Twelve years ago today– April 19, 2002– a “big, fat Greek” phenomenon was born. IFC Films released an unknown actresses’ romantic comedy that contained both the words “fat” and “Greek” in the same sentence– a recipe for disaster in any ethnic community. It was a snowflake that would turn into a massive landslide that would overcome an entire nation, led by Nia Vardalos.
“My Big Fat Greek Wedding” was released on 108 screens throughout the nation. The $5 million budgeted film ended up grossing $597,362 that first weekend, just landing a spot in the week’s overall top 20. But it was definitely no indication of what was to come.
By the end of its remarkable run (although some will argue it lives on and on in so many other incarnations), “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” would stay in the box office top 20 for 42 consecutive weekends– unheard of in the world of fickle teenaged movie goers waiting for the next vampire series.
The tiny film that could– built on the creativity of a single, struggling actress’ one-women show, would go on to gross $241.4 million in North America alone, making it the highest grossing romantic comedy and independent film of all time. It also became among the most profitable films– in history, with a staggering 6150% return its budget. Interestingly enough, it managed all this without ever hitting the #1 spot at the domestic box office.
As a struggling actress in Hollywood, Canadian-born Nia Vardalos was often encouraged to hide her Greek heritage– even pretend she was Italian– to get more film roles. But Vardalos kept her name and her passion for her Greekness.
She wrote a one-woman show based on her life growing up in a huge Greek family and her courtship and eventual marriage with a non-Greek. That show turned into a script, which she shopped around to Hollywood executives who wanted to cast a well-known actress (such as the Italian-American Marisa Tomei or the Puerto Rican-American Jennifer Lopez) in the lead role, a change that Vardalos refused to accommodate.
And like any predictable Cinderella story with a happy ending, while performing her show in Los Angeles, Vardalos impressed one particular audience member: actress/producer Rita Wilson, who happened to be equally proud of her Greek heritage and married to one of America’s favorite leading men, Tom Hanks. With Hanks and Wilson signed on as producers, My Big Fat Greek Wedding was on its way.
But even with two famous names attached– this isn’t always a recipe for success. A story has to be good in order for it to resonate and become the phenomenon that MBFGW became. This story became “everyones story.” It was Jewish, Italian, Polish– everyone related to this film.
The Oprah Show, an Academy Award nomination, numerous awards– and millions of endearing fans later and a cultural phenomenon was born. Today, there are My Big Fat Greek… travel agencies, festivals, restaurants, hot dogs, gyros– you name it. People still remember their favorite lines from the film and still relate to a scene that they have experienced at their own family gathering, their own Easter celebration, their own weddings.
Twelve years since it’s release, it’s been a Big Fat Greek dozen years. Congrats Nia Vardalos, Rita Wilson and Tom Hanks. This is one of those films that will live on, and on, for many decades to come. This is one of those rare films that come around once or twice in a generation. Opa.