The two-day grand opening celebration of the new Tyler Perry Studios in Southwest Atlanta marked the latest chapter for its namesake, entrepreneurial filmmaker Tyler Perry. The event served as a de facto Black Hollywood Oscars, State of the Union, celebrity homecoming, and all-in-one 50th birthday party for Perry, with a huge outpouring of stars atypical of other events in Atlanta’s film industry. A Saturday night gala hosted everyone from the Hollywood elite (Will Smith, Oprah Winfrey, Samuel L. Jackson, Whoopi Goldberg, Spike Lee) to music legends (Gladys Knight, Beyoncé and Jay-Z, Patti LaBelle) to political leaders (Congressman John Lewis, Stacey Abrams, Kasim Reed, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, Ambassador Andrew Young) to Atlanta’s celebrities (Usher, Evander Holyfield, Jeezy, Ludacris, Jermiane Dupri, and rising star Storm Reid). A Sunday morning gospel brunch included appearances from Bill and Hillary Clinton, Vanessa Williams, and Jennifer Hudson, just to name a few.
The 330-acre campus at Fort McPherson—which Perry purchased from the city for $30 million in 2015, a deal that drew some ire from critics—is one of the largest movie studios in the U.S., the largest of any studio east of the Mississippi River, and the largest entertainment complex owned by an African American or person of African descent in the world. Earlier this summer, Perry gave a viral acceptance speech at the 2019 BET awards where he mentioned the significance of a black man owning a studio on the site of a former confederate army base.
For Perry, it’s a culmination of more than 25 years of growth and development in the entertainment industry. A former homeless playwright, Perry has spent his career eschewing the traditional media hubs of Los Angeles and New York for Atlanta as his homebase. He’s now accomplished something no other black filmmaker has done in having a self-owned, mainstream film and television studio with no outside partners or investors.
But to understand how Perry got here, you have to look at those who came before him. The Johnson Brothers were the first African Americans to start their own film company in 1916, but Perry’s accomplishments in particular most closely resemble that of Oscar Micheaux, who opened the first studio wholly owned by an African American in 1919.
Micheaux, like Perry, was a self-made mogul who started as a guest writer for the Chicago Defender before becoming a self-distributed book publisher, eventually adapting his own written works for film. Micheaux would become an all-in-one movie studio and distributor, releasing over 40 self-financed films for African American audiences between 1919 and 1948.
Micheaux’s films, then lumped into a category called “race films,” featured majority black casts and were more social commentary on race, class, and self-sufficiency—very different from Perry’s faith-based and women-centered comedies and dramas. His 1920 silent film Within Our Gates was perceived as a rebuttal to D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film, The Birth of a Nation, a film attributed to aiding in both the second rise of the Klu Klux Klan and the use of Stone Mountain as a Klan meeting place.
Micheaux was mostly left out of segregated Hollywood, releasing films for African American audiences when there were none. He’s credited alongside others of the time with creating the African American film industry. And like Perry, he’s been recognized for giving many African Americans the opportunities to break into film, including the first role for Paul Robeson in 1925’s Body and Soul, as well as roles for Robert Earl Jones, the father of actor James Earl Jones. All of this was not lost on Perry, who as recently as 2017 has been rumored to star in a biopic on Micheaux.
Both men started developing audiences outside of film, Micheaux by writing spots for the Chicago Defender as well as his novels, and Perry spent 12 years as a playwright before the release of his first film, Diary of a Mad Black Woman, in 2005.
But where Micheaux was locked out of opportunities due to Jim Crow, Perry has taken every opportunity presented to him. By spending more than a decade touring his stage plays across the U.S., Perry was able to grow an audience outside of the parameters of Hollywood. He then created his own media empire through the consistent output of profitable films and television shows in partnership with major distributors.
For nearly 50 years after Micheaux’s death in 1948, black filmmakers were unable to obtain the scale, control the means of production, and own the audience relationship in a similar way. This time overlaps perfectly with both the gains of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. At these points in history, African Americans saw integration and mainstream success as the highest value system. And with no other company distributing black content, most abandoned this idea of self-distribution. Even with the rise of mainstream black films of the 1970’s-80’s, there were zero black-owned mainstream film and television companies.
Even the typical “first look deal,” “overall deal,” or “production deal” was rarely extended to black creators—minus those with Eddie Murphy-caliber fame. This lead to ebbs and flows in the output of content by African Americans over time, but no sustainable source of work or distribution.
But Perry, like Micheaux before him, became that consistent source of income and notoriety. Through his years of cultivating African American and faith-based audiences, he had both the rare leverage of owning his customer relationship and his intellectual property while working with Hollywood. He drew Hollywood’s attention quickly after Diary of a Mad Black Woman, eventually signing some of the most lucrative and strategic deals in film and TV history.
On the television side, Perry was first enlisted by Atlanta’s own TBS in 2006 for his series House of Payne, which became a consistent ratings mainstay for the company. The agreement included a “10/90” deal previously unheard of in the television industry: Perry himself paid for the first 10 episodes, which if proven successful in the ratings would lead to an immediate full syndication order of 100 episodes. 254 episodes later, it holds the record for the most episodes of any comedy series featuring an African American cast, beating the previous record holder, The Jeffersons, by a single episode.
The successful stint at TBS lead to Oprah Winfrey to enlist Perry’s help in turning around the initially sluggish start of her own cable network, OWN. Perry produced three original series for the channel and helped rebuild the network’s base. On the film side, Perry is credited with providing distributor Lionsgate Films with a steady source of consistent profits, starting with Diary of a Mad Black Woman and ending this past March with A Madea Family Funeral.
Perry recently inked a lucrative deal with CBS-Viacom, revamping the media conglomerate’s BET brand as it enters the streaming era, as well distributing films through the Viacom-owned Paramount Pictures, such as last November’s Nobody’s Fool with Tiffany Haddish. The CBS-Viacom deal comes at a critical moment for the entertainment industry, as companies are not only competing with streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu, but Tik Tok, Snapchat, YouTube, and even Fortnite. Media companies are bulking up productions in-house in order to compete for both paying customers and advertising dollars. The need for more content for a rapidly fragmenting audience requires an output unlike anything that’s been seen.
For Perry, however, it’s a golden opportunity. His studio offers not only the physical production facilities and infrastructure, but content creators, a built-in audience, and brand name that delivers guaranteed eyeballs.
All this success has placed Perry in the eye of Hollywood with both awe and ire, but this new apex of Perry’s career brings with it a new kind of attention. He’s no longer overlooked by Hollywood, he is Hollywood, and everyone else is taking notes.