Tyler Perry’s new studio is bigger than Disney, Warner Bros. & Paramount. Combined.
He is Hollywood’s newest $Billionaire$. But a couple of decades ago, he was a broke playwright with no mentors or backing… who was living out of his car.
This is his rags to holy moly riches story.
Tyler Perry did not have the smoothest of childhoods. His father, a carpenter was abusive. As a child, Perry went so far as to attempt suicide in an effort to escape his father’s beatings. The only time he felt a sense of sanctuary was when he was attending church every week. Perry dropped out of high school and did several odd jobs. But the memories of his childhood kept haunting him. To tackle his anger and depression at the time, he started writing long soul searching letters to himself. These letters would provide Tyler with inspiration for his first play.
The play, titled, ‘I Know I’ve Been Changed’, was a story about child-abuse survivors that Perry wrote, directed and starred in. It included Christian themes of forgiveness, dignity and self-worth. Tyler was convinced it would work. So much so that he was ready to put up his entire life’s savings($12,000) to finance it.
Tyler went back to the drawing board.
Failing his way to Success
And failed again. And again. And again. Year after year, Tyler put up his plays to almost non-existent crowds. He lost money; was evicted multiple times and lived in his car for 3 months working out the kinks in his production.
But Perry kept moving forward. He realized that the black church-going public was his biggest audience. And so he doubled down on this audience and started marketing to them. At every performance, he collected emails from attendees. And he would write authentic emails to these attendees. This direct connection to his fan base gave him the X-factor he needed.
Over the years, his production improved. And his relationship with his fan base deepened. By 1998, after years of failure and grind, his efforts were rewarded.
At the House of Blues, a church turned theatre, a line had formed around the block to watch his play. It was the start of things to come. The play sold out for the next seven nights. In fact, the venue was too small to accommodate all the fans who wanted to watch it. Perry moved the play to a bigger theatre in Atlanta. And sold 9000 tickets over the course of a weekend.
Tyler’s strategy of prioritizing his connection to his fan base was directly translating to tickets sold. He doubled down on this strategy over the next few years. During this time he also better understood his audience and started writing plays almost exclusively for them. By 2005, he had produced over 5 plays and his mailing list was over 400,000 strong.
How much did he makeover this time? He had hauled in more than $100 million from theatre ticket sales; moved $20 million worth of merch and collected another $30 million selling videos of the performances.
Money can’t buy you love perhaps.. but love or at least fan love… sure can get you money 😉
Next Stop:- Hollywood
Tyler was ready for his next challenge-Hollywood. He had just finished a film script based on his most popular character from one of his plays, Madea- the straight-talking, Christian grandmother from his plays. There was only one problem though. No Hollywood studio would finance his movie.
Despite his success in the theatre scene, most of Hollywood didn’t know him and the following he had. And those who did, thought he couldn’t replicate the same for cinema. Finally, he decided to make his own luck. He made LionsGate CEO, Jon Feltheimer a proposal.
Tyler proposed he would put up half the money needed to make the movie. But with 2 conditions. He would also collect half the profits and keep control of the content. The Studio said yes, expecting at most a $20M lifetime box-office haul. Tyler had bigger ambitions.
The movie was made for $5.5 Million Dollars. And though the Studio marketed it somewhat, it was unnecessary considering the loyalty of Tyler’s fan base. A loyalty that he had maintained with a simple email list.
When it was released, movie critics were not favorable.
In fact, they panned it. Roger Ebert gave it a scathing review which in the industry at the time could make or break the fortunes of a movie. But he needn’t have bothered- no review could shake a decade of fan-building efforts.
The movie grossed $51 million in theatres. It has since brought in an additional $150 million in video rentals.
Most of Hollywood brushed it off as a lucky hit. But Perry would continuously prove them wrong. Over the next 14 years, he pumped out 11 Madea movies. And By 2019, it had grossed over $670M at the box office. And $290M in fees and profits.
The Tyler Perry Success recipe
Tyler Perry was able to create his gargantuan fortune by thoroughly understanding his core audience and tailor-making his content for them. By his own admission, he never made content for critical acclaim and was never distracted by the opinions of mainstream Hollywood.
Tyler made it his job to deeply understand his primary audience to tailor content for them. This combined with his email list where he built meaningful relationships with his fan base was the 1-2 punch that has resulted in his billionaire status today.