On the long list of movies that don’t get made anymore, the romantic comedy is typically at the top. In technical terms, this isn’t strictly true; as the mid-budget film has been driven out of the multiplex to free space for blockbusters and IP, it’s found a foothold on streaming services eager for couch-friendly content. The Netflix rom-com is practically a category unto itself, delivering standbys like Set It Up, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, and Always Be My Maybe. This past Valentine’s Day, viewers had their pick between I Want You Back, on Amazon Prime Video, and Marry Me, the Jennifer Lopez vehicle that paired its theatrical run with a day-and-date release on Peacock.
But even as the romantic comedy survives, it’s dwindled from its peak. That heyday is typically associated with established celebrities like Julia Roberts or Sandra Bullock and the star vehicles built on their proven appeal. (Today, Bullock’s The Lost City is a charming throwback; in 1998, it’d be just another week at the box office.) Yet the most financially successful rom-com of all time—the film that draws the greatest contrast between the genre’s past as a cultural juggernaut and its present as a sweet diversion—didn’t have a single star in its cast. It wasn’t produced by a major studio. It never even hit no. 1 at the box office, despite spending five months playing in wide release. At the time, the stupendous success of My Big Fat Greek Wedding was extraordinary. Today, it’s practically unthinkable.
Written by and starring then-unknown actress Nia Vardalos, My Big Fat Greek Wedding isn’t structured like a typical rom-com, in part because it wasn’t conceived as one. The plot may hinge on the nuptials between Toula (Vardalos), a Greek American waitress, and Ian (John Corbett), the mild-mannered teacher she meets at work. But the relationship that truly drives the story is between Toula and her loud, overbearing, tightly knit family. Throughout the movie, Ian and Toula stay on largely solid ground. It’s Toula’s ambivalence toward her relatives that changes, helped along by a few squirts of Windex.
“The story was to be told through Ian and Toula’s eyes, but it was about the family—the smothering, ever-suffocating, loving family,” Vardalos tells The Ringer. Because the conflict was largely internal, she felt free to cut down on more conventional, external sources of strife. “I wanted very, very much to not follow the standard romantic comedy formula of ‘he cheats on the girl and wins her back,’” she explains. “I didn’t want them to break up, because the only villain in the screenplay was the world against Ian and Toula.”
Structural quirks aside, My Big Fat Greek Wedding nonetheless became the high-water mark for the romantic comedy as a commercial force, eventually grossing more than $350 million worldwide on a $5 million budget. The film’s triumph wasn’t entirely commercial; Vardalos received an Academy Award nomination for the screenplay alongside such luminaries as Todd Haynes, Alfonso Cuarón, and eventual winner Pedro Almodóvar. Greek Wedding would ultimately yield a short-lived sitcom on CBS, which fizzled after just seven episodes, and a sequel in 2016, to modest success. (The premiere was sponsored by Windex.) The extended afterlife wasn’t what anyone anticipated when My Big Fat Greek Wedding first hit theaters, 20 years ago today.
“I never, in a million years, thought the movie was going to do what it did,” says Jonathan Sehring, the former president of Greek Wedding distributor IFC Films. And in 2022, it probably wouldn’t. My Big Fat Greek Wedding is, in some ways, a timeless story about culture clash and immigrant solidarity. Its unlikely breakout as a bona fide phenomenon is also the product of a bygone era, one where word of mouth and the luxury of time could help a small, charming comedy beat out The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers to become America’s fifth highest-grossing film of 2002. It’s a fairy tale romance that became a fairy tale in itself.
Most accounts of My Big Fat Greek Wedding start with the one-woman show of the same name Vardalos staged in Los Angeles. But that origin story reverses the true order of events. The script for My Big Fat Greek Wedding isn’t based on the stage show; the show itself was adapted from a script Vardalos wrote after she was fired by her then-agent. “She said, ‘I’ve been sending you out like crazy. But the problem is—what are you, anyway?’ And I said, ‘I’m Greek,’” Vardalos recalls. “She said, ‘Well, that’s the problem. You’re not a visible minority … and there aren’t any Greek roles.’”
At the time, Vardalos—a Canadian expat who’d spent time performing with Chicago’s Second City—had been scraping by on voice-over work and occasional bit parts on shows like Boy Meets World and Curb Your Enthusiasm. In the absence of explicitly Greek stories, Vardalos strung together some of her own, borrowing a friend’s computer with Final Draft pre-installed and channeling the anecdotes she’d been telling at parties for years. Some of the details were changed: Two sisters were consolidated into one; the fictional family ran a restaurant; the setting switched from Winnipeg to Chicago. But some of the most memorable details from the movie are entirely true to life. It’s hard to make up a story as vivid as Aunt Voula’s lump that turned out to be her twin, though comic legend Andrea Martin puts her own stamp on the delivery.
Once Vardalos had the screenplay, she had to convince Hollywood’s gatekeepers it was worth producing. (Her manager at the time took three months to even read the script, Vardalos says.) It’s here where the one-woman show comes in. Vardalos rented out a 99-seat theater, hired a stage manager she knew from her Second City days, and promoted the show by handing out flyers at local Greek Orthodox churches. Looking to expand the audience, she scraped together $500 for a one-time-only ad in the Los Angeles Times. It happened to find exactly the right audience.
Rita Wilson, the actress and singer, is one of the most notable Greek Americans to break out in the entertainment industry. She’s also married to Tom Hanks, who had recently started his production outfit Playtone—named for the fictional record label in That Thing You Do!—with Gary Goetzman, the former child star who partly inspired the character Gary Valentine in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza. Wilson had recently caught some live theater in New York and was curious about the offerings on the West Coast. Then she spotted an ad in the L.A. Times that seemed right up her alley.
Based on Wilson’s raves, Hanks and Goetzman went to see Vardalos’s work for themselves and jumped at the chance to expand Playtone’s film slate beyond Hanks’s own starring roles. (The company’s first credited feature was 2000’s Cast Away.) Vardalos had other suitors prior to Playtone, but most wanted her to relinquish the lead role and change the characters to fit into a more recognizable immigrant community, like making the Portokalos clan a Hispanic family. “I was like, ‘Listen … J.Lo would be amazing. I will write something else for her. However, this is a Greek family,’” Vardalos recalls. Only Playtone had no problem with Vardalos channeling her firsthand experience—or casting herself as Toula.
“I never thought, ‘Oh, my God, they’re going to replace me with Julia Roberts’ in that meeting,” Vardalos says of her first formal sit-down with the Playtone crew. “But for every second outside that meeting, that’s what I thought.” Vardalos’s contract had a standard provision that said she could be replaced within the first three days of filming in case of gross incompetence. On day four, she shot a scene when Toula cries while trying to convince her father to let her go to night school downtown. Freshly secure in her dream job, Vardalos shed real tears.
At the time, Hanks had a years-long relationship with the premium cable channel HBO, collaborating on acclaimed miniseries like Band of Brothers and From the Earth to the Moon, the 1998 space drama that Hanks led as a producer and director. To secure financing, Hanks and Goetzman turned to the actor’s serial patron. HBO wouldn’t typically contribute to movies it wasn’t airing itself. (“We didn’t do that shit,” executive Chris Albrecht memorably told journalist James Andrew Miller for Miller’s oral history of the network.) But Hanks was a special enough case for HBO to make an exception, ultimately underwriting about half of My Big Fat Greek Wedding’s budget.
Playtone’s other major producing partner would be Gold Circle Films, whose president Paul Brooks still calls Vardalos’s screenplay “one of the best scripts I’ve ever read.” IFC’s Sehring credits Brooks with pushing for My Big Fat Greek Wedding as a true theatrical experience, though Brooks says now it was a no-brainer: “We viewed it as a film that if we got lucky with it, could just reach families everywhere,” he says. As niche as a comedy hinged on Greek American in-jokes may seem, plenty of viewers can relate to the idea of an overbearing parent or the awkwardness of assimilation. “We thought it was just so relatable. Everybody, no matter where they come from, no matter what part of the world, sees themselves, and their families, in this movie.” My Big Fat Greek Wedding even opens with a textbook “lunch box moment,” a trope now so established it’s inspired entire critical essays. Just swap in moussaka for the traditional food of your choice.
“The joke is that Nia wrote My Big Fat Greek Wedding and I directed Fiddler on the Roof,” says director Joel Zwick. “Because that’s how I perceived it. I saw my family.” Zwick had largely worked in television prior to Greek Wedding, including the sitcom Bosom Buddies, Hanks’s breakout role opposite the late Peter Scolari. When Hanks sent him the script, Zwick found himself nodding along. “Even though it was about Greeks, it wasn’t very far from the Jewish people,” Zwick recalls. “I mean, my father didn’t do Windex, but [he] had this insane thing that everybody who was famous was Jewish”—just like Toula’s dad insists every word, including “kimono,” comes from Greek. By being specific, My Big Fat Greek Wedding ended up universal.
It’s one thing to make a good movie, and quite another to get people to see it. Were My Big Fat Greek Wedding made today, it’s easy to imagine it topping Netflix’s Top 10 for a week before the content churn gives way to some new flash in the pan. It’s less easy to see how it could go toe-to-toe with Star Wars or the MCU—though as it turns out, part of the distribution strategy was making sure the movie didn’t directly compete with behemoths like the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man, which premiered just weeks after Greek Wedding first hit theaters.
The first time Bob Berney saw My Big Fat Greek Wedding, he watched a woman literally fall out of her seat laughing and break her hip. The screening had to pause so she could get medical attention, but IFC’s then–head of distribution had seen enough. “We decided to start small and try to recreate that full house atmosphere in every way we could,” Berney says now. Most comedies may not feature explosions or stunts, but they can benefit just as much from the theatrical experience as any blockbuster—not that you’d know that from how few get brick-and-mortar releases these days.
At first, My Big Fat Greek Wedding was marketed like a supersized version of the one-woman show, with screenings held at Greek Orthodox churches and booths rented at Greek cultural fairs. The limited release focused on cities like Chicago with major Greek populations, and expanded gradually, to make sure showings were packed enough to achieve the communal, contagious laughter that first sold Berney on the project (minus the personal injury, of course). Most importantly, Playtone, Gold Circle, and IFC never let the movie get too big, keeping theaters packed and the scale modest. My Big Fat Greek Wedding eventually did big-budget numbers, but it was never truly competing for screens with epic studio fare.
“We all together made a conscious decision to keep it special, keep it limited, keep it sold out,” Berney explains. “Like, let’s not cave to the pressure of the exhibitors, or even ourselves, to get ahead of the skis just because it’s doing well. We always felt like if we expanded, it may have done well, but it could have just easily fallen off before it became so widely known.” My Big Fat Greek Wedding stayed on around 1,000 screens—not 1,500, or 2,000, or 3,000—for most of its run, which Berney considers crucial to its success. (By comparison, Warner Bros.’ latest franchise tentpole Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore just opened at more than 4,000 theaters nationwide.) The scarcity strategy worked; at one point, Sehring recalls, a staffer had to record a voicemail message for frantic theater owners explaining that IFC had no more prints on hand and to call back the next week.
As a result, Greek Wedding didn’t explode and fade away. It kept going, and going, and going, past anyone’s expectations for how long the frenzy would last. “On July 4 weekend, it crossed $20 million, and I was like, ‘We’re done. Okay, that’s it.’” Vardalos says. Sehring assumed the cutoff would be when the film was sold to the airlines, when the domestic box office total was already at a stupendous $100 million. Who would go see a movie in a theater when you could watch it at 10,000 feet? But Greek Wedding was still less than halfway to its eventual haul. At first, the audience skewed older, a demographic that isn’t prioritized by today’s young-oriented event movies. Only gradually did Greek Wedding break into the zeitgeist—though once it did, it stayed there for months.
Everyone involved with the film had a different “aha” moment when they realized how big the craze had gotten, or would become. For Vardalos, it was when Eugene Levy—Martin’s former costar from SCTV—gave her a co-sign after a preview at Montréal’s Just for Laughs. For Berney, it was when actor Michael Constantine, who died last year, threw the opening pitch at a Mets game and unveiled a bottle of Windex to thunderous applause. For Sehring, it was when he saw the movie on a plane and could feel the cabin physically shaking with laughter. Regardless of when it sunk in, the sheer scope still surprises, as does the longevity. During the pandemic lockdowns, Berney caught a drive-in screening on the roof of a parking garage. The jokes still landed, even in a car.
Sehring understands why most producers wouldn’t gamble on a theatrical release for a movie like Greek Wedding today, considering the viable alternatives. “If you’re a producer and somebody is covering your costs plus 20 percent, plus 50 percent—hey, that’s better odds than saying, ‘I’m going to take this movie out theatrically,’” he acknowledges. “That’s why the streaming model looks so attractive.” But he’s still a believer in the theatrical experience, which is why he recently helped work on the rollout of Drive My Car. Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s three-hour drama is a very different movie from My Big Fat Greek Wedding, but both help challenge the idea of what a rewarding theater experience can be.
Berney, who currently runs the entertainment company Picturehouse after a stint at Amazon, doubts the current landscape could support a slow burn like Greek Wedding’s. “Even with the traditional theatrical windows, it’s become blockbuster after blockbuster after blockbuster,” he says. “If anything, movies are just going to come in and out quicker than ever as the windows shorten and movies go to either [video on demand] or streaming faster than they ever did.” Companies with their own in-house streaming services to promote, like Disney and WarnerMedia, seized on the pandemic to shorten the window between a movie’s premiere and when it’s available at home. (After controversial, audacious experiments like WarnerMedia releasing its entire 2021 slate day-and-date on HBO Max, standard practice seems to be settling around 45 days, just half of the once-conventional 90-day window.) Meanwhile, what does get released in theaters is increasingly judged on its first weekend or two of returns, an instant gratification that’s the opposite of what made Greek Wedding such a smash.
Regardless of whether there will be more hits like My Big Fat Greek Wedding to come, the original still endures. Vardalos is well aware it’s still her calling card, even as she’s moved onto other projects. She’s currently working on a comedy serial for Audible about motivational speakers in Rochester, New York, though she still hopes to round Greek Wedding out into a trilogy. “I know a lot of people say, ‘I’m not that person,’ or ‘I want to do other things,’” Vardalos says. “But I am that person. I am Toula. I’m totally okay with it.” It’s a cliché to urge your audience to be themselves. But like all the best rom-coms, My Big Fat Greek Wedding embraces clichés fiercely enough to give them new life.
An earlier version of this piece misstated who recorded a voicemail message for theater owners to explain that IFC had no more prints of My Big Fat Greek Wedding; it wasn’t Bob Berney, but rather another employee.