‘Temptation’ Shows That Sex Sells — Even in a Tyler Perry Movie

'Temptation' Shows That Sex Sells — Even in a Tyler Perry Movie

Analysis: Lionsgate marketers sold an "erotic thriller" — but subtly signaled core fans that they'd get the moralistic message they count on from Perry

When you think “erotic thriller,” Tyler Perry isn't the first name to come to mind — and Madea is definitely not. But that's how Lionsgate sold “Tyler Perry‘s Temptation,” and it worked.

Perry's "Temptation" took in an impressive $22.3 million at the box office over the weekend, the writer-director's ninth film to open at more than $20 million, which puts him in some fast company. Stephen Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis are the only other directors to manage the feat, according to Box Office Mojo.

“Temptation” is also the fourth of Perry's films to open at more than $20 million on Easter weekend, but this one is a little different. There was no appearance by his comedic alter ego Madea, and for that matter, no Perry on screen at all, but that wasn't the only thing unusual about this film.

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“There's never been what you'd call a ‘sexy’ Tyler Perry film,” a Lionsgate marketing source told TheWrap Monday. Broad comedy — no Madea pun intended — with a dash of morality have been the constants in most of his films, which primarily target African-Americans.

“Temptation” follows a heated romance between the ambitious and married Judith (played by Jurnee Smollett-Bell) and Harley (Robbie Jones), a handsome social media billionaire who aggressively courts her. Kim Kardashian plays Judith's co-worker at the high-end couple's therapy business.

Lionsgate's marketers made the most of their chance to sell a fresh take on a Perry film, but it was a more subtle effort than might be assumed.

The one-sheet poster for the film features a nude female form super-imposed on a capital “T,” an image more than a little reminiscent of the “50 Shades of Gray’ book cover and clearly designed to say sex. But the poster, and other marketing materials, say it subtly, suggesting there might be more going on

“Temptation is a word that conjures the idea of seduction and sexiness, but it's also a word that has a biblical meaning, and that made it ideal for us, given this movie” said the source.

The fact is, with a PG-13 rating, “Temptation” wasn't all that steamy.  And critics — many of whom are generally dismissive of Perry's work — even found fault with the film for its ultimately moralistic tone. “Temptation” was as much about the consequences of cheating as it was lust.

So were traditional Perry fans put off by the movie's raciness, or were fans looking for a film with some heat let down by its ultimately moral tone?

Not hardly. Lionsgate nailed the target demographic and audiences, which broke down 70 percent female and nearly 80 percent over 25 years of age, loved the movie. They gave it an “A-” CinemaScore.

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“I don't think his core audience was the least bit disappointed, and that fact that this film imparted a moral message, as Perry's film typically do, was a big part of that,” said the source.

Lionsgate, which has been in the Tyler Perry business for the last eight years, has no problem with the filmmaker trying something different, according to distribution chief David Spitz.

“For literally years now, we've found ourselves talking on Sundays and Mondays about how Tyler Perry‘s film have overperformed,” Spitz told TheWrap, “so we have a lot of confidence in whatever he wants to do.”

That's with good reason. Perry's films have opened to an average of $23.4 million and grossed more than $52 million per picture. That's all with production budgets under $20 million.

“What he's done is pretty amazing,” Exhibitor Relations vice-president and senior analyst Jeff Bock told TheWrap Monday. “He's found a niche market — one that Hollywood has largely underserved, especially when you're talking women — that Spike Lee would die for, and he's nailed it pretty much every time.”

Why, since Perry has shown the African-American market can be targeted with consistent success, does it remain underserved?

“It's probably because there isn't the real high ceiling on his films,” Bock said. “There aren't any $200 million movies there, or for that matter, $100 million.” Perry's biggest overall grossing film is 2009's “Madea Goes to Jail,” which took in $90.5 million. 

But that's a limit Lionsgate, which has taken in just under $700 million from Perry's 14 films, is ready and willing to live with.