Twenty years ago this week, a small, independent film with no movie stars premiered and went on to become the highest grossing romantic comedy of all time. Let’s look at the phenomenon that was 2002’s “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
Written by and starring Nia Vardalos, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” (MBFGW) is often inaccurately remembered as being based on Vardalos’s one-woman show of the same name. According to a recent article in The Ringer, the screenplay for the movie came first. Only no one would read it. So, Vardalos rented a 99-seat theatre in LA and performed the thing herself.
Vardalos began by papering the Greek Orthodox churches in the area to get some butts in the seats. But it wasn’t until she saved up $500 and paid for a one-time ad in the Los Angeles Times that her fortunes changed forever.
Rita Wilson, arguably the most successful and famous Greek actor in Hollywood at the time, saw the ad and went to the show. Wilson loved it so much that she made her husband, Tom Hanks, see Vardalos’s play and that’s how the script no one would read became a film.
MBFGW stars Vardalos, John Corbett, Lainie Kazan, and the late Michael Constantine in a story about a Greek-American woman falling in love with a non-Greek man and the culture shock that ensues, followed by a warm, welcoming resolution: “We’re all fruit.”
Directed by Joel Zwick and produced, in part, by Hank’s Playtone production company, “My Big Fat Geek Wedding” had a strategic release strategy. IFC Films, the film’s distributor, wanted to keep the number of screens small, forcing each screening to be packed, hoping to build word-of-mouth.
The plan worked perfectly. While the film never once won the box office on any week in 2002, by year’s end it had out-grossed enormous, star-studded blockbusters like “The Bourne Identity,” “Minority Report,” “Sweet Home Alabama,” and “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.” MBFGW made over $360 million, spawned a short-lived television series, a sequel, and countless Windex jokes.
So, whip up a little tzatziki, bake some spanakopita, and get ready to laugh with us as we look through the COVID lens at “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”
To help illustrate how the highest-grossing rom-com of all time would have been affected by COVID-19 safety protocols, we’ve broken things down into three parts:
- Family gatherings: foundational elements that present risks
- Hit it with some Windex: small tweaks to increase safety
- Embrace the moment: how a love story can maximize safety
Family Gatherings: Foundational Elements That Present Risks
Unlike other rom-coms, MBFGW doesn’t isolate its leads. This is a movie about family – a big, rowdy, loving family – that owns restaurants and loves to have dinner parties.
While it certainly is a rom-com, the story spends more time focused on the family dynamics than it does on the “rom” in the rom-com. That’s because this was a personal story for Vardalos. Many of the quirks, names, habits, and sayings in the film come from her real-life family.
The frequent presence of large family gatherings sets MBFGW apart from most other popular rom-coms. It also makes it risky from a COVID-19 safety perspective.
Three of the gatherings stand out to us as significantly large and therefore potentially more dangerous than the rest. Those three scenes are:
All three share the same major safety issues: too many people in tight spaces, with too little distance.
The only one of those three scenes that presents a modicum of improved safety is the scene where Ian’s parents meet Toula’s family. At least the beginning of that scene takes place outside on the front lawn.
Let’s look at how we could make these scenes a little bit safer.
Hit It with Some Windex: Small Tweaks to Increase Safety
The most obvious decision here would be to decrease the size of the cast. But as we have already said, the family is the heart of this movie. We can’t honestly recommend that the production limit the size of the family because that would diminish the story itself.
Instead, we would recommend that the production focus on the following, proven safety measures:
- Fresh Air: The more scenes we can set outside, the more pandemic-safe the production becomes. While this is certainly not an option for a Greek Orthodox wedding, it could work for the other two large scenes. Can the restaurant have a patio? Can the meeting of the two families remain outside? These questions can guide the production toward safer decisions.
- Distance: We would suggest to the creative team that we increase the distance between people in each of these scenes. A good starting point for social-distance-style safety would be to keep the core cast members distanced from the additional family members as often, and for as long, as possible.
- Guidelines: It goes without saying by now, but we would be sure to follow all the union guidelines for pandemic safety on set. Routine testing regimens, masks, and zones on set make a significant impact on filmset safety.
- Ventilation: If we can’t keep things outside, we would be sure to upgrade the ventilation in these locations.
- Vaccinations: We would encourage full vaccinations and boosters for those on set. While breakthrough cases can happen, vaccinations are still one of the best weapons we have against COVID-19.
- Schedule: We would recommend that the production schedule these three largest scenes last to minimize any potential shut-downs due to outbreaks on set.
The above steps help to increase safety, but we are still left with more risk that we would like. To truly maximize safety, we would encourage the production to embrace the moment.
Embrace the Moment: How a Love Story Can Maximize Safety
Rom-coms are, quite simply and obviously, the story of two people falling in love. When people fall in love, their story is inevitably tied to the time-period when they met.
People who fell in love in the late 1980’s have stories that likely involve cassette players and women in shoulder-padded suits like “Pretty Woman” or thick tubed televisions and tape-deck karaoke machines like “When Harry Met Sally…”
When people fell in love in the 1990s, their stories might have involved call-in radio shows, hand-written letters, and getting pulled away from a dinner because someone called the restaurant to talk to you like in “Sleepless in Seattle” or America Online, dial-up internet, and the arrival of big-box bookstores as in “You’ve Got Mail.”
All rom-coms are “dated” and this is part of their charm.
When we look at MBFGW we can’t help but notice the giant computer monitors, all the corded and outdated devices, the conspicuous lack of smartphones and social media, and a subplot – Toula taking a “Computers & Tourism” course and applying her new skills to help her aunt’s travel agency – that seems quaint now, and comically oblivious to the soon-to-arrive deluge of internet travel sites.
Far too much has changed in the last 20 years for a movie from 2002 to feel like anything but a time-capsule, dated to the year it was made. This is a feature, not a bug. If we had to film this movie today, during the pandemic, we would embrace the moment.
People who fell in love these last two years have stories that include a global pandemic. So, let’s incorporate COVID-19 into the world of the film and fully capture life in the world today, as it truly is.
We would still want to make sure that the focus of the story is the family dynamics and the love story. But we think that bringing the present-day concerns into the film-world would maximize safety.
If we brought COVID-19 into the story, even as a small background character, we could have masks, hand sanitizer, and many more real-world safety protocols in these scenes. This would allow for a dramatic increase in safety.
It would, we think, also tee-up some additional moments for humor. After all, the word pandemic comes from the Greek words pans (meaning “all, whole, or inclusive”) and dēmotikos (meaning “of or for the common people, in common use”). At the very least, COVID-19 could be one more thing for Toula’s father to spray with Windex.
“My Big Fat Greek Wedding” wouldn’t stand a chance today. If it was even greenlit – and that is probably a big “if” in a business more focused on foreign box office and less on domestic grosses than it was in 2002 – it would likely never see the inside of a movie theater. Today, films of this size go straight to streaming where they – if lucky – flash brightly in the pan for a week and are then buried under an avalanche of new content.
MBFGW is a time-capsule in so many ways. A film about dating before apps. A story that involves computer courses and travel agencies. A movie where no one has a smart phone, no one googles anything, or texts someone. A love story from a simpler time when a $5 million independent film with no stars could spend a year in movie theaters, slowly gaining word-of-mouth raves, and end up becoming the highest grossing rom-com ever made.
If we had to shoot this movie today, we would be sure to set more scenes outside, increase distancing, follow safety guidelines, improve ventilation, encourage vaccinations, and schedule the largest scenes for the end of the shoot. All of these steps would increase safety.
But to truly maximize safety, we would encourage the creative team to remember that rom-coms are stories about two people falling in love at a specific time in history, and they are all the better for being instantaneously dated. A 2022 edition of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” would need to incorporate the pandemic as a background character in order to be the most honest version of itself. COVID-19 in the story-world would allow us to take all the necessary pandemic precautions on-camera and this would make the set as safe as possible.
This, in the end, would only serve to deepen the themes of this story: that no matter the odds and the obstacles, love finds a way.
Join us next month as we celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the film widely considered to be the best superhero movie ever made, when we look through the COVID lens at 2002’s “Spider-Man.”
Epitome Risk is a Woman-Owned, Veteran-Run, U.S.-Based risk management company, specializing in risk management and COVID-19 safety support for tv & film productions. Epitome Risk works together with the film unions, insurers, studios, and production companies to make every project as safe as possible.
DISCLAIMER: This information should not be considered comprehensive and is not a substitute for hiring risk management professionals and personnel trained in COVID-19-specific procedures. Please consult with your insurance company, your investors, all applicable union reps, and health and safety professionals before starting production in a pandemic.