"I've never really had a media edifice supporting me," says Tucker Max over a beer in a college-town strip-mall restaurant. At a nearby theater, fans are already massing for an early screening of Max's first movie, I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, based on his best-selling (and widely reviled) book and popular (and much hated) blog. Financed independently, I Hope They Serve is a gamble for blogger-entrepreneur-pussyhound Max: He co-wrote the screenplay, says he refused a $2 million offer from Fox Searchlight to buy the script, and produced the movie himself.
Plenty of people hate Tucker Max. His appearances at Ohio State and North Carolina State were interrupted by protesters; ads for his movie have been defaced in Little Italy; Gawker has made a cottage industry out of deriding him. And plenty of people are predicting failure for, or just flat-out ignoring, I Hope They Serve, which begins its platformed release this Friday in 85 cities. A few nights before, Max, when asked after a screening what mainstream studios think of him and his movie, answered, "No one in Hollywood gives a shit about us until we make money." And in that respect, if his movie succeeds and becomes even a modest hit, he has set himself up for a particular kind of success. He's set himself up to become the next Tyler Perry.
Like Perry, Max has built a grassroots following through constant touring, mostly under the radar of the mainstream media. Outside of his rabid fan base — the kids just out of college (or barely into it) who read his blog, swarm his book signings, laugh when he insults them, and have sex with him in the end zone of the Florida football stadium — he's unknown enough that both the Washington Post and the New York Times just had to run "So what is this Tucker Max thing, anyway?" pieces. Perry, of course, spent years touring his independent-theater productions to black churches around the South, building up his fan base before expanding into movies.
And like Perry, Max serves a niche audience that major studios can have trouble reaching. In Perry's case, it was middle-class blacks, a group Hollywood had mostly given up on. For the young people who make up Max's fan base, that's never been an issue; in fact, you might complain that nearly every movie made today is designed to appeal to under-25s. But they're an audience that's never been big on brand loyalty, and Max is one of the first entertainers to capture and hold their attention on the Internet — and then translate that attention into real kids spending real dollars. (His book has spent years on the Times best-seller list, and, according to Max, his publisher, Citadel, printed its millionth copy this summer.) Like Tyler Perry, Tucker Max is a brand — a name with real resonance among his target audience, which views him as a "hero," as one fan told the L.A. Times.
Does that guarantee that I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell will be a hit? Of course not. Even if every person who bought the book saw the movie on its opening weekend, Max wouldn't crack $10 million in box-office receipts — well short of the $30 million he says he'd need the movie to earn for him to make a profit. (He says the total shooting budget was $7 million, a million of which his financiers at Darko Entertainment got back from the state of Louisiana in tax rebates.)
But Max believes that just as the book exposed a whole new audience to his humor — an audience that had never read his blog — so will the movie play, he says, to "an audience where 80 percent of the people have never read the book." The movie, in fact, is designed to appeal to a broader audience than his book — unlike Max's stories, the movie features actual love and lessons and learning amid the midget-fucking and pants-shitting. It can be galling, but it's nowhere near as objectionable as many Max critics might anticipate. So just as Tyler Perry's movies rode word of mouth from the Southern churchgoers who flooded Diary of a Mad Black Woman in its opening weekend to the wider audiences who've made Perry a one-man studio, so too could I Hope They Serve Beer surprise everyone.
"Hollywood has been trying to do a guy movie for 30 years, and they've never really gotten it," he says. "They're all lame." More important to Max's persona than even his sexual exploits is his rage at pricks who think they know more than he does. Even his interactions with fans frequently center on abuse, sharply delivered by Max, happily accepted by his fans. That persona — of the smartest guy in the room — will be put to the test by I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell and its success or failure. If the movie is a hit, Max's determination to maintain control over his life and his material will seem wise. ("It's, like, what's $2 million if they own your life?" he says about Searchlight's original offer, pitching his refusal not just as a business decision but as a matter of fierce principle. "I'd rather die standing than live with their boot on my neck.")
And if he's right, Max is ready to take advantage. He plans a four-movie series featuring the Tucker Max character, charting, as Max says, Tucker's transformation "from a functional narcissist to a caring narcissist." It's a transformation Max says he himself has undergone in recent years. Despite his continued Tucker Max–esque shenanigans — including, on this movie tour, taking X-rays of himself receiving fellatio — Max claims he's grown a lot since the days of his famous debauchery. "I'm a much different person than I was at 25," he says. "No one has probably helped me more with my narcissism than my dog."
If the movie flops, Tucker Max can go back to being the most reprehensible best-selling author in America. If it succeeds? "Most people are happy to be in the game," he says. "I'm not happy to be in the game. I want to win the game."