Tyler Perry on Building an Entertainment Empire in Atlanta

In an exclusive interview, the entertainment mogul discusses his business, the ‘disrespectful’ BET sale and more.

(Bloomberg) — Comedian, actor and media mogul Tyler Perry has helped transform Atlanta into an entertainment industry destination. He joined Bloomberg’s Shartia Brantley at a Bloomberg Equality event in Atlanta on Oct. 18 to discuss his career, the expansion of Tyler Perry Studios, Georgia’s film industry and his bid for BET Media Group, which was thwarted when owner Paramount Global ultimately decided against a sale. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Brantley: Atlanta has been dubbed Hollywood of the South; it’s a hub now for entertainment. What has been your role in contributing to that?

Perry: Everything. No, when I came here in 1991 for Freaknik [a famous Atlanta street party], I had no idea that this would be the place where I would call home. But I went [home], packed my Hyundai and moved right back because this place has a heart that beats for Black people. It beats for dreamers; it’s the home of Dr. King. If you are a person who is a dreamer and you have a work ethic and you want to make change, there’s so many things that are malleable in this city to make sure that you have…the foundation to do that. So that’s what I found when I moved here.

And when I started, Turner Broadcasting was the big entertainment hub here. But then I started television—and if I’m not mistaken—I got the very first tax credit here for my show, House of Payne, that ever happened. I think that because of leadership, and the current governor, and governors before who opened up the doors for those tax credits, it has opened the floodgates for people to come to Atlanta and to thrive in the entertainment business. 

Brantley: There has been some talk about capping these incentives, where production and film companies would receive up to a 30% tax credit. Do you envision that actually coming to pass?

Perry:  I would hope that it wouldn’t, because the economic impact of the city is in the billions of dollars. So if you start to cap it, and you look at what has happened when it’s capped in other cities, how much of the income was lost? So I’m hoping that it continues to thrive and flourish because what we’re getting in tax credits, we’re more than making up with economic impact.

Brantley: Representation on the big and small screen is important. Why haven’t other studios made the same progress?

Perry: Because, well, for me, a lot of the other huge studios are run by CEOs. I’m an owner; I’m there day in and day out. Everyone is represented equally at my studio, and that was just because I was on the ground, all of us boots, pushing in the same direction, seeing this is what we need.

And here’s what I found in this business. I didn’t find so much racism when I started hiring these different departments. What I found was people hire who they know. If I hired a White person to run a department, most of the people they hired were White. If I hired a gay person to run a department, most of the people they hired were gay; they were all coming from these different communities. So when you have that kind of ecosystem, I make sure they’re all crossing and forced together to really get to know each other. And if you came to Tyler Perry Studios, I dare you to put it up against any studio in Hollywood and see the diversity. It is beautiful to see. And I’m so proud of that.

I look at where we are in this country, and I’m just like, I’m worried. I don’t know where we’re going. Everything has become so tribal. Everything is about grab a color, a corner, a flag, and don’t come to the middle. Don’t have a conversation. Just stay on your side. What the hell is that? We are better than that as people. We are people who need community, to come together. No matter what your race, no matter who you are, no matter where you come from, it’s about learning to understand and be open.

Brantley: Along your journey, you’ve been underestimated, especially in the beginning. How has that served you? Is it sort of a superpower now?

Perry: It is. Well, not anymore because people know who I am. But in the beginning it is a superpower. I used to get so frustrated because I’d walk into these meetings and here I am, a six-foot-six-inch Black man, and most of the men I’m walking into the meeting with are not Black…and when I would sit in these rooms and have these conversations. I was often thinking, “You don’t know I did this, I did that. I did this, I did that.” And that voice in the back of my head, which I know to be the voice of God, it’s like, “Shut up. Don’t say a word.”

One of the best deals I ever made was Diary of a Mad Black Woman. I said, “Well, how much do you want the movie to do?” And I was told, “If it does $20 million, that’s great.” If a Black movie did $20 million in 2005 that was really great for this particular company. And I said, “Okay, first weekend?” He laughed. Then Diary opened at $21 million the first weekend. Blew his mind. So I learned in that moment to not try and impress upon people all the things that I’ve done. I’ve learned to just sit there and say, “Well, how do we make a deal?“ They never would’ve given me that deal had they known the power of the people that was with me. Be underestimated. 

Brantley: Part of being an owner is being a job creator. You’ve also hired individuals who have served time. Can you expand on the importance of providing opportunities for everyone?

Perry: I didn’t really understand how many people I had working for me who were former prisoners. Looking at it now, I realize that they came out of prison, didn’t have very many opportunities, but could come in the door at Tyler Perry Studios, and really, really thrive. And 99% of them did a fantastic job. And we know how unfair this criminal justice system can be. Now, listen: If you do a crime, I want your ass locked up—let’s be clear…But the criminal justice system can be extremely unfair, especially to a lot of us Black men who’ve been incarcerated. 

Brantley: What advice do you give entrepreneurs who may face a rough patch and are trying to decide if they should fold or keep going?

Perry: I know the feeling. On Buford Highway—y’all know Buford Highway?—there’s a little hotel. I don’t know if it’s still there. After I got put out of my apartment, when I couldn’t afford that pay-by-the-week hotel, I would sleep in the parking lot over there in my Geo Metro and wonder, “Why am I still holding onto this?” So as dark as it got, as difficult as it got, I started to realize there was something that became the mantra for the studio. I called it: a place where dreams believe. There’s a moment where when you dream so much and so hard and it never comes to, you stop dreaming and it hurts. But the dream will start to believe for you, and that’s what happened to me. If I had given up, I don’t know where all of the people that I was just talking about would be. Sometimes things fall on you, and it’s heavy and it takes a lot and it’s such a burden to move through. And every day I wake up in the morning, I say, “God, I thank you that I did not give up.”

Brantley: Back in December, you received the deed for the additional 37 acres on the Tyler Perry Studios campus, and plan to build out an entertainment complex. Can you share a little bit more about that?

Perry: I have a dream to have a 7,000-seat theater there, and another 200-seat theater, 400-seat theater, 50-seat theater, so that all these artists can come and just do plays or whatever they want in the area, with restaurants and a museum, and right there on Lee Street at the corner of where the studio sits. It’s open to the public and you can come into this area and take tours of the studio — [it’s] my hope to see all of that happen.

Brantley: I do want to talk a little bit about what’s next for you. Ari Emanuel, the CEO of [William Morris] Endeavor, spoke at our recent Bloomberg Screentime event—

Perry: He talks too much. He talks too much.

Brantley: Well, he spoke at our Screentime event and dropped the gem that he had been working on a Netflix deal with you.

Perry: Yeah, yeah.

Brantley: Can you expand on that with us?

Perry: No.

Brantley: Okay, I tried.

Perry: It hasn’t been announced yet, so I’ll wait for them to announce it. But yeah, Netflix has been an incredible partner to work with, and so is Amazon. It’s been really, really, really incredible, and that’s all I’ll say about it. 

Brantley: Well, I do want to mention BET. They were —

Perry: Yeah, I was disappointed about that.

Brantley: Okay…

Perry: Yeah. I was disappointed about it for a number of reasons. Just the sale, the way it all happened, to offer to sale, the way it happened, was disrespectful on a lot of levels. And my hope is…oh, Lord, I’m trying to be so careful how I say this.

Brantley: Take your time.

Perry: Take your time, like they say in church. I just think that if you’re going to approach business with anyone, approach it like you do with everyone. Don’t try to make me pay a value for something that is not worth anywhere near the value that you’re asking. But I understand that’s business. I understand how it goes. You want to get the maximum number. But there’s a difference between the maximum number and a ridiculous number. So God bless them. I’m still working there with them and I wish them all the best.

Brantley:   Do you plan on revisiting this because you provide so much content for them?

Perry: There’s nothing to revisit. I understand the position that the global company is in and I understand what they need to do, but there’s nothing to revisit.

Brantley: You’ve worked with everyone pretty much. Who’s left that you want to collaborate with?  

Perry: You know the great thing about getting older? Is that you’ve done what you wanted to do. So what’s important to me right now is this beautiful little eight, soon-to-be 9-year-old that I have, who is just the joy of my life. That I can be the father that helps him fulfill all of his dreams, his goals. After so much hell, after so much struggle, I’ve finally gotten to a place in my life where I’m just happy. And that’s enough for me.

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