A few weeks ago Lionsgate Films said it was ending its film distribution with Tyler Perry. I have to wonder if this is the beginning of the end for Tyler Perry.
Film distributors usually invest in filmmakers that show the potential to be profitable. When a filmmaker has shown they can make money they make an effort to make money with them. On the surface it would appear odd that Lionsgate would end its distribution contract with Tyler Perry after so many box-office hits, but when one looks at the declining financial numbers regarding the last few Tyler Perry films, it’s clear why they’re severing ties with him.
The last two Tyler Perry films, A Madea Christmas and the Single Moms Club performed poorly at the box office. In fact Tyler Perry’s box office has been suffering from diminishing returns over the last few years. I’m thinking Lionsgate Films is trying to cut its losses on Tyler Perry films before they wind up having to eat the cost on too many of them.
There are still a few Tyler Perry films Lionsgate is obligated to distribute under the current contract However, Perry will have to find a new distributor to buy his new films. Long-term this is not good for Tyler Perry’s business. Without film distribution, Tyler Perry’s films can’t find an audience at theaters.
Lionsgate was one of the few distributors open to Tyler Perry. With that door closing for Perry, it will be more of a challenge to get his to movies to theaters. The big six (Disney, Viacom, Newscorp, Warner Brothers, Sony and Universal have very little interest in distributing Black films due to the poor returns at the box office and their inability to sell at the box office in foreign markets.
Perry does have options for future film projects, but they’re limited. He could continue to produce content for Oprah Winfrey under the exclusive deal he has to broadcast his content on OWN network. However, his audience would be reduced significantly. OWN is a small cable network and advertising costs wouldn’t cover the high costs of Perry’s films if he broadcast them on the network first-run. If he did continue producing for OWN, he’d have to cut the budgets back on his new projects significantly.
Perry could also go the direct-to-video route. While the direct market has proven successful for some films, home video is still considered a secondary market due to the lack of exposure for products. With the home video market shrinking, and people buying less and less DVDs every year it could be a challenge to make a profit on a project. Again, he’d have to cut the budgets back on his projects significantly.
Perry also could offer streaming first-run content online on a site like UStream. However, this audience would be extremely limited due to bandwith issues. And with online recorders like RealPlayer, the issue of piracy could cut into his long-term profits in these venues. Once again, Perry would have to cut back the budgets on his projects significantly.
I believe one of the reasons Lionsgate is cutting its distribution ties with Tyler Perry is his lack of growth as a filmmaker. After ten years and over a dozen films, he has shown no growth in his craft as either a director or a screenwriter. His films have no style, and he has no “voice” as a storyteller.
In spite of his high production values, cinematically, his films’ visuals are still amateurish, with sloppy transitions, and improperly framed shots. His scripts continue to feature the same awkward dialogue and the same inept storytelling. And he just doesn’t know how to give actors the proper motivation to bring out the best in a script. Based on his current product, Tyler Perry has proven he’s not worth investing any more money in.
Executives at Lionsgate were probably saying to themselves: How many times can the audience watch the exact same movie? And how much will it cost us when they lose interest?
When Lionsgate executives saw the box-office performance of other Black movies such as Ride Along and About Last Night and compared their box-office receipts to more recent Tyler Perry films such as Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor and A Madea Christmas they probably realized Tyler Perry’s brand had peaked and it was time to move on.
It’s clear from the box-office of Ride Along and About Last Night that the Black audience is ready for different material at the movies. And Tyler Perry wasn’t focused on the future.
I believe he blew an opportunity to take himself to the next level by being so lazy. While he was making movies, Perry had an opportunity to learn the craft of filmmaking and screenwriting. In his spare time he could have gone to film school and learned the ins and outs of filmmaking. He could have taken a screenwriting course to polish up his storytelling skills.
But instead Perry became caught up in Hollywood. Rubbing elbows with stars and childhood idols like Cicely Tyson and Janet Jackson was more important to him than studying books like Syd Field’s Screenplay and Robert Mckee’s Story or studying classic movies like Sunset Boulevard and Marty to see how they told stories in pictures and how filmmakers establish a distinct style.
Perry also had an opportunity to use his popularity to build his business over the past decade. With Tyler Perry Studios in production, he could have started hiring new screenwriters, directors, and other young talents to start producing quality content for him. Helping those brothers and sisters establish their voice and their style under his umbrella and making money on their projects. But instead, he insisted on hiring older performers and doing everything himself.
And when he did outsource projects he invested in friends who produced poor quality films like Peeps.
Unfortunately what’s happening with Tyler Perry is what happens with most Black people who own a business. They don’t plan for the long-term. And it’s that lack of planning bites us in the behind later on when the market changes around us.
Tyler Perry’s mistake was the same one Boondocks creator Aaron McGruder made: Getting so caught up in the creative process that he forgot that entertainment is first and foremost a business.
And on the business end, a creator has to realize that sooner or later the audience is going to get tired of their old product. If a creator doesn’t have anything new to offer, the audience is going to move on to the next big product.
Over the past few years, Tyler Perry’s brand has become muddled in his attempt to expand his brand to a larger audience. Instead of producing quality films for Black audiences that feature predominantly Black casts, he’s spent time and money trying to appeal to mainstream audiences producing the same tired movies featuring predominantly White casts.
Unfortunately because he has no distinct style or “voice” as a filmmaker, White audiences with higher standards haven’t been interested in paying to see his films. Tyler Perry’s The Single moms Club’s poor performance at the box office has proven to distributors like Lionsgate large audiences of White women don’t pay money to see White single mothers play the victim at the theater the way Black women do. And that the same story model that is successful with ghetto baby mamas and hoodrats does not work with middle class suburban soccer moms.
With Black audiences moving on to the next big film product (Ride Along) Tyler Perry’s business is in trouble. In the face of a changing marketplace, he has two options: Improving the quality of his films and storytelling so he can adapt to the new Black audience by creating a new story model and creating movies distributors want to buy,
Continue to coast on the existing one until it’s no longer profitable.
Tyler Perry seems to be choosing option #2. And the profitability of his films seems to be declining with each passing film.
In the entertainment business, three box office failures in a row can kill a career and a brand. And Tyler Perry is one more box- office failure away from being at the end of his film career. In Hollywood you’re only as good as your last film. Unfortuantely, Tyler Perry’s last film was as bad as his first one.
Tyler Perry said Hollywood would not change him. But looking at the casts of his last two movies it’s clear that it has. If he doesn’t change his approach to business, he may be on his way to being replaced. With Steve McQueen fresh off an Oscar win for 12 Years A Slave, Hollywood’s executive looks like they’re ready to bring in another Black filmmaker as the “voice” for Black cinema.
Tyler Perry’s business is in trouble. I only hope he sees how much trouble it’s in and changes course. There’s still time for him to get his business right, and he has an opportunity to right his ship before it hits the iceberg.