Underdog movies come out on top

Genevieve Leon

When you synthesize the traits of a symbiotic, business-consumer mind, you can narrow it down to one simple question: Is bigger, in fact, better? We’re making room for bigger cars, bigger value meals and bigger movies. In this competitive, industry-run arena, can the independent film industry catch its breath and get ready to run with the big dogs? The answer: Yes – after this summer, we will never again poke fun at the little man.

The summer of 2002 rolled out the red carpet for such anticipated hotshot flicks including “Signs,” “Men in Black II,” “Swimfan” and the relentless takeover of another “Austin Powers: Goldmember.”

What the big, bad industry was not ready for happened to be the “Cinderella” metamorphosis of the small-budget film “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” Exalting the tried and true theme of “love conquers all,” the film is a romantic comedy that uses the protagonist’s savagely proud Greek family as the source of its humor. In the first dialogue exchanged between Toula (protagonist) and father Gus, she sums up the innate expectations set forth for her by her protective family: “Marry Greek boys, make Greek babies and feed everyone till the day we die.” As a 30-year-old, obedient yet intelligent daughter, Toula works as a self-proclaimed “seating hostess” at her family-run restaurant, Dancing Zorba’s.

The struggle Toula endures with finding her identity and accepting her culture is only heightened by her overbearing mother who is constantly feeding every member of the massive extended family and a Windex-toting father, who believes that by spraying Windex on it, any ailment can be cured. Being the “failure” in her Greek family, Tula is not like other Greek women who have fulfilled their three motives in life … yet. She is love-struck when meeting a certain long-haired and hopeless romantic named Ian Miller at Dancing Zorba’s one prophetic morning. Toula meets a nice boy; the boy likes her back … so, what’s the problem? He’s a non-Greek vegetarian.

It only gets better from here as the two become engaged and the devoutly Greek Portokalos family meets the “waspy,” country-club Miller family.

This real-life charmer was written first hand by Greek-American actress Nia Vardalos, who sought to write a screenplay based on her own family experiences growing up in Winnipeg. Inspired by the market for a movie exposing Greek culture, and the limited number of aspiring roles for a Greek-American actress, Vardalos rejected her agent’s suggestion of marketing herself as a falsely-named Puerto Rican and stuck by her roots.

The script was turned into a play, and Vardalos’ instincts won her the attention of Rita Wilson (who is of Greek descent) who saw the play performed. Wilson was so impressed with the story’s potential that she convinced her husband (Tom Hanks) to produce Vardalos’ play into a film.

The movie began as a small, $5 million production opening on 108 screens in April and brought in approximately $600,000 for the first weekend, officially declaring it as the sleeping giant of the summer. Word of mouth spread around so quickly that by the end of the summer it was showing on more than 1,000 screens (and still rising) continuing to gross more than $100 million.

Paul Dergarabedian of box office tracking firm Exhibitor Relations Co., says he is shocked by the might of this independent film: “I’ve never seen anything quite like this. This is the most competitive summer ever. [‘Greek Wedding’ is] holding its own against all the big films out there.” Vardalos’ screenplay reached No. 1 in the rankings above all the hyped-films on the big screen.

Apparently there is something to be said for all the underdogs out there: bigger is not better! Are we retreating back to less glitz, more heart? Perhaps, but for now all we know is that America loves the underdog.