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In October 2019, Tyler Perry made the news with the gala, all-star opening of his film and TV studio in Atlanta. Almost every Black actor of renown was part of the celebration. Plenty of younger actors actually cried on camera out of joy, at the thought that finally, finally at last there was a Black-owned studio. More established and experienced people, like Oprah Winfrey, just smiled, because as much as they honored him that night, they privately knew the quiet limits of his accomplishment, because they know what the word “studio” really means.
I’ve got nothing against Tyler Perry—quite the contrary. He proved there was a viable, profit-making business model making films for American Black audiences that wasn’t ‘70s-style blaxploitation, but were mainstream, family entertainment. There’s a lot of interest in making films and TV shows in the South, and there’s a good business case for building facilities there. But the question remains: in the real world, what’s a studio?
Everybody knows what it is, right? It’s a mini-city of huge soundproof buildings with well-guarded high walls, full of armies of workers, gorgeous actors, blindingly hot lights, some of the finest cameras on Earth, and all the action that the world’s most successful writers can imagine. That’s a studio, to most people.
But we use the same word to refer to two separate things that often, but don’t always overlap. The first is what you see: the physical sound stages and back lots of fake streets where filming is done. To insiders, the term studio usually doesn’t mean the physical plant, but the underlying business, the classic entrepreneurial company in Hollywood that pays to make the films, confident that it can get the money back, and more, through its deals distributing them. This can be a corporate behemoth, occupying expensive real estate and employing thousands of people whose full-time jobs are making screen entertainment. But it doesn’t have to be,
There was a running gag in Kevin Smith’s Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back about the “Miramax backlot”. There was no such thing. When Miramax made a movie, they rented facilities at the lowest price wherever they could get them, like every other small-time producer, and not a few larger ones. Make no mistake about it, though, Miramax was a real studio, because Bob Weinstein could pick up one telephone and get a substantial line of bank credit to make a film, then his odious brother Harvey could pick up the other phone and get a binding financial commitment to release that same film in theaters and on TV networks in Europe and India.
That’s all it takes. It can be a single individual, or a small risk-taking group, with no more than a minimal office staff, if it has the established connections to make those global distribution deals and a seriously strong checkbook. This has always been the case. United Artists was a major studio for sixty years without ever owning a physical studio to make the films in. When it launched James Bond or made The Great Escape and Midnight Cowboy, it didn’t own so much as a single movie camera, or so much as one square foot of backlot property. When billionaire Philip Anschutz decided to buy and make a Narnia series, Walden Media didn’t need any of that either.
At the top level, the international world of filmmaking is not nearly as snobbish as is popularly imagined. Fact is, if you’ve got money, you’re warmly welcome to pull up a chair and join the game. Made your money in the Russian mafia? Conflict diamonds in South Africa? Made a killing in Brazilian vehicle leasing, Burmese mineral rights, or selling EU stocks short? Come to Hollywood. So when it comes to nice, clean, well-regarded American companies like Apple and Amazon, why draw the line? Have a seat, fellas. For the right price, we’ll be happy to rent you everything you need to compete with us. Agents will help you hire our actors. If the finished product turns out to be good, we’ll buy it from you, or make a commission from selling it for you. We’ll treat you right. We’ve dealt with people like you before and taken them to the cleaners more times than you can count.
Studios, for all their superficial glamour, are banks, borrowing at advantageous rates due to their scale, their stability, and their collateral. They then loan it back out at a stiff markup to technically independent companies that produce the films that the studios will end up owning. This is why, even if you and 20 million other like-minded counter-culturals each put up a buck to produce a truly different kind of movie, thereby beating the necessity of getting the finance from the studios, you’re not in a strong negotiating position even if they do agree to buy and distribute the film. Consider: If you’ve got two movies coming out in May, one in which you’re risking already sunk cost of $150 million-plus a mandatory $150 million in marketing, and another in which you’re risking the paltry $10 million paid upfront plus a skimpy $10 million ad campaign, which one do you think will get the big push? That’s just business.
What you need–what, over the long run, defines a real studio—is an annual slate, a complete roster of investments, or bets, each year, come hell or high water. If most of them fail or merely break even, and most will, one or two of your hoped-for hits may wipe out those losses and more. Then you have more leverage with markets; they’re counting on you to fill a distinct interest or audience craving this year and the next.
By those standards, there have been Black studio bosses for at least fifty years. We associate Berry Gordy and Motown with ‘70s extravaganzas like The Wiz. We seldom think of him in connection with films like The Last Dragon, or his protégé, Suzanne De Passe’s successful productions of Lonesome Dove and Streets of Laredo. These are not cliché “Black film subjects”. Johnson Media, publishers of Ebony and Jet Magazines, put up risk capital to promote the Vietnam war drama Hamburger Hill.
Richard Parsons ran much more than a mere movie studio: he was CEO of TimeWarner, presiding over a sprawling empire of films, TV, news, and cable. Yet Dick Parsons isn’t somebody you’d have been likely to recognize on the street.
Oprah Winfrey is probably the most obvious public example of an entertainment phenomenon, but someone like Shonda Rhimes, who once filled a sizable portion of ABC’s primetime week, is as big a mini-studio as Desilu was in its ‘50s glory days. When Rhimes went to pitch shows at that network, she was selling to another Black woman. Byron Allen’s Entertainment Studios is a regular television factory, operating mostly under the radar. Black people calling the shots isn’t the novelty it used to be.
That might have been going through Oprah’s mind as she stood in front of news and interview cameras and smiled while excited younger people praised Tyler Perry for having his name on a studio. No, Tyler Perry Studios isn’t Paramount Studios…but even if, as more careful later articles spelled out, it’s really a production rental facility— it’s far from a negligible achievement just getting the doors open.
There have been times when owning physical facilities was a bad bet, like the late Fifties through the mid-Seventies, when selling it all off and redeveloping the real estate seemed to make more business sense. There was improved technology that allowed many more scenes to be filmed in real locations; maybe we wouldn’t need those sound studios so much. Columbia Pictures believed it. They sold their historic studio lot and spent the rest of the swinging ‘70s cohabitating without so much as an engagement ring with Warners in Burbank. Then the Lady with the Torch moved into the wide-open, vacant-but-storied MGM Culver City property. It’s not like MGM was using it for much. The pendulum began to swing the other way, and a Lucas/Spielberg generation of directors raised on movie magic shied away from the Kitchen Sink school of realism. Yeah, said the Boomer execs, better hold onto those studio lots after all. Sony bought Columbia from Coca-Cola and turned the Wizard of Oz lot into the Hogwarts of digital filmmaking.
Especially for television. Even with the tremendous boost in TV’s prestige since roughly the turn of this century, it is still regarded as the factory assembly line of Hollywood. Filmed TV series with outdoor and location scenes are expensive, so many shows, especially comedies, rarely if ever leave the sound stage. Even a fledgling show with a network commitment to air a half dozen episodes is likely to tie up at least one sound stage with its main sets for several months. With a hit show, that occupancy can last anywhere from seven to twelve years. If your company does a lot of TV, then it needs to have ready access to plenty of sound stages.
And if you’re flexible enough to produce shows outside of New York or Los Angeles, that’s where Tyler Perry comes in. Long term, nobody knows how he’ll do, but he’ll rent to everybody. He doesn’t need blockbusters. Cable cooking shows are fine. Come on down and save some money. As long as Tyler’s name is on the gate, he holds the keys. I wish him luck, I bet he’ll do all right.Published in