A rival to Hollywood: Tyler Perry unveils his new Atlanta studios for the world
By Maria Saporta
As published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on Oct. 4, 2019
At a grand opening gala on Oct. 5, Tyler Perry will unveil to the world all he has created at Tyler Perry Studios since 2015 when he bought 330 acres of the former Fort McPherson.
An A-list of national celebrities and leaders are expected to attend the opening of Tyler Perry Studios – people whom Perry said have had a major influence on his life: Oprah Winfrey, the Clintons, Halle Berry, Will Smith, Denzel Washington, and Cicely Tyson, to name a few.
“It’s bringing Hollywood and all the eyes of Hollywood to Atlanta to see that we are a major player in film and television, and now we have the facilities to rival Hollywood – so come, bring your productions,” Perry said in a rare one-hour-long, wide-ranging interview in late September.
Perry talked about his journey from living out of his car 25 years ago to becoming the owner of a major studio, his feelings about the Fort McPherson Local Redevelopment Authority, his hopes for building a stronger relationship with the surrounding community, and his thoughts about possible development outside the studio’s fence.
Perry also talked about his concern about the pushback against bills that have or could pass the Georgia legislature and what impact that could have on the state’s film and television industry.
On a personal note, Perry spoke of the milestone of turning 50 on Sept. 13 and the recent retirement of his alter-persona – Madea – as well as his relationship with his late mother and his estranged father.
Perry’s headquarters is located in the “Dream Building” – purposefully named to symbolize his own journey. In late August, Perry was driving to work and saw that the Fort McPherson highway sign had been replaced with a sign for Tyler Perry Studios – and was next to the Sylvan Road exit.
He posted a photo on Facebook with the following comment:
“Atlanta has truly been the promised land for me. I came here with nothing, lived off Sylvan Road, ended up homeless and starving, but I was always praying and believing. I was always keeping the faith, knowing that if I worked hard, did my absolute best, kept my integrity, honored every blessing, and remained grateful through it all that everything would work out. And it has, thank God.”
In the interview, Perry said he had come to Atlanta because he had heard all of a person’s dreams could come true in Atlanta.
“Seeing that sign took me back to that moment of knowing and understanding that,” he said. “Wow, the thing that I was feeling about this place being the place for me was right.”
Perry said he waited until now to have the grand opening because he didn’t want anyone to say his baby was ugly.
“Now I’ve gotten to a point where it’s just like I’ve done a really great thing,” he said. “I want people to be as inspired by it as I am coming here every day.”
Tyler Perry Studios now has 12 sound stages and an amazing variety of locations spread out along the 330 acres. There’s the Fort McPherson historic district with Officer’s Row, the elegant homes where the commanders and top army personnel lived, the 11-acre parade route as well dozens of historic buildings.
Perry also has built an exact replica of the White House (for his new TV series on BET, “The Oval”), several mansions, a trailer park, a Southern farm house, a diner, a suburban community called Maxineville, a portion of the Atlanta airport, a cabin on a lake, a sprawling green landscape with trees and a multitude of other potential locations for movies and television. And Perry also is planning to build a 2,500- to 3,000-seat amphitheater on his property in the next 36 months.
“You’re sitting on one of the most amazing pieces of real estate in this city, right at the end of the BeltLine,” Perry said during the interview. He estimates his total investment in the property at $250 million, including the $30 million purchase price for the 330 acres. In all, he’s been working on six new shows plus one that is continuing on Oprah Winfrey’s network, which is owned by Discovery Inc. (Nasdaq: DISCA).
Perry had been interested in buying the adjacent Forces Command building from the Fort Mac authority, but those negotiations failed to materialize in a deal. The authority just approved a sale of the building to a firm that will lease it to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration – a move Perry has criticized.
At different times, Perry expressed interest in acquiring the remaining 144 acres of the former fort. When then-Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed first showed him the property in 2014, he wanted to buy the entire 488 acres. At the time, Perry was planning to build the studio on property he had purchased in Douglas County. He immediately saw the potential of Fort Mac – being located between downtown and the Atlanta airport.
But Reed told him, he recalls, “You can’t have the whole base, but you have the 330″ acres.
Two years ago, the Fort Mac authority selected Macauley Investmentsto do a master plan for the 144 acres, which was expected to lead to the firm developing the property. But that hit a snag earlier this year when Fort Mac executives and the city of Atlanta appeared to want to go in a different direction.
“We got a call from the mayors’ office that they’re not sure if the Macauley deal is real, or if he can put the money up, or if he actually has the where with all to do it,” Perry said. “’Would you be interested in purchasing all the property?’ I was like, ‘What’s the number?’ He said, ‘$30 million.’ I said ‘okay, I would,’ That was that.”
That ultimately fell through. Perry was only interested in buying the remaining 144 acres if it included the Forces Command building. When the FDA deal went through, Perry decided he is no longer interested.
Now Perry is anxious to see movement on the remaining 144 acres.
“I would love for the development to happen,” Perry said, adding the drawings and renderings in the Macauley master plan were great. “I’d love it for the neighborhood. I’d love it for all my employees to not have to drive to Midtown or Buckhead to go to a restaurant. I’d love for them to be able to go to the stores here…. It would be great, it would be great.”
But he’s seen other great plans “but nobody’s even moved a rock” over the past four to five years.
“I don’t care who does it as long as it’s done well, done right, as long as it doesn’t go into bankruptcy in the middle of it, as long as the developer sees it through, as long as it’s not the eyesore that it is now,” Perry said. “I don’t care who does it. And I think to wait another four, or five, or six, or two, or three, or seven years to get something done is ridiculous.”
Perry has enclosed his 330 acres with an eight-foot-high fence to make sure his studio is secure. One night when they were filming “The Haves and the Have Nots,” the crew and actors heard rapid gunfire from outside the wall, which just confirmed his perceived need for the fence.
“My main focus here is this is a campus, so the fence allows me to secure and have the safety of the people inside of it,” Perry said. “As much as I would love to take all the walls down and invite the whole public in, we both know that lots of people are up to no good.”
Eventually Perry plans to replace the fence with a “beautiful wall” with landscaping and hanging plants. As of now he believes the property will need to be secured.
“Before there could even be a conversation about a fence coming down, there’s got to be a lot of clean up in the neighborhood – which is possible, I’ve seen it,” Perry said. “But I also want to make sure that if we’re cleaning up the neighborhood, and we’re building new houses, and we’re bringing in new people, that we’re not driving out the locals who are here, the good people who are here.”
Perry also is a bit of a conundrum. He is one of the most recognizable actors in the country, but he dislikes being photographed or being in the public eye – saying that’s the reason “nobody’s seeing my son,” Aman Tyler.
“I am an introvert who’s posing as an extrovert, that is the honest to God’s truth. I don’t like crowds,” Perry said. “I’m realizing that people see me differently than I see myself. I don’t see myself as that powerful, or important, or someone who can move the needle that much in certain areas. So, I just have to embrace that, I guess”.
Perry is concerned about the passage of the Heartbeat Bill (which was temporarily blocked by a Georgia judge after the interview took place) and the possible return of a religious liberty bill that could be discriminatory.
“I’m afraid for the people who have put sticks and bricks, bricks and mortar on the ground,” Perry said. “There are a lot of people who have invested millions of dollars into this industry. I’m afraid for the 94,000 to 98,000 people who are working in this industry who found great lives and are able to support their families. A lot of those people are, especially the ones who work for me, are a very diverse community. Having that looming in the background it’s pretty scary for a lot of those folks and I worry for them.”
Perry also said the people who work in the industry represents “a lot of votes” – which elected officials should realize.
“Yes, I do plan to sit down with the governor. I want to hear his opinion on it because I haven’t had a one-on-one with him yet. As a matter of fact, we haven’t met yet,” Perry said. “So, I’d love to sit down with him to hear his opinion on it, and go from there.”
At 50, Perry also is in a self-reflective mood. On Oct. 1, he got his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He also has decided to retire Madea, one of his character roles where he plays a mature African-American woman – someone he modeled after his late mother Maxine Perry as well as his aunt.
“Madea’s the PG version of those women,” Perry said, adding his mom and his aunt were the NC-17 version.
When asked why he decided to retire Madea, Perry said it was about “turning 50 and wanting to do something else for the next 50 years of my life.”
Then he added that, “I had said everything I wanted to say as the character.” But “if there’s something else that she wants to say, then maybe she’ll show up again.”
Then he spoke of his mother, who died nearly 10 years ago.
“She told me ‘never stop doing it.’ She loved Madea,” said Perry, who became emotional when talking about his mother. “I had a really hard time with it, on my birthday – I realized it had been 10 years since I heard her voice. She sang happy birthday to me on my 40th. So, that 10 year thing just threw me.”
When asked about his father, Perry said he is still alive. Although he is not in contact with his father, Perry says, “I still take care of him, still support him. He gets a check every month. I built a house for him. My mother asked me to take care of him, and I do.”
Perry has been known to work 16-hour days – churning out movies and television shows that have appealed to specific audiences – especially in the black community.
“It’s a drug. The work is a drug for me,” Perry said. “I love it. I love working.”
Working for Perry is a fast-paced experience – often where scenes are shot in one take.
“When you come here you have to work,” Perry said. “There are a lot of companies that shoot two and three pages of dialogue a day. We’re shooting 90.”
Perry has had cameo appearances in four mainstream movies, and it drives him crazy to only shoot three pages of script a day. He only accepts roles where he knows and trusts the director, and only if he can find the time.
“If you want me to shoot a movie for six months, I could have done 200 episodes in that time, literally,” said Perry, who keeps a close eye on the business side and the profit margin.
It has been said Perry will shoot a movie for $10 million and then make $25 million. Asked if that is accurate, Perry said those numbers are a little high.
But he said he has no interest in making his own $100 million movie that would have greater mainstream appeal and be an Oscar contender.
“The bigger the budget the more the risks, and I just don’t – for my way of storytelling for my audience, and the way we like to see things, and hear things – I just don’t think that it’s necessary for me,” Perry said.
On getting an Academy Award nomination, he says, “None of that interests me because I understand the politics of all of that, and I understand how in order for that to be, you have to come through the system. You have to come through the system to really have those moments, and have the shine. I didn’t come through the Hollywood system at all.”
One side of Perry that’s becoming more apparent is his philanthropy.
“I can’t watch Channel 2 news because there’s always a story that I’ll see something and get involved – buying vans for people whose cars were stolen… There are so many stories of things that have touched me. I am definitely my mother’s son, and I feel the way she felt. I remember her, [when] I was a kid in the car, and she’d throw on brakes, and she jumped out. There was a bird in the street that she was trying to keep from getting hit. It had broken its wing. Took him home, she nursed him.”
So it is no surprise that when Hurricane Dorian recently hit the Bahamas, Perry sent supplies to the islands on his private plane. Now he’s working with people who have second or third homes in the Bahamas to raise money to help the locals rebuild.
Perry also would love to build a shelter for women and children who are victims of human trafficking as well as provide a place for LBGTQ youth.
“That all excites me,” said Perry, who also has ex-convicts working on his shows. “If something moves me, I get involved – no matter how small, no matter how big. If it moves me, and I know that I have the ability to help, I want to do it.”
If he had not become a movie producer, actor, screenwriter and studio owner, Perry says he would have been an architect.
“I would be an architect and designing houses from my basement, and be very, very content and happy,” Perry said. “I love designing. Every building here [at Tyler Perry Studios], everything you’ve seen, I actually sketched up, drew, and sent to an architect saying this is what I want done.”