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Television

He's rewarded for taking risk

Tyler Perry put up $5 million to make 'House of Payne' -- his way

By Lorenza Munoz
Los Angeles Times / May 27, 2007
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HOLLYWOOD -- Four years ago, Tyler Perry pitched an idea for a sitcom about a firefighter with two kids who moves in with his parents after his crack-addicted wife burns their house down.

The network executives loved it. Except they didn't want the hero to be a firefighter. And they didn't want veteran stage actors Cassi Davis and LaVan Davis to play the leads. And they didn't want the matriarch to make so many references to Jesus and the Bible. And they wanted to bring in writers to help Perry with the script.

Perry got the message: "They wanted a different show."

So he walked away, though not from "Tyler Perry's House of Payne." It will debut June 6 on cable's Turner Broadcasting System , which bought 100 episodes, sight unseen, for $200 million in an unprecedented deal sealed after Perry tried out test episodes in 10 U S markets.

"It's a new paradigm," said Perry's producer, Reuben Cannon. "Hollywood is not going to change. We realized we needed to change the way we do business with Hollywood."

Perry, 37, who recently built a 8,550-square-foot house in Beverly Hills but lives most of the time in a mansion in Atlanta, is a powerful man. Movies based on hugely successful stage plays he wrote and starred in -- "Diary of a Mad Black Woman" and "Madea's Family Reunion" -- were box-office hits. Last year he wrote a best - selling book, "Don't Make a Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings: Madea's Uninhibited Commentaries on Love and Life," and opened a massive production studio in Atlanta.

But in Los Angeles, his appeal to the major studios is diminished by his insistence on total creative control and by his movies not selling abroad, where the industry depends on a big chunk of revenue to be generated.

"I want to be a part of a system where an artist can create the art he thinks his audience wants," Perry said. "That is difficult because the studios have become huge corporations where scripts, ideas , and casts go through so many hands it ends up not being your vision."

To make his movies, Perry signed up with maverick independent studio Lionsgate. And to make "House of Payne," he broke Hollywood's golden rule: Never spend your own money.

Instead of selling his sitcom idea to a network, Perry bankrolled 10 episodes, betting about $5 million that they would end up on TV.

Perry, his lawyer , and agents strategized with Debmar-Mercury, a company that distributes previously broadcast shows, like "The Dead Zone" and "South Park," to network affiliates and independent stations nationwide. Together they picked the 10 cities where the show would be tested, made sure to include a variety of affiliates and local stations, and negotiated time slots.

In Baltimore, "House of Payne" was twice as popular as "Seinfeld" reruns. In New York, it replaced "The Bernie Mac Show" on station WWOR, the local UPN affiliate (now MyNetworkTV) , and pulled in twice as large an audience. In Houston its rating was 600 times that for "The Steve Harvey Show."

Ira Bernstein , co-president of Debmar-Mercury, hadn't expected those kinds of results.

"I was very polite but would explain that it was highly unlikely" the show would get killer ratings out of the gate, Bernstein said. "Tyler proved he knew his audience better than anybody."

"House of Payne" chronicles the ups and downs of CJ Payne as he tries to raise his two children and live under one roof with his parents. The working-class, church-going black family is a reflection of the audience that has supported Perry's plays and movies for nearly a decade.

TBS bought exclusive rights to air the show for 15 months; after that reruns will be offered to other networks.

"It puts the financial risk on us, but it has huge creative benefits for us," said Steve Koonin , president of Turner Entertainment Networks , which owns TBS. "These shows are a lighthouse. They are destinations for new viewers. Tyler Perry has a huge fan base and that fan base has not been coming to TBS."

Lionsgate, the largest independent studio, which is known for slasher franchises "Saw" and "Hostel," got in the Tyler Perry business two years ago when it released "Diary of a Mad Black Woman" and bought the distribution rights to seven Perry DVD titles.

The studio will release Perry's next four films, "Why Did I Get Married," "Meet the Browns," "A Jazz Man's Blues," and another film starring Perry as the gun-toting grandma, Madea.

Lionsgate estimates that over a five-year period, Perry will deliver gross revenue of $500 million to $600 million. With each movie, the studio recoups its marketing costs and then shares in the profit with Perry.

Keeping Perry within the Lionsgate family was a major reason Lionsgate acquired Debmar-Mercury last fall.

"I did not want to let any piece of the Tyler Perry business get away from me," Lionsgate chief executive Jon Feltheimer said. "The brand is more than just Madea. . . . It's a unique kind of storytelling that Tyler has made his signature."

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