Oscar weekend’s biggest upset didn’t happen inside the Kodak Theatre. It took place at the nation’s multiplexes, where a mix of broad comedy, soapy drama, social commentary, and earnest spiritualism featuring an almost entirely African-American cast edged past Will Smith’s blockbuster Hitch to gross $21.9 million.
So now would be a good time to introduce white America to Tyler Perry, Diary of a Mad Black Woman‘s auteur. Perry, 35, is a playwright whose genre of explicitly Christian black stage shows has been derided as a form of ”chitlin circuit” theater by some critics while turning him into a brand name among African Americans. That brand is about to become a lot more lucrative: He co-produced Diary, adapted it from his own play, and took on three roles, most notably Madea, the trash-talking, gun-wielding granny of Kimberly Elise’s scorned title character. Perry — alone in Hollywood, perhaps — was unsurprised by the monster opening.
”I have a huge fan base,” says Perry, whose stage tour attracts a ”99 percent” African-American family audience. ”Lions Gate was tracking the film, and I said, ‘There’s no way to track these people.’ I went out on stage [the other night] and asked, ‘Has anyone talked to you guys?’ — this is 4,000 people in Jersey — and the audience is going, ‘No!’ There’s no way to research these people. No company can track them.”
But they came out in droves, many, according to Perry, busing to theaters with their church groups. Perry says he’s been plugging Diary to the 30,000 people who see him every week on tour — and the 400,000 people who receive his newsletter — for a year and a half. Lions Gate marketing head Jon Hegeman says the opening-weekend audience was about 80 percent African American but expects the film to cross over to white audiences in the coming weeks.
Diary‘s success arrives in a year in which the two top movies, Hitch and Ice Cube’s Are We There Yet?, are headlined by African Americans. Given that it was released the weekend Jamie Foxx and Morgan Freeman both scored Oscars, and exactly a year after Mel Gibson proved the power of marketing to religious groups, perhaps the real story is that Hollywood studios still failed to see its potential. In fact, the film almost didn’t make it to theaters. Initially, Perry took the script to a studio (”I’m not gonna tell you which one”), where a white exec told him that black churchgoers don’t go to movies. ”That’s because they’re being completely insulted and ignored,” Perry says. ”I know for a fact that a lot of people who went to this movie have not been to movies in years.”
Undaunted, he took the project to Fox Searchlight but ran into creative difficulties. ”I was getting these notes back on the script, and they wanted things changed,” Perry recalls. ”I was totally ready to go straight to DVD because of the blatant disrespect for what I was trying to do.” (Says a Searchlight rep, ”We are very happy for Tyler. We toast his massive success and wish him well for the future.”) Perry was used to clashing with the suits, having developed a CBS pilot in 2003. ”It was an absolute nightmare,” he says. ”I’ve never been in a situation where I didn’t have control. I was even told that I couldn’t say ‘Jesus.”’ (A CBS rep responds: ”We didn’t order his pilot. It happens — to him and many others every year — but we wish him the best.”)