New Faces in Syndie: Easing the ‘Payne’

Apr 17, 2006  •  Post A Comment

Tyler Perry, a writer, producer, director and actor who has made a name for himself in film and on stage, is taking on his next big challenge: television.

Thanks to the success Mr. Perry has had producing shows on the urban theater circuit and his highly profitable feature films “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” and “Madea’s Family Reunion,” conventional Hollywood wisdom would say he’s a natural developer for network or cable television.

But Mr. Perry is anything but conventional. Instead of working within the traditional network format, he is going into a business where no major syndicator has succeeded for more than 15 years: the first-run half-hour scripted comedy business.

Shows such as “Mama’s Family” and “Charles in Charge” were once first-run weekend performers for independent stations. But rising costs, station consolidation and the advent of The WB and UPN effectively killed that business. But starting as soon as next month, Mr. Perry and syndicator Debmar-Mercury will introduce the first-run syndicated comedy “House of Payne.”

“Because of the lack of sitcoms, there is a hole in the market,” said Mort Marcus, Debmar-Mercury co-president, noting that independent stations and soon-to-be-former UPN and WB affiliates still rely on off-network comedies to drive their access and late-night dayparts. And with networks in a sitcom slump for the past several years, there has been little successful new product coming into syndication.

“There just haven’t been that many hits,” he said. “The stations are striving to get product to run in those time periods. Tyler is creating the possibility of one of those sitcoms.”

Mr. Perry’s solution to the problem is “House of Payne,” which stars Allen Payne as an Atlanta firefighter whose life is turned upside down when he and his two children are forced to move in with his parents. The multicamera sitcom, which is being shot in Atlanta in front of a live audience, already has 10 episodes completed and is set to appear on up to 10 stations starting in May.

Stations that sign up for the show’s initial run will get the first 10 episodes for free, Mr. Marcus said, without any cash going back to his company or Mr. Perry. The financial return will come if “Payne” delivers an audience. Debmar-Mercury has not decided whether “Payne” will be made available for cash or barter or a combination of both.

“If the program works, that station will have the right to air the series if it goes forward,” Mr. Marcus said.

“Payne” would then go into production for another 22 episodes as soon as possible, with Mr. Perry targeting a production cycle of 32 episodes a year over the next three years.

“That’s enough for a Monday-to-Friday run,” Mr. Marcus said, noting that the ultimate goal is providing stations with strippable syndicated programming as soon as possible.

Mr. Perry’s personal story reads like a chapter from a motivational handbook. Growing up in a home with an abusive father, Mr. Perry was drifting professionally when he was inspired by “The Oprah Winfrey Show” to put down his feelings on paper. In 1992, at the age of 22, Mr. Perry wrote a series of letters to himself that he later adapted into a gospel musical, “I Know I’ve Been Changed,” in which he also performed. After six years of struggle the musical finally took off with the urban theater circuit’s predominantly African American audience. Mr. Perry followed up that success with other stage shows and DVDs of his performances.

Every major studio turned him down in his effort to put together a deal for a feature film in 2005, with many telling him his product was too narrowly focused on an urban African American audience for a successful film release. The lone exception was independent film company Lions Gate, which agreed to distribute “Diary of a Mad Black Woman,” starring Mr. Perry, who also wrote and directed it. The film opened No. 1 at the box office in February 2005 and went on to gross more than $50 million. In its first week on sale, the DVD of “Diary” sold more than 2 million copies. At the same time, Mr. Perry was starring nightly in a national tour of his sold-out stage show “Madea Goes to Jail,” which he also wrote and directed.

Thanks to another Perry show that was running concurrently, “Meet the Browns,” an average of 35,000 people a week saw at least one of his productions during 2005.

This past February Lions Gate released “Madea’s Family Reunion,” which was No. 1 at the box office for two consecutive weeks and has so far grossed more than $62 million. A third film is planned for release in 2007. Earlier this month Mr. Perry released a book featuring the wisdom of his signature character, Madea. Because of a book tour, Mr. Perry was unavailable for comment.

For his venture into television, Mr. Perry was reluctant to get into business with the larger, more established studios.

“The business is changing in general in a lot of ways, and someone like Tyler is very entrepreneurial and would like to control his destiny,” Mr. Marcus said. The marriage between the independent company Debmar-Mercury, which distributes “South Park” in syndication, and Mr. Perry came about due to his representation at the William Morris Agency, which felt a smaller company suited his goals.

“He just knew he wanted to create this sitcom and he didn’t want to be at the mercy of the networks,” Mr. Marcus said.