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“I can feel the ancestors at my back when I’m here, when I’m walking the land and when I’m taking it all in,” declares Tyler Perry of the Atlanta studio the Madea creator just opened officially in Atlanta on what was once the site of a confederate Army base. “I completely feel it, man. It’s overwhelming to me.”
Having cut the ribbon on his multi-stage facility on the former Fort McPherson base at a star-studded gala on October 5, the kinetic Perry is ending the month strong. The Haves and the Have Nots boss now has dramas Sistas and the White House-set The Oval debuting tonight on BET in the first projects of the lucrative and equity delivering Viacom deal he inked back in 2017. Perry writes, directs and executive produces both series, with Tyler Perry Studios’ Michelle Sneed serving as EP on both
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Exiting his previous deal at OWN, Perry’s Viacom arrangement has another new original drama in the pipeline, as well as a dramedy and a comedy series, a holiday-themed live special and a potential feature film adaption of his mid-1990s play A Jazz Man’s Blues. In what mght end up being the biggest outlet for the prolific Perry and the most profitable, the deal with the Bob Bakish-run media company also includes a stake in the recently launched BET+ streaming service too.
Still hot off the opening of the new studio, Perry chatted with me about that big step, his new shows, the streaming future and his relationship with his audience in an increasingly fragmented market.
DEADLINE: Tonight, we’re going to see the first shows on BET from the big Viacom deal you inked two years ago — certainly caps off quite the October for you, I gather?
PERRY: Oh yes. I’m really excited about these shows. I’m excited about the Viacom deal, I’m excited about working with BET.
DEADLINE: In today’s highly charged political environment, The Oval feels like part wish fulfillment and part cultural grenade in many ways, doesn’t it?
PERRY: The Oval is just a nighttime soap opera. I’m such a fan of Aaron Spelling and what he did with Dynasty, Dallas and all of those things back in the ‘80s, so to have this moment to do this it’s really, really exciting. The Oval is not a political show. It’s a story of an interracial couple in the White House. It’s about following them upstairs to the residence, following the Secret Service home, following the maids and the butlers home. It’s a powerful, fun thing for me. I’ve really, really enjoyed it
DEADLINE: You are one of the most prolific content producers out there by far, but coming off your previous deal with OWN and series like The Haves and Have Nots, what has been the evolution for you to The Oval and Sistas?
PERRY: Well, the first time I ever did a TV drama was writing for Oprah and writing for the OWN Network with a very, very tiny budget, so I had to learn quickly then. But, the great thing about my audience is they’ve always been so supportive, they’ve always stood with me, they’ve always showed up, so to have them show up for The Haves, and me learn with them was really great. That was a powerful moment, because these things with Twitter and the comments people made, it told it all.
It was such an education for me as they were tweeting live as the shows were going on, so learning what I’ve learned on this seven, going on eight, seasons of that show and being able to put all of that into The Oval has been a great moment for me.
DEADLINE: But, having opened your own mega studio in Atlanta, having the huge success of Madea, the OWN shows, and more, have you considered taking your foot off the pedal instead of leaping into this new deal and the expanding environment of streaming too with BET?
PERRY: I’ll tell you the truth, I wouldn’t want to do it. It’s that old adage that says, “You do what you love you never work a day in your life,” and for me that’s true.
I love it.
I love being on set with my crews, sitting there getting things done. I love writing 24 episodes in two weeks. I love shooting a season in 2 1/2 weeks. I just love the challenge of it all. For me, I want to get in there and fight. So, if you tried to take me out of this thing it’s like taking somebody out of the game, who’s played for a long time. It’s like a quarterback who doesn’t want to retire. That’s where I am with it. I just love it.
DEADLINE: In that vein, The Oval and Sistas launch back-to-back, but you do you think that is the best strategy as they are very different shows and potentially very different audiences?
PERRY: I do think they’re two very different shows with two different viewerships, but I think the brilliance of what BET is doing is launching them both at the same time.
PERRY: Because financially it’s just a smarter thing to launch them both at the same time. Maybe later, they may have to break off into their own nights,
DEADLINE: Again, why?
PERRY: Because Sistas is a show of young black women who are dating in Atlanta, and living those lives. They’re young, they’re successful.
You know, this idea came for me just listening to the women in my office who are single, in their 30s and dating.
PERRY: Yes, so I made three of them producers and we all sat down and talked for two hours. Then I went away and two weeks later came back with the scripts.
DEADLINE: What was their reaction to seeing their lives on the page through your eyes?
PERRY: (Laughs) They were blown away by the stories that I was telling based on that two-hour conversation, so that’s what Sistas is, and it’s going to speak specifically to an age group and an audience that I’m real excited about talking to.
DEADLINE: On another level, you opened your own studio, a 12-soundstage offering that I believe is large in terms of sheer acreage than Disney, Paramount and Warner Bros’ L.A. lots put together. That is a testament to you unto itself, but the fact you built it in one of the poorer neighborhoods of your adopted home of Atlanta’s on the site of what was once a Confederate Army base must truly resonate with you …
PERRY: First of all, I feel strongly that it’s so poetic, in the sense that there were Confederate soldiers and generals plotting how to keep black people enslaved and now the land is owned by a black person.
That, for me, is never lost, so I’ve been given stewardship over this place and these 40, or so, homes that were built in the 1800s by the hands of slaves. I can feel the ancestors at my back when I’m here, and when I’m walking the land when I’m taking it all in.
DEADLINE: That must be overwhelming on so many levels…
PERRY: I completely feel it, man. It’s overwhelming to me. All I can equate it to is seeing Oprah for the first time on television and feeling like I was represented, or she could be a friend, or my aunt, or seeing someone who’s intelligent and can speak to anyone and interview anyone. It was such a powerful moment in my life that it took the limits off. So, when people see this studio, where it is, when they see what I’ve done, I just want them to know that they belong in the room and it’s possible.
DEADLINE: Being where it is, being in Atlanta, being created and owned by an African-American mogul, what do you think the studio says to your audience and to Hollywood?
PERRY: I completely feel a shift in the perception of who I am. I always have been clear on what I was doing, the audience that I was speaking to, and how I was speaking to them. We speak a language that we both understand because we come from the same place. It’s like being a foreigner speaking a language that is common to the other foreigners that you speak to, which I know wasn’t something that Hollywood necessarily understood.
So, to understand that and to have that, and realize that that audience has built this place, that audience of extremely incredibly loyal people built this place was so powerful to me. Also, to have an opportunity to name all of these soundstages after African-American icons like Oprah or Will Smith, who have meant so much to all of us as African Americans means that there’s a place where they are recognized, honored, accepted and celebrated for who they are.
That, for me, means everything, and you would have had to have been in the room on the walk at these stages for it be dedicated to feel and sincerely get the fullness of this moment. I also know that my sets are the most diverse in all of Hollywood. I know that I have hired more people of color and women than most of Hollywood combined, and it makes me feel good that I’ve been in a position to do that, for sure.
DEADLINE: And it’s an evolving thing, so now that you’ve had the grand opening, what’s next?
PERRY: Over the next 24 months, we’re going into the next phase, which is all the backlot area, which is a complete backlot downtown, a six-lane highway for shootings, because you can’t shut down highways anyway, so I have enough land to actually build a half-mile-long six-lane highway, which will be great.
PERRY: Yeah, and there will be another area that is Europe. Ideally, I want it to be is a place where you could come and shoot everything and never have to leave. I’m building a 3,000-seat theater here for entertainment as well, so there are all of these phases that’ll be coming online over the next 60 months, but by then it’ll be fully done fully as a studio and as a full entertainment complex.
DEADLINE: I know you just formally opened, but how is it doing as a business in terms of booked stages and other facilities?
PERRY: We’re doing great. At the top of the year, we’re going to be at about 90% capacity.
Right now — with the shows in and out and the seasons being on and off here in Atlanta — we’re probably at about 60% or 70% capacity. Because here’s the great thing about this place is that I’m a content provider. I need space, I need lights, I need all of these things myself, so the business that I’m telling you about is outside of my own projects. So, with that and everything I have going on, it’s pretty busy around here.
DEADLINE: It is also pretty busy in the industry as a whole of late. Your corporate partner Viacom is reuniting with CBS, Disney+ and AppleTV+ are coming online in the next month, The Fox and Disney merger is done, AT&T bought Warner Bros and HBO, and it and NBCUniversal are launching streamers too, as has BET with BET+ last month. Is this a race toward mutual self-destruction of the marketplace with audiences and content providers like yourself?
PERRY: The great thing about my audience and my base is that they’ve been there with me from the beginning. They’ve been with me from the time I was doing the live stage shows to when I created the 10/90 model with TBS, they’ve always been with me, so moving into streaming is seems like a natural progression – which is why I am a part owner of BET+
DEADLINE: How so?
PERRY: Well, the key to all of these streaming services is having content. That’s what’s going to delineate it. What is going to define it is having these audiences. Niche audiences and content is going to be key, and I have a niche audience and I have a machine that can create content as fast as anyone can write checks, so I think that that is what is going to make the difference in what we’re doing.
DEADLINE: OK, but as these mega-mergers are going to be platforms for more content and for content providers and creators like yourself, there is another point of view that it is already becoming too monocultured and closed off …
PERRY: Maybe, but I’ve learned that this goes back to niche audiences and content. I think that that is where the success is going to be.
When you’re able to focus in on your niche and understand them and get them to be your base and your support, just as I’ve done in everything that I’ve done, and then you grow and expand from there. I think that as long as you have that particular group that is your base everything else will go the way that it should.
Yes, the field is crowded, and cable is crowded. Everything’s crowded, but just like there was just regular three channels at one point and then to cable, then to 800 channels, and now into streaming. It evolves and anyone who is resistant to that is going to get left behind.
DEADLINE: You once said that you felt that Hollywood ignored you and that you were good with that because, as you said today, you had that audience that you built yourself. With the opening of the studio, the new BET series and BET+, do you think Hollywood can still be ignoring Tyler Perry now?
PERRY: I guess that would depend on what that means. For sure I’ve always felt like the underdog, I’ve always felt on the outside because I didn’t come in through the traditional channels. I’m awkward in parties, I’m awkward at the award shows. It’s uncomfortable for me. I don’t feel like I fit in.
DEADLINE: Tyler, you gave one of the most amazing speeches we’ve ever heard just a few months ago at the BET Awards…
PERRY: But that’s BET. I felt like I was home with family, so that was a bit different than sitting at the Oscars, or the Emmys, or something like that. It just feels a bit different.
But, here’s my hope. What I’ve been able to do here is tell my stories and I also feel like I’ve been able to let people understand and know the value of telling people’s stories of color in my own way. With that there’s been this surge of so many other talents who are having great opportunities to tell all different kinds of stories. So, if I’m the one that is ignored and everybody else gets their shot, then so be it. That’s okay with me, as long as people get their shot.