How did My Big Fat Greek Wedding make so much money?

Last year, Avengers: Endgame made a huge splash when it finally broke Avatar’s 10-year reign as the highest grossing film of all time. But one record has held even longer. For the past 18 years, My Big Fat Greek Wedding has topped the domestic box office charts as the highest grossing romantic comedy ever made. It earned $241.4 million in North American markets, a higher domestic total than Justice League, Mission: Impossible—Fallout, or the latest Fast & Furious movie. That’s all the more impressive considering My Big Fat Greek Wedding was a small independent film with no big-name stars made for $5 million and put out in limited release in April. In fact, the original plan had been to skip a theatrical release all together and just release it as a TV movie on HBO.

Yet in 2002, My Big Fat Greek Wedding became the kind of sleeper hit that creators and studios only dream about. It never actually reached the number one spot at the box office, but it hung around theaters for almost a year, eventually delivering a 6150% return on its investment and a worldwide box office total of $368.7 million. A couple other rom-coms have earned more worldwide, including Pretty Womanwhich still holds the distinction of being the rom-com with the most tickets sold domestically. But by pretty much any metric, My Big Fat Greek Wedding was an astronomical success.

And even the film’s most ardent fans might find that a little baffling. My Big Fat Greek Wedding is a perfectly affable family-themed romance written by and starring Second City alum Nia Vardalos, but it hardly seems like the kind of film to break box office stats and remain a record-holder for nearly two decades. (And it’s not even close—My Big Fat Greek Wedding is nearly $60 million ahead of its next closest competitor, the Mel Gibson-led studio comedy What Women Want.) So how did it become the little movie that could?

One unexpected factor is Rita Wilson. My Big Fat Greek Wedding started life as a one-woman play about Vardalos’ experience growing up in a big Greek family in Winnipeg, Canada and marrying her non-Greek then-husband, actor Ian Gomez (who has a small role in the film version). Wilson is Greek herself and related to Vardalos’ childhood anecdotes. Her husband, Tom Hanks, related to the story of an overwhelmed man marrying into a big Greek family. Wilson and Hanks offered to produce a film version under his Playtone production company. And while other interested studios wanted to get a bankable star or change the ethnicity of the family to something less niche, Hanks and Wilson were committed to bringing Vardalos’ original vision to life with her in the leading role.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding pulls heavily from the Moonstruck template with a touch of While You Were Sleeping and a cheery broadness courtesy of long-time TV director Joel Zwick. Vardalos stars as Fotoula “Toula” Portokalos, a mousy, unmotivated 30-year-old who’s yet to fulfill her overbearing family’s command that she marry a nice Greek boy and have lots of babies. She whiles away her days working at her family’s Chicago restaurant until she finally decides to claim a little independence by enrolling in a computer class at a local community college. That first step outside the smothering family bubble builds her confidence and inspires a self-given makeover. She soon catches the eye of Ian Miller (John Corbett), a soft-spoken high school teacher who likes her so much he’s more than willing to dive into her big Greek world, even if he doesn’t quite understand it.

Riding high off his turn as Aidan in Sex And The City, Corbett was offered the leading man role on the spot when Vardalos and producer Gary Goetzman happened to overhear him in a Toronto bar discussing how much he wanted to audition for this great Greek script he just read. One really lovely thing about My Big Fat Greek Wedding is that because the comedy and drama mostly stem from the over-the-top family dynamics, Toula and Ian are able to have a charmingly low-key love story. They go on dates, they make out, they somewhat casually get engaged while lying in the bed. There’s some tension when it comes to meeting each other’s families, but it never feels like a real threat to their relationship. When Toula’s patriarchal father Costas a.k.a. “Gus” (Michael Constantine) forbids Ian from dating his daughter, Ian takes the news calmly and then tells Toula he’ll see her tomorrow. For as goofy as My Big Fat Greek Wedding gets, the Toula/Ian love story looks more like a healthy grown-up relationship than what a lot of romantic comedies offer.

But the kookiness of Toula’s family is definitely the movie’s big selling point. Though My Big Fat Greek Wedding might not have stars, it’s packed full of memorable supporting players, ranging from Tony Award-winning SCTV alum Andrea Martin as oversharing Aunt Voula to NSYNC’s Joey Fatone as boisterous Cousin Angelo. Vardalos took inspiration from her real-life family and friends but turned their personalities “up to 20.” (The Portokalos’ Parthenon-inspired home really does exist, however, and was only slightly gaudied up for the film.) Gus is probably the most memorable supporting player, thanks to his obsession with finding a Greek origin for every word and his belief in Windex as a magical cure-all. Yet it’s Toula’s mom Maria (Lainie Kazan) who best embodies the mix of comedy and heart that defines the Greek characters, who nimbly shift back and forth between broad sitcom caricatures and more grounded family pathos.

The single biggest key to My Big Fat Greek Wedding’s appeal is its sharp observation that when it comes down to it, there are basically only two kinds of families in the world—those with two first cousins and those with 27. So even though the movie digs into the specifics of the Greek immigrant experience, it’s relatable to a whole bunch of different cultures. (In real life, Martin is Armenian, Fatone is Italian, and Kazan is Jewish.) And if you don’t see your own family reflected in the big, boisterous, food-obsessed Portokalos brood, you get to gawk at that eccentric world while relating to the lighthearted satirical jabs at Ian’s uptight, bundt-cake-loving WASP parents. There’s something for everyone in a lighthearted cross-cultural comedy where everybody gets teased in equal measure and everything works out okay in the end.

Toula herself is a winning avatar for the broad spectrum of women who might self-describe their childhood self as “a swarthy 6-year-old with sideburns.” On the other hand, My Big Fat Greek Wedding is also a movie about otherness in which everyone is white. That probably didn’t hurt the broad commercial appeal of its cultural specificity. Nor did its PG rating. Particularly in a year where other PG family films skewed action-oriented—like Attack Of The Clones and Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets—My Big Fat Greek Wedding was an option you could truly bring the whole family to, from pre-teens to grandmas. As Vardalos put it at the time, “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.”

Yet Vardalos also admitted, “We got lucky. You can’t manufacture word of mouth. You can’t pay people to tell their 10 cousins.” Although My Big Fat Greek Wedding was warmly but not exactly glowingly received by critics, word of mouth kept the film alive for its phenomenal run, at least until that run became a story unto itself. My Big Fat Greek Wedding enjoyed its largest weekend box-office haul (about $11 million) four months after it opened, which is basically unheard of. The film rode its wave of success all the way to an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay for Vardalos.

It’s a phenomenon Hollywood could never replicate again, although not for lack of trying. A CBS sitcom adaptation called My Big Fat Greek Life starred most of the original cast and enjoyed a splashy debut, but swiftly declined in ratings and was cancelled after seven episodes. Vardalos failed to find success revisiting the Greek-heritage theme in My Life In Ruins or reteaming with Corbett for I Hate Valentine’s Day, which she also wrote and directed. In 2016, My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 amiably revisited the greatest hits from the original, yet enjoyed nowhere near the same box office returns.

Rewatching My Big Fat Greek Wedding today, it neither feels like an overrated fluke nor an underrated masterpiece. It’s a charming crowdpleaser that hits a mark that’s ultimately not all that high. Still, in a genre that so often positions proposals and weddings as the be-all-end-all of romance, it’s refreshing that My Big Fat Greek Wedding has its two leads take a more relaxed approach to their titular event. One of the sweetest scenes comes near the end of the film, as Ian and Toula spend the limo ride from their church service to their reception laughing at the over-the-top bridal styling her aunts have forced on her. The newlyweds already understand that comprise is a part of life and marriage isn’t defined by one single day. My Big Fat Greek Wedding may not break the feel-good romance mold, but when it comes to rom-com chart toppers, you could certainly do far, far worse.

Next time: Doris Day and Rock Hudson became an iconic duo in just three films.

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