For four years, movie mogul Tyler Perry has taken on a role that few people outside the gates of his sprawling Fort McPherson studio have seen.
He's still the prolific actor, writer, director and producer of films and television series such as the "Madea" franchise and "The Haves and the Have Nots." But inside the gates, Perry has become a real estate developer — the mastermind behind a 330-acre filming complex where everything from office cubicles to the historic homes on Fort McPherson's former Officer's Row is camera-ready.
On Saturday, Perry will unveil the new Tyler Perry Studios at a black-tie gala he said will celebrate not only his studio, but the Hollywood figures like Cicely Tyson, Oprah Winfrey and Denzel Washington who inspired him. It’s also, he said, a celebration of what the film industry in Georgia can be.
The $250 million studio is the only major film studio in the nation owned by an African American. It’s a crowning achievement for a once-struggling playwright who, more than 20 years ago, had been kicked out of his apartment and was living out of his car.
“All I can equate it to is having a kid and you hope everyone thinks my baby is beautiful,” Perry, 50, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
In a wide-ranging interview, Perry discussed the future of the studio and Georgia’s film industry, as well as threats to that industry — such as religious liberty legislation — he said could derail Hollywood’s growth in Georgia.
Quietly and quickly, since he bought 330 acres at Fort McPherson in 2015, Perry said he has built 12 massive sound stages for other Hollywood studios to rent. There’s a replica of the White House for his upcoming presidential television series, “The Oval.” Need a set for a hospital, jail, an airliner or an airport terminal, trailer park or a suburban subdivision? Perry’s built it.
His studio also bought a vintage diner in rural Georgia, put it on wheels and relocated it to Fort Mac. A half-mile, six-lane freeway for car chases, and backlots resembling a major city and Europe streetscapes, are next.
Even Perry's expansive office in a former U.S. Army Reserve headquarters, now called the Dream Building, which doubled as an apartment in his film "Acrimony," is ready to be a film set at a moment's notice.
Perry said he plans to open his studio for tours for school children by next summer. He’s also planning an up to 3,000-seat theater for concerts and other events. Frustrated by a lack of development outside his complex, Perry said he also plans restaurants and retail on the grounds of his studios, which he said he wants to become a weekend destination for tourists and the community.
He’s also discussed a center to help victims of human trafficking on his land. All of it could be built, he said, in 36 months.
Beyond the lights, cameras and stages, the location of the studios holds enormous personal significance for Perry.
The post was founded in 1885 and named for Maj. Gen. James McPherson, the highest-ranking Union officer killed in the Civil War. But during the Civil War, the land was used by Confederate soldiers as a training ground in a war fought over the enslavement of black people.
At a BET awards ceremony this year, Perry got emotional recounting the history of Fort McPherson.
“It’s incredible for this place to have this history and for me to own it. It’s really powerful,” Perry told the AJC. “I hope this is an inspiration for everybody else.”
Perry saw potential in Fort Mac
Perry’s studios started in a small building on Hoke Street, and later took over what is now Krog Street Market before he bought a former church property near Greenbriar Mall. In a few years, he’d outgrown the Greenbriar site.
Perry bought land in Douglas County for his home and a studio, and in 2014, he said he informed then-Mayor Kasim Reed he was leaving Atlanta.
Reed pitched Perry on Fort McPherson, which closed in 2011, taking with it thousands of jobs.
“I come out here and even though the grass was 15 feet tall and overrun (with) snakes and wildlife, I still saw all the major potential,” he said.
In June 2015, the McPherson Implementing Local Redevelopment Authority, also known as Fort Mac LRA, bought Fort Mac and sold 330 acres to Perry for $30 million, leaving about 145 acres to be developed later.
It didn’t come without controversy. Former state Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, who represented the area, said Reed gave Perry a sweetheart deal, selling the land for far less than what it was worth.
Since, the studio site has become an engine of gentrification, Fort said.
“This was the sweetest of sweet deals for Tyler Perry,” Fort said.
Perry said he’s been disappointed to see little happen with the still-undeveloped land on the other side of the fence.
In 2017, Fort Mac LRA named a master developer, Stephen Macauley, to lead redevelopment to include about 2,500 residences, retail, restaurants, a performing arts center and office space.
Negotiations turned sour this year and appeared to be scuttled. But the authority and Macauley continue to negotiate and a pivotal meeting on the future of Fort Mac is set for Oct. 17.
Perry said the city approached him about buying the rest of Fort Mac for $30 million when talks with Macauley appeared to be falling apart. But talks didn't go far.
Perry wanted to buy the former Forces Command building as part of any deal, but Fort Mac LRA was already under contract to sell it for a future U.S. Food and Drug Administration lab.
In August, the authority sold the command building for the future FDA lab, a move Perry and Bottoms criticized as detrimental to future development of the remaining land.
‘I’m not going anywhere’
Many in Georgia’s film industry point to Perry as an emblem of the state’s industry. Unlike other studio operators who solely rent sound stages, Perry has one side of his company that leases space to other filmmakers, but the core of his business creates intellectual property he controls.
“Tyler Perry could base his empire anywhere in the world,” Bottoms said. “The fact that he has chosen Atlanta to build his studios speaks to the extraordinary possibilities seen in our city.”
Georgia can still be a place that develops homegrown talent like him, Perry said, but he warned about renewed talks of "religious liberty" and other socially contentious legislation such as the state's ban on most abortions, which is being challenged in court.
Perry said with all he’s invested, “I’m not going anywhere.”
But investors who have built other studio complexes and who are dependent on Hollywood films will be hurt. So, too, will be the thousands of Georgia film workers who would see opportunities dry up, Perry said.
“You literally would take an axe to the root of all their possibilities and what their growth could be,” Perry said.
Tyler Perry Studios
The celebrated movie maker Tyler Perry, fresh off being honored with a Hollywood Walk of Fame star this week, holds a gala at his Atlanta studios Saturday night, featuring a who's who of expected guests:
Actress Whoopi Goldberg
Producer and actor Samuel L. Jackson
Actor Sidney Poitier
Actor Will Smith
Actress Cicely Tyson
Actor Denzel Washington
Media executive and actress Oprah Winfrey
Projects that have filmed at Tyler Perry Studios
Tyler Perry has shot his own projects, such as “The Haves and Have Nots,” “Acrimony,” and upcoming series “The Oval” and “Sistas,” at his studio. Other studios also use his complex, shooting major features including:
“The Walking Dead”
“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”