Tyler Perry's Amazing Journey to the Top

60 Minutes: He Is One of America's Top Filmmakers, Yet Few Have Ever Heard of Him

This story was originally published on Oct. 25, 2009. It was updated on July 25, 2010.

What filmmaker has had five movies open number one at the box office in the last four years? Spielberg, Tarantino, Scorsese? No. This record belongs to Tyler Perry, one of the biggest names in the movie business. Yet many Americans have never heard of him.

His nine films have grossed more than $481 million, one of the highest average grosses per film in the industry. And as we first reported last fall when we broadcast this story, they're just part of Perry's multi-million-dollar entertainment empire.

What has made Perry guaranteed box office gold is his devoted audience: largely African-American, church-going, working class and female.

Long ignored by Hollywood, they come to see something they can't get anywhere else: inspirational stories about people like themselves, and to laugh at characters like his "Madea," the wise-cracking grandmother played by Perry himself.

"Madea is a cross between my mother and my aunt. She's the type of grandmother that was on every corner when I was growing up," Perry told correspondent Byron Pitts. "She smoked. She walked out of the house with her curlers and her muumuu and she watched everybody's kids. She didn't take no crap. She's a strong figure where I come from. In my part of the African-American community. And I say that because I'm sure that there are some other parts of the African-American community that may be looking at me now going, 'Who does he think he's speaking of?' But, for me, this woman was very, very visible."

That's what Perry's work is all about - reflecting a world his audience relates to. And they show up in droves.

"It's been written that Madea is one of the top ten grossing women actresses in the country," Pitts noted.

"They weren't serious when they wrote that. I mean, come on," Perry said, laughing. "Come on."

But he acknowledged that Madea has done very well; so have his other popular characters, like the flamboyant Leroy Brown.

But it's not just comedy. Perry's work is a gumbo of melodrama, social commentary and inspiration. It's a formula that intentionally targets women.

"You're always gonna see a person of faith. Nine times out of ten, it'll be a woman who has problems, who has lost faith or lost her way," Perry explained. "There's always gonna be a moment of redemption somewhere for someone."

And then there are the grittier, darker elements: the violence, especially directed at women and children, sex and child abuse, prostitution and drugs use. But there is always a fairy tale ending, a happy marriage, a reconciliation - often delivered with a dose of Gospel music.

Although Perry's themes are universal, he is not widely known outside of his niche audience.

"The average American has no idea who you are. How is that possible?" Pitts asked.

"I'll tell you how it's possible. There's this great thing called the 'Chitlin' Circuit,' which I started my shows on and back in the day when, you know, Ray Charles and Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington, they couldn't get into white establishments, so they went on this circuit and toured. They were huge stars in their own community, you know, and that's pretty much my same story. I was able to build and have this amazing career among my own people, but outside of that, you know, not a lotta people knew who I was," Perry explained.

"Tyler Perry, superstar of the Chitlin' Circuit?" Pitts asked.

"Yeah. Superstar of the Chitlin' Circuit, I'll take that," Perry replied, laughing.

You realize what a superstar he is and how strongly the audience connects to him when he appears on stage after a performance of one of his plays. Their overwhelming reaction gives you a sense of how passionate they are about him.

But he didn't always get this kind of reaction. He got his start in theater, writing, directing and producing plays.

His first production, a Gospel musical staged in Atlanta in 1992, bombed. But he kept writing and staging new plays, cultivating his audience. By the late 1990s, the plays were selling out across the country, making big money - more than $75 million.

Perry's goal was to turn those shows into movies. Hollywood's reaction: get lost.

"They didn't open the door. I had to cut a hole in the window to get in," Perry said. "You close the door on me and tell me I can't, I'm gonna find a way to get in."

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