At first, all they wanted was for their little movie to survive through the cinematic onslaught of Memorial Day. Four months and more than $57 million later, My Big Fat Greek Wedding has turned into Hollywood's unlikely success story of the summer.
Without the benefit of lightsabers, special effects or marquee stars, the movie, which cost a mere $5 million to make, is on track to gross more than $100 million worldwide.
Its low-budget, grass-roots marketing campaign - pitched initially at Greek Americans nationwide - is almost laughable by current standards of the industry, in which mass-marketed mega-movies such as Spider-Man and Star Wars: Attack of the Clones open on thousands of screens in their first weekends and cost many millions to promote. Those films have grossed $404 million and $300 million respectively in the United States alone, leading the way for a record-breaking season at the box office.
But while some adult moviegoers despaired about the hyped-up, dumbed-down state of Hollywood, Greek Wedding offered hope that small, character-driven films, powered primarily by word of mouth, could break through.
"There have been other indie hits like The Full Monty, Blair Witch Project, these touchstone films that represent independent film benchmarks," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations Co., a box-office tracking firm. "But this is in a class by itself, because it is a really low-budget film, it is a comedy and it is out in the summer."
Since it was released April 19, Greek Wedding, directed by Joel Zwick, has been steadily climbing the charts and has out-grossed many studio releases on a per-screen average. It is now the highest-grossing independently produced romantic comedy ever made.
"I don't know why it has hit this chord in America, other than we are all immigrants," said Rita Wilson, who produced the movie through Playtone, the company the actress owns with her husband, Tom Hanks.
The summer movie season, which began with the release of Spider-Man on May 3, is expected to surpass $3.8 billion in ticket sales by Labor Day, up 10 percent from last summer, according to Exhibitor Relations.
Greek Wedding showed that small movies can be moneymakers, too. Proportionally, Greek Wedding will probably net more money for its distributor, producers and investors than either Spider-Man or Star Wars because the costs associated with the blockbusters' production and marketing are so high, according to industry sources.
But Greek Wedding is more than a box-office success; it has become a cultural phenomenon.
"What happened with Greek Wedding was that every self-respecting Greek in the country showed up," said Jim Gianopolus, co-chairman of 20th Century Fox, who is Greek. "But then the charm and the sweetness of the film spoke for itself. It is truly the box-office phenomenon of the year, without question."
My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which is based on Nia Vardalos' one-woman stage show, is about a young woman caught between pleasing her traditional Greek family and trying to find her identity as a modern American - including marrying a non-Greek. Despite tepid reviews from some critics, the film has become the talk of dinner parties, hair salons, cafes and retirement communities.
"Our demographic is anybody with a family that drives them crazy, or anybody who has ever had to plan a wedding, a funeral or a vacation," said Vardalos, who wrote the screenplay and stars in the movie.
But nobody, including Vardalos, expected this overwhelming response. Initially, studios showed some interest in the script, but none of them would do it with an "unknown" like Vardalos as the star - one studio suggested replacing her with Sandra Bullock. Some studios wanted to change the ethnicity of the characters from Greek to Latino, Jewish or Italian. Wilson eventually had to independently finance the film.
Vardalos said its success is not necessarily a textbook example of brilliant marketing. "There was no secret trick to the marketing," she said. "We got lucky. You can't manufacture word of mouth. You can't pay people to tell their 10 cousins."
"We kept joking about making it through Memorial Day and then Fourth of July, and now it's Labor Day - the movie might make it to Christmas," said Bob Berney, who oversaw the film's distribution at IFC Films. "We can barely keep up with [requests for] the prints."
IFC's approach to releasing the film was cautious. It began small, releasing the film in 103 theaters. Over four months it built up to more than 1,300 theaters in 50 cities. By contrast, a studio blockbuster like "Spider-Man" opened on 7,500 screens on its first weekend. Though blockbusters' box-office grosses typically drop sharply in their second weekend (ticket sales for XXX, for example, fell 48 percent after its opening weekend), Greek Wedding shot up 85 percent in its fourth month out. It has been climbing up the list of top 10 films, is currently No. 6 and is expected to break $60 million this weekend.
IFC has spent only $15 million on marketing - a major studio will spend, on average, $50 million marketing a blockbuster.
Once the Greek community got behind the film, others did too. And once women began seeing the film, they started dragging their husbands to join them, Vardalos said.
"No matter where a film comes from, if there is a gap for a certain audience, they will go," said Berney, now the president of New Market Films, another independent distributor.