Oct. 9, 2002

"My Big Fat Greek Wedding"

       What I like best about My Big Fat Greek Wedding is that it was such a big hit and has absolutely nothing to do with what Hollywood thinks we the audience want to see -- it's not edgy, contemporary, violent, sexy, teeming with special effects, or going backward.  Instead, what we have is a well-observed little story that intimately knows its lead character, as well as all of its 

secondary characters, and it also knows its ending.  And it's funny, too.  But it could have come out in 1960 or 1980 or 2002.


       Nia Vardalos, the writer and lead actress, pitched the script to a Hollywood studio, and their first response was, "Do they have to be Greek?"  As hard as you and I will ever try, we'll never be able to cut to the chase like a studio executive.  They can ruin a good story in a single breath.  Do they have to be Greek?  You fucking-A bet they do!  If they're not Greek my favorite line would immediately bite the dust.  Andrea Martin, who is brilliant and it's so wonderful to see her get a good part again, as Aunt Voula, says to the young husband (John

Corbett), that she'll cook some meat dish for him.  The young wife says, "He doesn't eat meat.  He's a vegetarian."  Andrea Martin can't believe it, her eyes bulging, "He doesn't eat meat?"  Everyone at the wedding goes silent, turns and looks.  "He doesn't eat meat?"  She shrugs.  "I'll make lamb."
       Well, if they were anything other than Greek that joke's out the window.
       So, even though My Big Fat Greek Wedding was executive produced by Tom Hanks and his wife, they were only able to get $5 million for the production budget from an independent company, then a release of five prints with no advertising. 
       Then, as each Hollywood blockbuster with $100 million in advertising and 4000 prints opened over the course of the summer and promptly dropped dead in two weeks -- Star Wars 5, Minority Report, The Sum of All Fears, Scooby-Doo, Austin Powers in Goldmember, etc. -- My Big Fat Greek Wedding's numbers actually got stronger each week, known in the business as having "legs," thus causing the distributor to open more prints, then more prints, and eventually begin advertising, too.  And now the film is nearing a gross of $150 million, and that's on a $5 million investment.
       Everyone is treating it like it's a big anomaly, too.  How could such a thing occur?  You mean people actually liked the movie?  And told their friends to see it?  Why would they do that?
       Although they didn't know it when they opened the film with only five prints in selected cities, this is what's called a "platform release," and films used to always be opened that way.  When I was a kid, back in the 1960s, all big films opened with just a few prints in the big downtown theaters on a platform release.  It would take six months or more before they would finally open prints in the outlying areas, and all that time you'd be hearing about this terrific picture and not be able to see it, unless of course you got all dressed up and went downtown.
       To do a platform release, though, you have to believe you've made a good movie.  That if people are given the chance to talk about your film, they will say positive things and suggest to their friends and family that they too should go see the film.  Every Hollywood studio believed they were making at least a few legitimately good films a year and always gave these film platform releases.  And they were right for years and years; these films were worth waiting for, and speaking kindly of afterward.
       But Hollywood doesn't believe that they make good movies anymore, which is in fact the case.  Hollywood deeply and sincerely believes that every movie they make is piece of shit and if people are given the chance to talk about it, they'll kill it, which is true.
       "Did you see Minority Report?"
       "Yeah, what a bore."
       "All right, skip that.  Let's go bowling."
       The major motivation in Hollywood now is fear.  Everyone's afraid they're going to lose their job at any second, and everyone's afraid they won't be able to fool the public into buying their inferior garbage after a point.
       The biggest hit of 2002 is Spider-Man, having grossed just over $400 million in four weeks, making it the fifth largest-grossing film of all-time.  And it didn't really have legs.  It was only number one for two weeks, and by week five it was a done deal.  But with these giant openings, these swoop-and-kill 4000 print releases, four weeks up at number one and number two is a long time; long enough to get a film up to being the number five money-earner of all time.
       Spider-Man cost about $150 million to make, then another $100 million in prints and ads, and it grossed $400 million.  That's not two to one (although it will be with the upcoming video and TV sales).  My Big Fat Greek Wedding, on the other hand, cost $5 million and has grossed $150 million.  That's thirty to one, and that's a much better deal.
       But you have to really believe in your product, and actually have made a quality film, and other people have to agree with you.  Luckily, on a $5 million investment, not all that many people have to agree with you.
       As a film fan I deeply resent the soulless corporate take-over of move-making, which is now to the exclusion of all the small independent films that can no longer get any distribution.  Most films now under $10 million never see the light of a projector bulb.  Yet there are more movie screens than ever before.  There also seems to be a proliferation of small art-house style cinemas that sadly only show the major "independent" releases, most of which aren't independent at all, but are coming from another arm of a conglomerate. 
       I think that Hollywood is underestimating both the American audience and the worldwide audience.  I think people want a bigger selection of movies and will happily go see anything that their friends and neighbors are saying is good.  Which means on some level it actually has to be good, not just highly advertised, with a McDonald's tie-in.
       No doubt I am vehement on this subject because I have a feature film that I can't get released in any way, shape or form at the moment.  Of my four legitimately independent features over the past twenty years, this is the first time this has happened to me -- no release at all.  One way or another I got the other three films out, but not this one.  And everyone keeps saying the same thing, "the market it soooo tough right now" (that's an actual quote from Hollywood sales agent).
       Why?  There are more people alive now than ever before, there are more movie channels than ever before, pay-per-view, Netflix, video stores; the market just gets bigger and bigger, but we get less and less movies.
       And I know there are a lot of undistributed movies out there because I read the reviews that come at me on the internet.
       So, what's the deal?  Why are we putting up with this?
       If I had my druthers, and about $10 million dollars, I'd start a production and distribution company that only made and released low-budget films.  But here's the key -- every film would try to be a good film, as good as it could be.  We would never make a piece of shit on purpose.  They might occur by mistake, but not intentionally. 
       And therein lies the difference, and it's in the intentions.  If you mean to make good movies, you may fail, but you may also succeed.  If you intend to make crap, you'll always succeed.
       My Big Fat Greek Wedding was meant to be a good movie, and it succeeds on exactly the level it's trying for.  And that's why I like it.