How 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding' Became an Indie Phenomenon

My Big Fat Greek Wedding - Still - H 2016

In April 2002, an independent film starring an unknown actress was given a limited release. By summertime, Nia Vardalos' film was a big fat mainstream hit.

When My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 hits theaters this weekend, it will be 14 years since the original film debuted and went on to become one of the biggest sleeper hits at the box office.

In April 2002, IFC Films released My Big Fat Greek Wedding in 108 theaters. The small-budget film starring a then-unknown actress (Nia Vardalos) opened against Sandra Bullock's Murder By Numbers and Universal's The Scorpion King, a spinoff to The Mummy Returns.

Despite the competition, the little-film-that-could continued to expand and stayed in theaters for nearly a year, ultimately grossing $368 million worldwide. Today, it holds the title as the most successful indie film and remains one of the most notable, and profitable, romantic-comedies. The film earned Vardalos an Oscar nomination, and the underdog at the cinema became a smash hit and cultural phenomenon.

How? As it turns out, a little authenticity, word of mouth and some Hollywood backing went a long way. Here are the factors that helped propel My Big Fat Greek Wedding along its record-breaking journey.

1. A universal story 

My Big Fat Greek Wedding began as a one-woman play, written by and starring Vardalos, at a Los Angeles theater in 1997. The Second City performer, who is Canadian and of Greek descent, based the play on her own Greek family (who play extras in the film series) and her experience marrying a man from a different background (husband Ian Gomez, who also appears).

The relatable plot attracted production companies, but Vardalos turned down adaptation requests when some wanted to make the family Hispanic or Italian and cast a famous actress as the lead. Vardalos eventually found a production company that would let her tell her own story when she got a call from Tom Hanks. Vardalos in the lead role "brings a huge amount of integrity to the piece," Hanks has said. 

Fun fact: The Windex gag comes from her real-life father, also named Gus, who started relying on the product for his ailments after it accidentally cleared up a wart. 

2. Rita Wilson and Tom Hanks

Hanks discovered Vardalos when his wife, Rita Wilson, dragged him to a performance of her L.A. play. Wilson, who is half-Greek, loved the play and so did Hanks. Hanks called Vardalos (who has said she first hung up, thinking it was a prank) and their production company, Playtone, shopped the script before landing at HBO Films, who then gave IFC Films the rights for a theatrical release.

With their small marketing budget, IFC's strategy was aimed at word of mouth. They orchestrated cast appearances, packed their screenings and zoned in on the female audience and the Greek community. "We got lucky," Vardalos has said. "You can't manufacture word of mouth. You can't pay people to tell their 10 cousins."

Fun fact: Wilson and Hanks championed and produced both the original and the sequel, which Wilson appears in alongside onscreen husband John Stamos.

3. The rom-com void

In April 2002, the box office was seeing a lull in romantic comedies. Heading into and during the summer blockbuster season, the $5 million budget film was the romantic-comedy luring the female, family and older audiences and didn't see much genre competition until Sweet Home Alabama came along in September.

Reviews were initially mixed (The Hollywood Reporter's reviewer called it a "slight but agreeable comedy" that would make a "pleasant cable diversion"), but that didn't matter. "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," Vardalos said at the time. 

Fun fact: Another strategic play, the DVD came out one week before Valentine's Day.

4. Becoming a cultural phenomenon

Thanks to its growing audience, the film steadily increased its theaters through the spring and summer months until it got a wide release in August. By Labor Day, the movie was No. 2 at the box office and weeks later, it had grossed $100 million. CBS announced plans for a TV spinoff with Vardalos to air the following spring (My Big Fat Greek Life only ended up having a seven-episode run) and the film stayed in the box-office top 10 nearly through the end of the year. In 2003, Vardalos nabbed an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay (she ultimately lost), and the film didn't bow out of theaters until almost one full year after its debut.

Fun fact: The top-grossing film (it earned $241 million domestically) never hit No. 1 at the box office during its long run.

5. Building a legacy

Thanks to a near-year in theaters, the Big Fat family was able to build and sustain a strong-enough legacy that 14 years later, moviegoers will once again be screaming "Opa!" along with Toula (Vardalos) and the rest of the Portokalos family in movie theaters this weekend.

Known for redefining a genre away from mainstream, big studio flicks to indie rom-coms, the transformative film also enjoys staying power with a 76 "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes today. Again striving for authenticity, Vardalos says the long time gap between the original and the sequel is because she wanted to become a real mom before writing about it (the plot of My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2).

After struggling to have a child for years, she and Gomez adopted daughter Ilaria in 2008. "On my daughter's first day of kindergarten, I was crying so hard, another mother tried to comfort me with the thought of, 'What are you going to do when she goes off to college?'" she told THR. "That's the moment I had an idea for the sequel. I started writing that day and finished the script over four years."

This weekend, the sequel goes up against Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and is expected to debut in the mid-teens to $20 million range.

Fun Fact: The entire cast returns, a rarity given the 14-year gap.

Photo: Getty Images

Source: Box Office Mojo