Tyler Perry: The Prolific Billionaire Media Mogul
How He Went from Homeless to Creating an Entertainment Empire
Hey there my friend, Justin here, and welcome to Just Go Grind, a newsletter for the ambitious. Thank you to the 926 of you who joined since the last edition, if you aren't subscribed, and want to join 11,069 other subscribers, please subscribe below:
Sponsored by: StartGlobal
StartGlobal is an all-in-one platform to launch and manage your LLC business.
StartGlobal takes care of LLC formation, EIN, Phone, and Mailing Address (if not already done) and then helps you manage your business and stay compliant with invoicing, payments, bookkeeping, and annual state and federal taxes in a single platform.
And yes, you can use StartGlobal to manage your business even if you have already formed your business elsewhere!
StartGlobal has been around for more than 3 years, managing thousands of businesses, and is backed by legendary investors like Twitter founder Biz Stone, Balaji Srinivasan, and others.
Use our code GRIND100 for a $100 discount when setting up a new LLC! This is the biggest EVER discount on StartGlobal to date and is valid for the next 10 days!
And if you’re interested in sponsoring a future edition of Just Go Grind, to get in front of 11,000+ ambitious founders, operators, and investors, learn more here, send me a DM on Twitter, or reply to this email.
Tyler Perry is many things - actor, director, writer, filmmaker, playwright, entrepreneur.
Oh, and let’s not forget, BILLIONAIRE.
Some people love his work.
Some people hate his work.
But regardless of how you feel about his creative output (And the amount of output itself is staggering), one thing is undeniable - he’s a helluva entrepreneur.
In 2020, he was honored as one of TIME’s 100 Most Influential People, and the opening paragraph, written by Oprah Winfrey, is perfection:
Let’s get to it.
Tyler Perry had a rough start to life.
No, that’s putting it far too lightly.
Tyler would describe his childhood as, “A living hell.”
He was born in New Orleans in 1969 as Emmitt Perry Jr., but at age sixteen changed his name to Tyler Perry.
Because he had a physically abusive father and wanted to dissociate himself from him.
In one interview, Tyler would talk about how his father would beat the shit out of him and his mother repeatedly.
And, as if that wasn’t already bad enough, before the age of 10, Tyler was molested by three different men and one woman, something he opened up about years later when talking with Oprah Winfrey, describing how he would use his imagination to escape:
He had nobody showing him how to succeed, and he’d eventually drop out of high school as well:
This is a big reason why I’m writing this newsletter, to show people what is possible, and to have these amazing founders become “mentors” in a sense.
For Tyler, his imagination helped him mentally escape his horrible childhood, but it was writing that not only helped him cope but gave him a way to succeed.
An episode of Oprah Winfrey’s talk show provided his inspiration to start writing:
Tyler’s younger self, that made it through that hellhole, birthed the man Tyler would end up becoming.
After dropping out of high school, he’d write scripts while working as a bill collector and car salesman, among other jobs.
This work, combined with his relentlessness and desire to succeed, formed the foundation for his first success, though it would be years in the making.
I Know I’ve Been Changed
In 1992, Tyler moved to Atlanta with a script for his first play, I Know I’ve Been Changed.
Drawing from his own experience, the story centered on child-abuse survivors.
He was 22 years old at the time and had saved $12,000 which he used to rent out a community theater in Atlanta to bring his writing to the stage.
And he did everything to produce it - writing the script, designing the set, hanging the lights, making the programs - but it was far from an overnight success.
He initially worked on it in his spare time while working other jobs. At one point, because the play wasn’t bringing in enough money, he was homeless, living out of his car, a Geo Metro, on and off for 3 months in late 1996 through early 1997.
But he never stopped working on the play, was constantly making tweaks, and improved the production over the years.
Another important piece of building the play into a success?
Through his robust touring schedule, he built a strong following, performing in a network of small theaters in mostly Black communities around the nation, and gathering emails from attendees along the way.
This reminds me a lot of Sara Blakely and how she demoed Spanx in department stores across the country.
This is definitely in that “do things that don’t scale” YC line of thinking.
Tyler also caught one of his first breaks in 1998, when, after the owners of the House of Blues asked him to perform his play, he sold out the performance.
Tyler would reflect later that the first 28 years of his life were very hard, which would take us to around this time, serving as a turning point for his life:
And he was just getting started.
In 2001, at 32 years of age, Tyler went on Oprah’s talk show for the first time, one year before the show would be named one of the 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time.
A key learning Tyler got from Oprah?
Being in full control and writing your own checks.
Tyler would embody this philosophy for years to come.
Oprah would become a friend of Tyler’s and introduce him to the world of Hollywood.
But, as described in Forbes, it didn’t go well:
This was at a time when Tyler had already built a loyal following.
But Hollywood just didn’t get it.
Here’s how Tyler described it:
And he’d expand on that in an interview in 2009:
So he went back to Atlanta and continued to put in the work.
Stage plays, a film script, and plans for a TV series were all being created at this time.
And, he built his own studio:
It wasn’t anything like the gargantuan studio he later built, but it served its purpose.
And, more importantly, it led to his film debut.
Diary of a Mad Black Woman started as a stage play in 2001, but in 2005 it was adapted into a motion picture.
The story behind its film debut is one of, yet again, Tyler overcoming the doubters. We’ll get to that in a minute.
But even before his first feature film or TV show, Tyler’s once fledgling play had made $100 million from ticket sales, sold $20 million worth of merchandise, and had $30 million in video sales.
And he did this by busting his ass, producing 300 live shows per year that were attended by 30,000+ people each week, and all requiring a cast and crew of 30+ people constantly traveling from city to city. Through that, he built an email list of 170,000 people by 2003, a list that would grow to 400,000 by 2005.
Do you know what else was wild?
The success of Diary of a Mad Black Woman.
To even get the movie made, Tyler offered to pay for half the movie’s production costs but collect half the profits, all while being able to maintain control of the content, eventually owning it all outright.
When Perry asked Jon Feltheimer, the CEO of Lionsgate, what would be a good performance for the film, he said, “If it makes us $20 million I’ll be very, very happy.”
The film did $22 million on the opening weekend alone, grossing $51 million in theaters and another $150 million through a combination of DVD sales, licensing, and rentals.
And it only cost around $5.5 million to make.
It was a smash hit, with Tyler’s massive email list contributing to its success, but that was just the start.
Lionsgate would go on to make 11 movies over 14 years with Tyler playing the main character, Madea, among other roles.
Forbes estimated that Tyler made $290 million from the franchise by 2019, with it grossing $670+ million at the box office.
While he retired the franchise that year, it ultimately came back in 2022 with A Medea Homecoming, which was released by Netflix.
And remember how I said Tyler would eventually own the content outright?
Well, those films would start coming back to Tyler’s control from Lionsgate years later, and, with help from John Cary of NextGen Capital in Atlanta, they pursued distribution overseas, continuing the expansion of Tyler’s empire.
Around the time Diary of a Mad Black Woman was released, Tyler was already living large in a 17,000+ square foot, 26-room mansion called Avec Chateau, one of many homes he’d eventually own.
I absolutely love that.
Work hard, and live your damn life.
But don’t think for a second that Tyler rested on his laurels after the debut of Diary.
No, my friend, he was just getting started.
After Tyler’s film debut in 2005, he had another breakthrough in 2006:
$138 million 🤯.
They needed content, and he could supply it.
And he was able to get to this point for a number of reasons, two of them being:
He found content-market fit
He controls all of his output
And his directing style?
He would produce hundreds of episodes of House of Payne along with a number of other shows, but in 2009 his mother, Maxine, the partial basis for his notorious character, Madea, passed away at only 64.
Her passing wouldn’t slow Tyler’s climb.
He gave a breakdown of his grueling schedule around this time:
A few years later, his relentless work ethic would help him secure a big partnership.
Oprah and Viacom
In late 2012, the Oprah Winfrey Network announced an exclusive multi-year partnership with Tyler Perry.
It would be OWN’s first foray into scripted programming and come after three popular TV series from Tyler - Tyler Perry’s House of Payne, Meet the Browns, and For Better or Worse.
The exclusive deal would last until 2019, but in 2017 Tyler struck another deal, this time with Viacom.
Because of Tyler’s deal with OWN, the TV side of the Viacom deal wouldn’t start until 2019, but the film side would start immediately.
Of course, the obvious question is, “Why move to Viacom?”
An article in the New York Times explains it:
Let me just highlight one part of that for you:
Perry sought limitlessness.
It’s something that repeatedly comes up in these newsletters I’m writing about world-class founders - they’re only limited by the scale of their ambition. Sam Altman always seems to stand out in this regard.
Tyler had grander ambitions than even the Oprah Winfrey Network, and so he pursued them.
And the Viacom deal was MASSIVE.
The deal itself would run through 2024 and pay Tyler a reported $150 million per year, with him producing 90 episodes annually.
And produce is exactly what he did:
In 2019, when the Viacom deal was in full effect, Tyler would make some other major moves as well.
Tyler Perry Studios
Tyler started his namesake studio in 2006 and would progress to larger spaces over time, none bigger than his newest studio, which officially opened in 2019.
This studio, located in Atlanta, is the crown jewel of his empire, decked out with 12 state-of-the-art sound stages, 220 acres of groomed greenspace, more than a dozen sets, and even a White House replica.
He bought the 330-acre property for $30 million back in 2015, spent $250 million building it out, and it’s now the largest film production studio in the United States.
The studio is built on the grounds of a former military base, Fort McPherson, in a state very friendly to the movie business, offering 30% tax credits on total production costs, making it an enticing region to do business.
It’s a big deal to Tyler and many others:
So wild to think about that.
Productions like The Walking Dead, Black Panther, and others would be filmed at his studio.
The same year his new studio officially opened, he also retired his famous character, Madea, though she’d come back a few years later for Netflix.
During the farewell tour, he was still working nonstop:
He also doesn’t have a writer’s room, something he mentioned in this video showcasing all the scripts he wrote in 2019:
WORK ETHIC!! Come on. Let’s go get 2020!!!
— Tyler Perry (@tylerperry)
Jan 6, 2020
His work ethic is truly remarkable and that level of production, which by the end of 2020 would include, in aggregate in his career to that point, a total of 1,200 TV episodes, 20+ feature films, more than two dozen stage plays, and even two New York Times bestselling books, certainly paid off.
And, not surprisingly, he worked through the pandemic as well:
By this time, Tyler had grown that email list I mentioned earlier to more than 800,000 names and Forbes estimated that from 2005 - 2020, he earned more than $1.4 billion in pretax income.
Oh, and speaking of taxes, Tyler once got audited and went through a 3-year process where he found out that he was owed money by the IRS, $9 million in total.
He’d end up firing his accountants for that one, but, given his earnings so far, it’s fair to say he’s in an alright financial position.
Tyler Perry works ridiculously hard, produces an unfathomable amount of content, and deserves the life he’s living.
When he became a Billionaire, Forbes broke down his fortune:
Tyler has willed this all into existence and, as I mentioned previously, having ownership of his work was a bit part of his financial success.
The only question now is…
Will he ever stop?
In each edition of the Just Go Grind newsletter, I like to include a few more quotes at the end from my research into the founder who is featured, sharing their wisdom and insights from their experience.
On why he’s so determined:
On his creative process:
On making mistakes:
On achieving major success:
What did you think of today's newsletter?
Thanks for reading! If you found this valuable, please consider subscribing and sharing it with a friend 😊
And if you enjoyed this profile, take a look at the most recent ones or the first 10 founders I wrote about:
Finally, if you’re interested in sponsoring this newsletter, and getting your product or service in front of thousands of founders, you can learn more here.