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How little 'Greek Wedding' became a big hit

Consider nurturing. Word of mouth. Familiar themes. And a man named Hanks.

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By STEVE PERSALL, Times Film Critic

© St. Petersburg Times
published September 6, 2002


You know how wedding invitation lists keep growing as more and more people learn what's happening and want to join the party? That kind of exponential popularity surrounds the surprising summertime box office hit, My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

This little independent movie, made on a shoestring budget of $5-million and distributed by IFC Films, is edging toward the coveted $100-million mark in ticket sales. Last weekend, it was No. 2 in the box office chase behind the Mel Gibson flick Signs. This weekend, it may be No. 1.

But that success has slowly developed over 20 weeks, remarkable in a season when high-profile films typically open with big weekends in thousands of theaters, then phase out after a month.

The most recent comparison would be The Blair Witch Project three years ago, although that movie's reputation was made through arty film festivals and a cagey ad campaign. My Big Fat Greek Wedding is a grass-roots success, bypassing festivals and initially ignored by some critics -- including me -- who expected Joel Zwick's film to quickly pass onto home video like so many other small romantic comedies.

A funny thing happened on the way to video stores. My Big Fat Greek Wedding debuted April 21 on a measly 108 screens. Without the finances of a big studio, IFC Films aimed much of its limited marketing budget at Greek-American communities.

People saw the movie, enjoyed it and, more important, told other people they enjoyed it. Then they saw again. By keeping the screen total small, theaters were generally filled, adding a sense of urgency for moviegoers to buy tickets. IFC Films wisely invested some of that revenue in more advertising and prints of the film. The movie didn't expand beyond 1,000 screens until mid August, still far less than the usual number needed to generate such ticket sales.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding used a distribution technique known in the industry as a platform release: a movie bows in a few theaters, develops good word of mouth, then expands to more screens as interest builds. Big studios almost always use that plan for prestige films during the awards season.

But it's rarely used for a low-budget summertime comedy without big-name stars. Tiny distributors such as IFC Films generally don't have the time or money to employ such a strategy.

How, then, has My Big Fat Greek Wedding beaten the Hollywood system?

The movie has its charms. A playwright named Nia Vardalos wrote the story about a young Greek woman named Toula Portokalos who finally finds love but with a non-Greek man played by John Corbett. Such movies usually end at the altar, but My Big Fat Greek Wedding goes all the way to the reception with colorful culture clashes between uptight Anglos and vivacious Greeks.

Vardalos performed the play onstage, where Tom Hanks and his wife, Rita Wilson, who's part Greek, saw it, loved it and bought the rights for a movie version.

Nobody will admit it, but Hanks must have something to do with IFC's patient release pattern. Either he applied some friendly pressure or someone at a small, enterprising company (like IFC) wanted to make friends with the biggest star in Hollywood. Other, better films don't get that kind of nurturing without favors being called in or offered. Hanks is popular enough to make the right people pay attention to a pet project.

However, it's what shows up on screen that matters. My Big Fat Greek Wedding is essentially a sitcom stretched to feature-film length, but it includes three socio-cinematic themes that seldom fail.

The first is Toula (played by Vardalos) a nice, clumsy, lonely and adorably average woman. Toula faintly glows with unfulfilled romantic potential; she's not a glamorous Julia Roberts or Sandra Bullock trying to convince us she can't get a date. Vardalos' relative anonymity makes it easier for female viewers to relate to her character's development.

Feminists might disagree, but movie audiences love seeing women transform from ducklings to swans. Think of My Fair Lady, Grease, Pretty Woman and Sixteen Candles. If audiences didn't buy into the makeover myth, we wouldn't see Maury, Rikki and Oprah mining it every week on television. Toula transforms, yet remains average enough to make viewers think: "That could be me."

The second social factor at work is Toula's family dynamic, a compilation of cliches -- meddling parents, wacky cousins, etc. -- with an ethnic slant rarely portrayed in films. We see Italian-American households all the time, but try naming another famous movie Greek besides Zorba and Hercules. So many movies and television shows are homogenized that the cultural influence makes cliches seem fresh.

The Portokalos family is loud and sometimes abrasive but brimming with love, tapping into our primal desires for the same closeness. Anyone can understand it, even if they never experience it personally. It's the same emotional connection that caused Moonstruck to turn viewers into temporary Brooklynites and how Forrest Gump made us all feel like sons and daughters of the south.

Finally, My Big Fat Greek Wedding is safe filmmaking, no more ambitious than a decent TV sitcom. Zwick has a sitcom background all the way back to Bosom Buddies, which starred Hanks. The film's setup has a lot in common with another of his TV efforts, Joanie Loves Chachi, and follows the unshakable Love Boat formula: introductions, then romance, then crisis, and finally resolution.

A lot of people would rather curl up with reliably bland prime-time television than seek out daring cinema. My Big Fat Greek Wedding enables them to go to theaters and feel right at home. It's sweet, predictable and won't have a problem passing network censors and, very likely, becoming a sitcom itself.

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