Tyler Perry's track record at the Box Office has until now been legendary. Ten of the sixteen films he's released in the last nine years opened north of $20 million. His collective box office sits at $750 million. Not adjusted for inflation, Martin Scorsese's own lifetime gross is $1.2 billion. In nine years, Perry has grossed 75 percent of what it took one of cinema's most celebrated directors to amass in 5 decades.
Box office pundits pegged Perry's latest effort opening around $18 million. The fifth place $8.3 million showing has journalists labeling "The Single Moms Club" not only a dud, they are questioning Perry's future. "Based on its box office and critical reception," the L.A. Times Greg Braxton sees the already planned "Single Moms Club" series, Perry's fourth for Oprah's OWN, headed for failure.
I'm by no means a Tyler Perry fan. The last Perry film I saw, which is also the last Perry film I reviewed, was "Why Did I Get Married?" A film I actually enjoyed. Unlike many who questioned Perry's performance and character in that film, I thought his Terry was much closer to friends I know than not. Seven years later, I remain convinced the knocks on Perry have more to do with the rumors about his sexuality than the character he put up on screen.
Beyond that, I'm not drawn to Perry's work. The scripts for his television shows have generally been uninspired. Stylistically, his small screen work looks and feels archaic. "House of Payne's" long talky scenes, theatrical production design and moralizing had more in common with sitcoms of the 1970s and 1980s, than its contemporaries. I'm not the only film writer who has highlighted Perry's conflicting love-hate affair with the black middle class.
Personally, I found Perry's handling of domestic violence disturbing and hypocritical since his directorial debut "Madea's Family Reunion." One minute, Madea is nobly committed to pulling her niece out of an abusive relationship. Just minutes later, Madea threatens to beat the runway she's taken in, herself a victim of ongoing abuse and mistreatment, if she doesn't act right. Eight years later, Perry playing that scene and Madea and Keke's relationship for laughs irks me. If Madea had just once sat down and talked to that child like a human being to listen to her story, I might feel differently.
Cards laid on the table, I don't think "The Single Moms Club" was a bomb. Nor, do I think his core audience has abandoned him. The film's audience this weekend was 80 percent women, who, also at 80 percent, were over the age of 25. This has always been Perry's passionate base.
What's really going on here is that Perry is hitting a two-fold conundrum that all artists must contend with. He's in, or approaching his post Boyband phase. His core audience is aging, while the audience coming up behind them are of a different generation. It's the Boyband Pardox, which over the years has pushed dozens of young stars into virtual retirement from the entertainment business, for best or for worst, and to the D-list for best or for worst*. *some artists live with it, some some don't, who's to say what is bad or good
The Boyband Pardox, isn't limited to Boybands, nor is it limited to bands at all. One can go all the way back to the days of Frank Sinatra to see it in action. In the 1940s, Sinatra was an idol to millions of "bobby soxers". By the end of the decade, he was trending into has been territory. The release of Ike Turner's "Rocket '88" in 1951 marked the start of the Rock 'N Roll era, Sinatra's style was on the way out. His audience were no longer bobby soxers, they were newlyweds, new moms and moving to the suburbs.
Then in 1953, Sinatra wins Best Supporting Actor and signs a deal with Capitol Records that would revive his singing career.
Unlike Sinatra, very few make the transition. The Boyband Pardox, a term I admit is made up, is still very real. How does an artist grow along side their core audience, retain them, win new fans, not alienate the core while doing it, not become stale, and not stray so far into new territory that they turn off everyone? This cuts across all entertainment. Mull over your own favorites, and count the number singers and actors who found success before they were 19 still working at the same level in their late 20s or 30s.
Perry is very much at that point. It's been nine years since "Diary of a Mad Black Woman" hit theaters. It was 16 years ago that his first successful play debuted at the The House of Blues (now The Tabernacle).
Young women who flocked to the theater to see "Diary" are now in their early 30s. They are moms and working professionals living in the suburbs. Early fans of his plays who were 21 and 33 in 1998, are now 37 and 49 respectively. Priorities change. The girls night out that categorized some of Perry's biggest releases have given way to catching films on VOD.
The true hurdle is the younger generation. A 21 year-old today would have been 5 in 1998, and 12 in 2005. They've lived outside of Perry's demographic for the entire run of his career. Disney's "The Suite Life of Zack & Cody" was more their speed.
This younger generation made "That's So Raven" a hit for Disney in the 2000's, and when its star Raven-Symone confirmed she was gay in 2012, it didn't merit more than a collective "so what". The current enrollment rates for black college students is at 15 percent. In 1976, the time frame many of Perry's youngest fans in 1998 would have been born, it was 9 percent.
The experiences of kid who are now emerging into adulthood are not the experiences of their parents.
Does this mean Perry is deep doo doo? No. Some of us may not enjoy his shows, nor find them artistically crafted, they're still successful. The budgets for Perry's films have always been modest. If they remain so, he can continue releasing films like "Single Moms Club" and still have that film show a profit.
The audience that do enjoy them, really enjoy them. So much so, Perry is a prime reason the ratings for Oprah's OWN network continue to improve. The stories of a network in trouble have faded away.
"The Haves and the Have Nots" finale brought in a 2.75 rating for women 25-54, and 3.6 million total viewers, setting a record for OWN. Down and dirty math tells us that even at his weakest, it's about 2 million tickets bought to see the "A Film By Tyler Perry" credit. That's only a few ticks away from the 2.6 and 2.8 million viewers the show was getting sans the finale.
Where others see a weak showing for "Single Moms Club", I see a two hour commercial for a forthcoming show, that an audience willingly paid for, and liked.
Nothing is guaranteed. Perry in ten years could slide into relative obscurity. Which is inevitable for most in the spotlight.
While I'm not pro-Perry, I'm not anti-Perry either. I will continue to honestly critique his films, as all reviewers and critiques should. What we shouldn't do is misread a few data points as a definitive path (or read into his recent "breakup" with Lionsgate). Nor, should we project our own feelings about Perry's work on to the trajectory of his career. Analyze what is, not what might be.
Update: The same day this piece was written, The Hollywood Reporter posted this article: Lionsgate, Tyler Perry's 34th Street Acquire Comedy Pitch 'Top of the Food Chain'. So much for the supposed stories of discord between Perry and Lionsgate.