On Oct. 14, Tyler Perry celebrated the $21.4 million opening of his latest film, Why Did I Get Married?, by going to a movie theater near his Atlanta home and plunking down money for a ticket. But he wasn’t going to see his own movie. Instead, he checked out We Own the Night, the dark Mark Wahlberg drama that many box office watchers had picked to eclipse Married in its opening weekend. It must have been a vindicating moment for the underdog director, who’s been under-estimated time and again by the Hollywood establishment. In fact, Perry could have bought a thousand tickets for Night, and it still wouldn’t have come close to the tally amassed by Married. The modestly budgeted dramedy not only trampled Night, it also outgrossed heavily touted films starring George Clooney (Michael Clayton) and Cate Blanchett (Elizabeth: The Golden Age) by up to $15 million, scoring a rare A+ grade in CinemaScore exit-polling results. And yet again, Perry sideswiped an industry that should have seen this coming. ”It’s been fun confounding the experts,” says Lionsgate president Tom Ortenberg, who has released four Perry movies in the last three years. ”I have to imagine people will refuse to be surprised anymore.”
Of course, Hollywood doesn’t like being caught off guard, and few will admit to being taken aback at Married‘s success. Adam Fogelson, who oversaw marketing for Universal’s Elizabeth, says that ”we didn’t go into the weekend underestimating him.” Adds Sony Pictures vice chairman Jeff Blake, who released Night: ”I think everyone always pays attention to him.” Well, he certainly has Hollywood’s attention now, and might even finally start earning its respect: We have learned that the writer-actor-director was offered at least three film projects this week, including one that would pair him with a major star. But the talks still had to be initiated by Perry’s camp. At this point, a studio chief has to be willfully blind — or just plain foolish — not to take a few cues from the mogul, who’s made quite a jump from industry zero to box office hero.
For starters, Perry has long cultivated a steady relationship with his audience. He posts regularly to the message boards on his website, tylerperry.com, and at press time, visitors had left more than 620,000 messages. ”I look at movies where there are no African Americans at all and I go, ‘Where in the world is this place where there are no black people?”’ Perry told EW just before Married opened. ”I want…people who have been ignored by Hollywood for years to get great entertainment that they can share with their families.” Perry’s producing partner, Reuben Cannon, believes that Perry is ”far more in touch with America’s taste than anyone in Hollywood…. I think of Tyler as the Walt Disney of the 21st century. Tyler’s name precedes every title because that’s the brand, much like Disney Presents.” (It’s worth noting that Married debuted at No. 1 two weeks after the Disney-produced The Game Plan had its own surprisingly strong opening.)
Perry is just as loyal to his business partners as he is to his besotted fans: He began his lucrative partnership with Lionsgate in 2004, and despite the fact that he’s got the means to go it alone (his Atlanta-based Tyler Perry Studios will move into a 150,000-square-foot production facility next year), he has no intention of severing those ties. He also steadfastly refuses to sell the rights to his original creations —like matriarch Madea, whom he’s portrayed in his plays, movies, and TBS sitcom, House of Payne explaining that it’s all in keeping with plans for his next big venture: his own television network. ”I’m building ancillary property so that I have enough on-air material.” He’s planned out a full production slate: Film versions of his hit plays Meet the Browns and Madea Goes to Jail will begin arriving in theaters next spring, and he hopes to sell a Browns sitcom (he’s already shot 10 episodes) to TBS as a companion for Payne.
And does Perry himself think that he’s particularly canny? It’s hard to say. Perhaps he’s afraid of letting those Hollywood types in on too many of his secrets. Or maybe he’s just smarter than the town that’s still grappling with his growing presence. ”As far as business goes, I have redefined some things,” he says, his voice thick with his usual modesty. ”If that makes me smart, then okay.” But Perry can’t stop to think about it too much. After all, he’s got an empire to build. — Additional reporting by Nicole Sperling
Tyler Perry’s Opening Weekends
Madea’s Family Reunion (2006) — $30 MILLION
Perry’s biggest hit — so far — was this raucous comedy centered on his most popular character.
Diary of a Mad Black Woman (2005) — $21.9 MILLION
Tossed out by her hubby, Kimberly Elise’s Helen moves in with her wise grandma. (Again, Madea!)
Why Did I Get Married? (2007) — $21.4 MILLION
Four couples deal with their unraveling marriages during a weeklong mountain retreat.
Daddy’s Little Girls (2007) — $11.2 MILLION
Idris Elba plays a father engaged in a bitter fight with his ex to regain custody of his three daughters.