he is willing to give them.
If Perry's work continues to perform at this level, Tyler Perry Studios could well have done $1 billion in business by the end of 2009, making it a major independent studio. It's staggering, especially since just a few years ago, most people had never heard of Perry. But it's precisely because he is an outsider that he's been able to ignore so many industry standards, usually to his advantage.
That is a happy ending right out of a Tyler Perry movie. I am delighted for him, but even more delighted that his success is teaching Hollywood to respect an audience they have never thought about seriously before. For me, that is his most important audience, and I expect his example to lead to more and better movies from other film-makers as well.
Similarly backward is Hollywood's historical neglect of black audiences. "There was a trend to doing gimmicky black movies," says Michael Paseornek, Lions Gate's president of film production. "Put a few rappers in, put some songs in, deliver any old thing. Well, the audience stopped coming, but Tyler's brought them back."