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My Big Fat Cash Cow

Last April, a movie with an unheralded cast was released with little fanfare in a few Northern markets and in Canada. Its "star" was an unknown, unglamorous middle-aged woman and its script had little fresh or surprising material. Critics mostly yawned and waved it off like a fly at a picnic.

Today My Big Fat Greek Wedding is barreling into its fifth month in the Triangle. It's become one of the year's biggest hits, grossing over $120 million nationwide. There's talk of a sequel and a television spin-off in the works.

It's an inspiring story, to be sure: despite critical indifference and the lack of a huge, carpet-bombing ad campaign, a simple, homely movie somehow managed to snuggle its way into America's heart.

It's also been a very profitable story for a couple of local art houses.

At Raleigh's Colony Theater, where the Wedding's been going on now for 17 weeks, the film is making more money than ever. "We're now doing three and four times the business we did the first, second and third weeks," reports John Munson, a business partner with Colony owner Bill Peebles. "The word of mouth really got out. The national media really embraced this film, and kept it alive," Munson says.

That embrace became a bear hug when Oprah Winfrey threw an on-air "big fat Greek party" last week for Nia Vardalos, the film's creator and star, and 42 of her Greek relatives. Now an Oprah-certified product, the ascension of My Big Fat Greek Wedding into the pantheon of American pop culture seems complete.

Thank the art houses for it. Wedding is just the latest in a series of little films nurtured in that circuit until they could find a foothold in the public consciousness. In recent years, Memento and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon benefited from a similarly extended incubation period before they found their wider audiences.

But unlike the Grandma-friendly Greek Wedding, those other films were actually cool. While the hipsters (and then everyone else) swooned over Memento and Crouching Tiger, art house operators and critics were--and still are--a lot less fond of Vardalos' film.

Off the record, one local theater operator put it bluntly: "I thought Wedding was dumb." After finally watching the film a couple of weeks ago, Munson, who co-owns the Rialto with Peebles, is a bit more diplomatic: "My sense of humor runs a little snarkier," he admits, "but I liked the fact that everybody in it looked like people you would run into on the street. You don't see that very often."

Other first takes were far less charitable. In June, The News & Observer's Todd Lothery called Wedding "a parade of caricatures and stereotypes that lacks sarcastic bite or satiric edge." At the end of his 800-word drubbing, though, Lothery presciently noted that "many members of the audienceŠwere practically choking on their popcorn with laughter."

And they have ever since--in ever increasing numbers--at Cary's Madstone, Durham's Southpoint and Wynnsong, and Raleigh's Grand Cinema, as well as the Colony. Madstone manager Barbara Kingsbury reports that ticket sales are still on the upswing.

But now that Wedding is regularly marching down the aisles of mainstream multiplexes, Raleigh cinephiles have been wondering when they'll get their venues and alternative films back.

Already there's an inadequate number of venues for worthy independent films in the Triangle. Raleigh has three art house screens. My Big Fat Greek Wedding has occupied one of them since the beginning of June. Since the multiplexes aren't inclined to take a chance, when a theater like the Colony holds on to the same film for four months, the backlog of indie films with no place to play increases.

However, running an art house is a precarious enterprise, and cash cows like Wedding are rare. When one comes along, owners are understandably inclined to milk it dry--even if it means other promising films get eclipsed. Munson notes the recently come-and-gone The Kid Stays in the Picture as one film that got shut out because of Wedding's longevity. In such cases "your capitalist side is warring with your artistic side," he says.

And the extra cash that Wedding generates can make a big difference in a business' comfort zone. "Now it's like, ŒHey, I can pay off that loan I took to keep this place running' or, ŒNow, I can get a new carpet,'" Munson says.

A year ago, Raleigh filmgoers would have had little choice but to drive down to Chapel Hill, which has six screens in three art houses and, consequently, a wider selection of movies. But thanks to the opening of Madstone Theater in Cary, alternatives are closer at hand. Madstone, too, has been ringing up phenomenal sales for Greek Wedding, but the complex boasts five other screens. Thanks to this new multiplex, Triangle filmgoers have been able to see films like Rain and The Believer, which played nowhere else locally.

Wedding may not be greatly loved among cinephiles, but it will be fondly remembered by those who saw and benefited from it first. "As much as you'd like to sugarcoat it," Munson says, "you're running a business. You pray for a movie like this."

DiamondDiamondDiamond

Submit. Now. Oct. 4 is the deadline for submissions to the Documentary Film and Video Happening, whose seventh edition convenes next month at Duke's Center for Documentary Studies. If a project's cooking, but you haven't applied yet, contact Dawn Dreyer for more info: dkdreyer@duke.edu.

Though it's not as splashy or star-studded as the Full Frame festival, the Happening focuses on North Carolina talent, with an emphasis on encouraging upstart documentarians.

That's not to say that it lacks celebrities: Last year's guest of honor was Les Blank, whose works, including the celebrated Burden of Dreams and lesser known films such as A Poem is a Naked Person, have made him a living legend in the cinematic underground. This fall's happening will honor Christine Choy, a New York-based filmmaker who has shot over 45 docs since 1972. Choy's most famous film is Who Killed Vincent Chin, a study of a racially-motivated crime.

Another promised highlight: the premiere of Durham filmmaker Cynthia Hill's Tobacco Money Feeds My Family, a study of several aging farmers and a vanishing way of life. More information's on the Web, at http://cds.aas.duke.edu.

DiamondDiamondDiamond

UNC's Sonja Haynes Stone Black Cultural Center continues its ongoing series of African diaspora films with a screening of two domestic shorts devoted to hip-hop culture Tuesday, Oct. 8. The first is Brin Hill's candidly-titled Morning Breath: A Brooklyn Love Story. This 17-minute work celebrates the spoken word, urban rhythms--and morning-after embarrassment. Also showing is Donavan Lambert and Attika Torrence's 43-minute featurette Brotherly Love, a comedy in which a man bails his street hustler brother out of a jam only to find himself in an even worse situation.

Showtime is 7 p.m. in UNC's Student Union film auditorium (not the Varsity on Franklin Street, as originally announced). Performance artist and actor SirmuMs, one of the subjects in Morning Breath, will open the evening with an hour of spoken word entertainment. After the movies, SirmuMs will participate with directors from both films in an audience question-and-answer session. For more information, call the Stone Center at 962-9001. EndBlock

Contact David Fellerath at fellerath@ind yweek.com or fax press releases to 530-8281.

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