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tyler perry branches out

The Baltimore Sun

You'd think world domination would be enough.

But, no, Tyler Perry isn't satisfied by his box-office-busting success in four artistic genres: film, TV, books and live theater.

He's not content that, in the past 15 years, he's gone from living in his car to living in a 26-room mansion in Atlanta.

It isn't sufficient that next month will see the opening of the Tyler Perry Studios, a 30-acre complex with five soundstages southwest of Atlanta, where Perry hopes to nurture undiscovered talent.

No, whether by accident or by design, Perry's newest inspirational film - which will be released Friday on his 40th birthday - is his first project with the potential to reach the white audience who make up the majority of moviegoers.

Tyler Perry's The Family That Preys is the only one of his six films to date to star an interracial cast. Perry cast two powerhouse actresses in the lead roles - Kathy Bates, who is white, and Alfre Woodard, who is black.

During an interview in a downtown hotel, Perry protests that he didn't cast the Academy Award-winning Bates or the other white actors in the cast with the thought of wooing white ticket-buyers.

"Of course, I want to reach as many people as possible," he says.

"But this film isn't an attempt to appeal to a broader audience; it's just the story I wanted to tell at this time. Right now, I'm working on a movie that I initially wrote 15 years ago about the relationship between a Holocaust survivor and a jazz singer."

The Family That Preys tells the story of the friendship between the wealthy socialite Charlotte Cartwright (Bates) and Alice Pratt (Woodard), a working-class woman who owns a local diner. When the lives of both are disrupted by unethical business practices and their adult children's extramarital affairs, the two friends get away from their problems by embarking on a wild road trip together.

Though Perry eschews traditional marketing routes - his films are not screened for critics and, until recently, weren't advertised in newspapers - chances are that this new movie will make its debut at No. 1 at the box office.

Three of Perry's previous five films opened in the top slot, and a fourth finished second, edged out by the mammoth popularity of Horton Hears A Who. Only Tyler Perry's Daddy's Little Girls could be considered a mere middling success, having racked up $31 million in box-office receipts to date.

That's even more remarkable, considering that Perry's film audiences were made up heavily of African-Americans, whom Perry reached through church groups and by advertising on black radio stations.

His 2006 book, Don't Make a Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings soared to the top of The New York Times' best-seller list for nonfiction the day it was released, and remained there for two months. His television show, House of Payne, on TBS, is the most-watched comedy sitcom ever on cable. And Perry's 11 stage plays were seen by an average of 35,000 people each week in 2005 alone.

Perry's core audience includes churchgoing African-American women who warm to his stories of middle-class characters afflicted with such real-life problems as domestic violence and drug abuse. The characters solve their dilemmas by drawing on their faith in God and their love for one another.

Expanding his brand

"I think Tyler Perry is showing what an astute businessman he is," says Jannette Dates, Dean of the John H. Johnson School of Communications at Howard University.

"He's taking his brand and expanding it to make more money yet. But, his films always have a message, usually more than one. Broadening his audience also allows him to get out his message to more people."

That message tends to preach self-empowerment; Perry's films are notable for their lack of political content. In The Family That Preys, both the heroes and villains are divided evenly between black and white characters. Perhaps one line late in the film has a racial subtext - and even that is debatable.

"Some people say the biggest issue for a black person is the race issue, and that doesn't even enter into Perry's conversation," Dates says. "That might be one of the reasons people like his movies. They get tired of living under that weight."

But every silver cloud had a dark lining. Perry's core audience turns out in droves for each new project. But, once that group is exhausted, box-office receipts drop precipitously. In film parlance, Perry's films have "short legs."

That's one reason for including such mainstream draws as Bates in the cast.

"When Kathy's name was first suggested to me, I said, 'No way are we going to get Misery star Kathy Bates," Perry says, referring to the 1990 film for which the actress won her Oscar. "She was a little hesitant at first, but when she heard that Alfre was going to do it, that sealed the deal."

Another reason for introducing white actors into his stories is that Perry's lifestyle has changed so drastically.

Perry's success has brought him into contact with power-brokers, with movers and shakers - and rightly or wrongly, most of these folks are white. Two years ago, when the City of Atlanta faced the potential loss of Martin Luther King Jr.'s papers at auction, Georgia officials turned for help to Delta Airlines, the Coca-Cola Corporation - and Perry.

"I wouldn't have been able to write a character like Charlotte before I became successful, because I didn't know anyone like that," Perry says. "A whole new world has opened up for me. Naturally, I'll gravitate toward new themes."

The trick, of course, is for the filmmaker to keep firmly in contact with the black churchgoers who made him a success.

Tough beginnings

Perry grew up in New Orleans, where he had a tumultuous relationship with his father, who beat him frequently. As a teen, Perry at times was so depressed that he tried to commit suicide.

"I was physically and verbally abused as a child," Perry said in 2006, "with vacuum cleaner cords, anything my father could get his hands on. I never ended up in the hospital, but everybody knew about the beatings. My mother knew. My sisters knew."

After dropping out of high school, he moved to Atlanta, where he held a succession of odd jobs. One afternoon, while watching an episode of Oprah Winfrey's show, the talk show host said that keeping a journal could heal emotional wounds.

Perry followed that advice, and the result was his first play, I Know I've Been Changed . In 1992, Perry saved $12,000, rented out a 200-seat theater and performed his first show before a paying audience. He promptly lost every penny. "Only 30 people came for the entire first weekend," he said in the 2006 interview.

He was so broke that, for several months, he lived out of his car.

But, Perry was undeterred. He brought I Know I've Been Changed back several times, and in 1998, the show finally had a successful run. His second play, Woman, Thou Art Loosed, based on a true story documented by the evangelist Bishop T.D. Jakes, grossed more than $5 million in five months.

"I don't think anyone who hasn't experienced it can understand the magnitude of the change," he says. "It's the little things I get so much pleasure out of, like being able to go to the gas station and actually fill up the tank."

Since then, Perry has written nine additional stage plays, six films, a television show and a book. Every one has done gangbusters, thanks to urban audiences. But, it wasn't until his 2006 movie, Madea's Family Reunion, made $30 million during its opening weekend - on a production budget of just $6 million - that industry insiders began wondering whether Perry's films could draw the white customers.

When The Family That Preys was recently screened in Arundel Mills before about 400 invited guests, roughly 10 percent of the crowd was white, including Susie Lauer, 51, and her partner, Julie Caprio, 47, of Parkville. The women attended the screening courtesy of the Maryland Film Festival, which made passes available to donors.

"I've never seen any Tyler Perry movies before, and I really enjoyed it," Lauer says. "It made me want to rent his earlier films."

Added Caprio: "You can tell him from us that he has two new white-girl fans."

If a significant number of white moviegoers agree with Lauer and Caprio, Perry will once again have blazed a new trail. Though such well-known performers as Sammy Davis Jr., Flip Wilson and Eddie Murphy have fans of all races, these performers got their starts in comedy acts and comedy clubs, and then jumped to the big screen.

It's hard to think of an African-American actor and writer who broke out of the so-called Chitlin' Circuit of urban-themed stage plays to win widespread popular acclaim, with the possible exception of the late actor and writer Ossie Davis.

It's too soon to tell, of course, if Perry will become a crossover star of the magnitude of Murphy. But Dates points out that times are tough for people of all races. Everyone welcomes a reminder that our fondest wishes still occasionally come true.

"So many people, black and white, are despairing," Dates says. "When they see what Tyler Perry has achieved, when they go to his movies or to his plays, it gives them hope that their dreams, too, will one day take root and blossom."

Tyler Perry

Age: 39

Residence: Atlanta

Birthplace: New Orleans

Education : High-school drop-out who later earned his GED

Occupation: Actor and writer of original comedies with strong Christian and urban themes

Accomplishments : His films, television show and book routinely debut at No. 1 in their respective media. His live stage comedies are seen by tens of thousands of theatergoers each week.

2007 Income: $125 million, according to Forbes

Famous Mentor: Oprah Winfrey

Personal: Single

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