Tyler Perry Has a White Audience Problem He'd Like to Solve

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April 20th 2017

boo_a_madea_halloween_ver9_xlg Lionsgate

Tyler Perry is faced with a dilemma: the actor and director is still struggling to get white audiences to see his movies.

More specifically, he tells The Wrap in an interview published yesterday, “I still have issues getting screens in white neighborhoods believe it or not," arguing that he believes Lionsgate (distributor of most of his past movies, including the most recent, "Boo! A Madea Halloween," which opened last weekend), could make more of an effort to distribute his films even wider than the typical 1500 to 2500 screens.

“I think the numbers could have been bigger had people who are in the white suburbs had the option to go to their own theaters to see it. It’s something I’ve been dealing with for many, many years,” Perry said, comparing the reach of "Boo! A Madea Halloween" to that of competitor, Paramount’s "Jack Reacher" sequel (starring Tom Cruise) which also opened last weekend on 1500 more screens, but still earned less than "Boo!", which opened on 2,260 screens nationwide.




Indeed "Boo!" did prove to have some crossover appeal, according to Lionsgate's own exit polling, which showed that 60%  of “Boo!” audiences on opening weekend were black and the other 40% comprised of a mix of everything else, implying that while black audiences still make up the majority of Perry's fans, there's been a shift, as past "Madea" films drew audiences that were made up of around 80 to 90% black ticket buyers, also according to Lionsgate. So "Boo!" clearly attracted a more diverse audience, compared to past "Madea" movies. Might it signal the beginning of a trend for "Madea," or might it be its Halloween focus that intrigued and drew typically non-Tyler Perry fans?

While Lionsgate stands by its release strategy for Perry's films, telling The Wrap in the same piece that the opening for "Boo!" is in line with the releases of other movies in similar genres, I assume that the broad appeal of the film, based on their polling, compared to previous Tyler Perry movies, may encourage them to release his future work (assuming they're still the distributor) in more theaters nationwide.

Still, 2,260 screens is certainly nothing to dismiss. That's a strong number; and even though Perry would like to see his films open in very specifically "white suburbs," they aren't only playing in exclusively black neighborhoods. In fact, here in NYC, "Boo!" is screening at multiplexes all over the city, in heavily-trafficked (non-race-specific) and touristy areas, like AMC Time Square and Regal Cinemas, across the street, as well as Union Square, 34th Street, and "mostly white" areas of Manhattan like theaters on the Upper West Side and the Upper East Side. It's also screening at a theater in Astoria, Queens, which, according to the census, has a black population of only 4.5%, with whites and Asians making up the bulk of the locale's residents.

So, in NYC at least, there's certainly an effort to get the film in front of all audiences, not just black audiences. I live in NYC, and can't speak for other parts of the country, but any "black film" opening on over 2,200 screens very likely isn't screening exclusively in black neighborhoods.

Lionsgate has done well being in the Tyler Perry business, as he's charted his own strategy from the start, with relatively small budgets (typically $10 to $20 million), and domestic grosses of around $57 million on average. And I'm sure the studio would love to make even more money from Perry's work, so if there is an appetite beyond his base that isn't being tapped into, why not exploit it?

He has, in effect, reached out to white audiences in the past, via casting, as was the case in “Tyler Perry’s The Family that Preys,” which had a mixed cast, starring Kathy Bates, along with Alfre Woodard, but which under-performed at the box office, earning just $37 million, about $20 million below his average.

Much more recently, his newest TV series, "Too Close to Home," which airs on TLC (its first-ever scripted series), has an all-white cast, which Perry found himself on the receiving end of criticism for. Speaking with the Tom Joyner Morning Show a couple of months ago, before the series premiered, Perry said: “I’m so sick of folks asking me why I have a show full of white folks. Nobody asked Norman Lear why he wrote for black people all those years. People are people. I’m writing a story about a girl that comes from a trailer park and whose family has a lot of dysfunction. That can happen whether your’re black or white."

That's correct. But one can't ignore the fact that he's been wanting to attract white audiences to his work, and creating a series with an all-white cast on a non-race-specific network, may have been a bid to do so on the small screen. And thus far, the series appears to be performing well for TLC.

Launched in partnership with OWN, the drama series reached 4.2 million viewers in its premiere airings across TLC and OWN. The August 22 premiere propelled TLC to its highest-rated Monday in more than a year in all key women demos. It's done well enough that the network didn't waste much time renewing it for a second season.




But the show's success shouldn't be a surprise. It would be tempting to immediately say that Perry should make *better* movies and TV shows if he wants to attract a wider (read: non-black) audience, but a Tyler Perry-styled film or TV series with an all-white cast can sell just as well as one with an all-black cast. Audience tastes vary, regardless of racial or ethnic group. After all, stories that tackle moral questions, no matter how simplistically or heavy-handedly directed, and the belief in family and religion to help steer a course through life’s challenges (Perry's wheelhouse) are universal.

However, his films and TV shows with predominantly black leads will likely continue to draw mostly black audiences - inline with how well other films and TV series centered around the lives of black characters perform with non-black audiences, on average.

All that said, if Lionsgate is indeed leaving money on the table when it comes to their strategy in releasing Tyler Perry movies, his concerns should definitely be expressed, and Lionsgate should reconsider.

There is still the question of whether Perry's movies can consistently appeal to non-black audiences, who've proved to be loyal supporters of his work, or if, as I suggested earlier, the Halloween focus in "Boo!" which drew 40% non-black audiences (stronger than the 10 to 20% Perry's "Madea" movies typically draw) may make it a one-off success. Even I, as someone who's avoided "Madea" movies (I've never been able to sit through one entirely), expressed some interest in seeing "Boo!" after the first trailer dropped, mostly for that reason - its Halloween theme. I was actually curious to see how Perry would shape a Madea-centered horror tale. Although I still haven't seen "Boo!" and, quite frankly, I'm not in any rush. But the point is that I was curious enough - more-so than I have been prior to the releases of every past "Madea" movie - and others who felt the same, in search of an outrageous horror comedy to see, took one step further and actually bought tickets. Will that same curiosity and enthusiasm (especially among the 40% non-blacks who saw "Boo!") carry forward to what will surely be more "Madea" movies? Time will tell.

 

by Tambay Obenson on April 20th 2017
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