Cinema Jackpots: MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING

by John S. 

Cinema Jackpot! is a series that reviews films with uncertain origins which ultimately became popular smash hits. Everyone loves a good success story. Join us as we explore how these movies caught lightning in a bottle and triumphed.

(Cinema Jackpot! runs alternately with Movie Postmortems)

THE CONTESTANT: My Big Fat Greek Wedding

THE ODDS: It’s common knowledge that The Big Studio Development Process is one that can radically change a screenwriter’s idea to the point where the end result is very different from the original concept. This minefield was one Canadian actress/comedienne Nia Vardalos had to negotiate while shopping around her idea for My Big Fat Greek Wedding, a comedy based on her experiences with her eccentric Greek-Canadian family – and the humorous impact her husband (actor/comedian Ian Gomez) had on the clan when he married into it.

Based on a one-woman comedy show Vardalos mounted on her own that proved popular in the late 90s, the project that would eventually become My Big Fat Greek Wedding attracted the attention of various Hollywood players. Unfortunately, some of those quarters were intent on “mainstreaming” Vardalos’ concept. Suggestions included casting a “star” in the lead role (Marisa Tomei was one name floated), as well as changing the ethnicity of the family to Italian or Latino. Vardalos was opposed to both. She wanted to play the lead role and keep the characters Greek.

Fortunately, one of the players enticed by Vardalos’ show was none other than actress Rita Wilson, who is of Greek descent. She and her husband, some guy named Tom Hanks, became fervent champions of Vardalos and keeping her original ideas intact – and also having her play the heroine. They eventually took on producing roles for the project, to be made under their PlayTone Films shingle. With Wilson and Hanks onboard, things began to move fast.

The script transplanted the clan to Chicago from Canada, with familiar faces like Lainie Kazan, Michael Constantine, Andrea Martin, Gia Carides, Joey Fatone, and Louis Mandylor stepping into key roles. The part of the outsider who gets shoved into the family-in-law’s deep end went to John Corbett, of Northern Exposure and Sex And The City fame.  With experienced TV director Joel Zwick at the helm, My Big Fat Greek Wedding went into production in Toronto around 2001 with a planned North American release sometime in early 2002.

THE GAME:  My Big Fat Greek Wedding received a limited release in North America on April 19, 2002 and landed in the #20 spot at the box-office, pulling in over $540,000 from only around 105 screens. This was a solid start. However, it remained to be seen whether or not the film had legs. Critical eviews were mixed to positive, and cinema history is full of films that slowed down after promising beginnings.

Fortunately for My Big Fat Greek Wedding, audience word of mouth was excellent. As the months went on, the movie continued to perform strongly on a limited number of screens. By the time the studio decided to expand the film to around 620 screens on August 2, 2002, it had already pulled in around a solid $40 million at the North American box-office.  Even more remarkable was the flick only cracked the Top Ten at that point, landing on the #9 spot.

But My Big Fat Greek Wedding was just getting started. As summer turned into fall, and fall into winter, and 2002 into 2003, the movie just kept on trucking along and showed some serious racehorse legs. It eventually reached as high as the #2 spot at the box-office. Even after its initial DVD release in February 2003, the film still continued to draw audiences into theatres. And theatre owners were more than happy to keep playing it because of the demand.

By the time it concluded its North American theatrical run in April 2003 – nearly a year after it was first released – My Big Fat Greek Wedding had grossed just over $240 million – despite never once reaching the #1 spot at the North American box office.

THE VICTORY: Off a modest $6 million budget, My Big Fat Greek Wedding’s stellar commercial performance made it not just the most successful romantic comedy of all time – but also one of the most profitable films ever made. No one was prepared for the impact it would have on audiences – not even its creators who were expecting modest success, at best. Vardalos and company tried to spin off its success into a 2003 TV series that didn’t catch on. It was cancelled after around 7 episodes. The bottom line complaint was that it was simply not as funny as the movie.

The underrated 2009 comedy My Life in Ruins followed, with Vardalos playing a lovelorn Greek-American literature professor moonlighting as a put-upon tour guide in Greece. It pretty much misfired with audiences and critics, despite being a charming vehicle for Vardalos. Corbett reunited the same year with Vardalos for another romantic comedy with more of an edge, I Hate Valentine’s Day. Like My Life in Ruins, it didn’ make much of a ripple.

Eventually, the inevitable sequel to My Big Fat Greek Wedding followed in 2016, with Toula and Ian now grappling with their 17-year old daughter Paris (Elena Kampouris) and her decision to leave Chicago (and that wacky Greek family) for college in New York. MBFG2 did not replicate the original’s massive success but was still a modest hit. It was nice to see all the old, crazy faces again. Nevertheless, even if all the projects following Vardalos’ huge success weren’t quite on par with her brilliant breakout hit, they all still showcased her wit, charm, and relatable loveliness.

In an interview with her co-stars, Vardalos has mused that while My Big Fat Greek Wedding was indeed funny, eccentric, and memorable, she thinks inadvertent timing might have also been instrumental in its success. Released just a few months after 9/11, My Fat Big Greek Wedding was delivered to Americans during a time of grief, loss, and uncertainty. It’s very possible that a film which eschewed standard boy-meets-girl cliches and instead underscored a more expansive and inclusive theme (the warming comfort of family and community, told in humorously quirky style) may have deeply appealed to a nation in mourning. Did My Big Fat Greek Wedding help America’s healing in some small way? Maybe.

NEXT CONTESTANT: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – “A Timeless Story of Strength, Secrets, and Two Warriors Who Would Never Surrender…”

Every year, many foreign films are released in the United States. Some come and go with barely a ripple, while others do okay. Then there are the ones that really catch fire. Our next Cinema Jackpot did exactly that in 2000. What seemed like just another Chinese martial arts import turned out to be a vibrant, haunting epic about love, honor, and sacrifice – as well as an unexpected tale of female empowerment. One that would clean up at the box-office, wow critics and audiences – and eventually win the 2001 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film.

 

John S. is a Scarecrow volunteer who loves James Bond, Jason Bourne, Italian Gialli, Argento, Hitchcock, Ridley Scott, Sandra Bullock in The Proposal, Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, Theo James in anything, Steve Zahn in everything, Halloween (movie & holiday), South Park (cartoon & neighborhood), and Scarecrow Video – not necessarily in that order.

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