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'Wedding' Party Leaves Some Behind

Nia Vardalos' Cinderella rise in Hollywood has generated big box office -- and tales of betrayal.

March 23, 2003|Claudia Eller and Lorenza Munoz | Times Staff Writers

Millions have been charmed by the tale of Nia Vardalos, the Canadian comic who turned her quirky family life into the runaway hit movie "My Big Fat Greek Wedding."

But scratch the surface of Hollywood's latest Cinderella story and it looks more like a Big Fat Greek Mess.

Various associates who were among the first to see potential in Vardalos' project are sore about being elbowed aside after some of the industry's biggest players took the promising actress-writer under wing.

They include the picture's top distribution executive, its marketing consultant, a veteran publicist, the principals of a small production outfit and a former manager who is suing Vardalos, claiming unpaid commissions.

In Hollywood, where egos are particularly brittle, huge success often leaves those who lent a hand believing that they are owed recognition or money, deserved or not, for their contributions. In the case of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," the hurt has cut especially deep because of the film's surprising $350-mil- lion worldwide box-office dowry. With so much fame and money at stake, no one wants to be left at the altar.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday March 27, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
"Greek Wedding" -- A photo caption accompanying an article about the hit film "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" in Sunday's Business section misidentified the man appearing with actress-writer Nia Vardalos and her husband, Ian Gomez. He is executive producer Steven Shareshian, not producer Gary Goetzman.

"With anything that gets this big, everyone wants to take credit for it," said one of the aggrieved, Bob Berney, the film's top distribution executive. "It is completely understandable ... because, after all, this is Hollywood. But it got really bad."

For Vardalos, 40, the behind-the-scenes discontent has tested her humor and public relations skills. She declined to comment for this story, but Vardalos' publicist had this to say on her behalf: "Nia's always tried to be fair in all of her dealings and is very grateful to everyone who's contributed to her success."

Only a year ago, Vardalos was a virtual unknown, a struggling comedian who had been performing a one-woman show of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" in small theaters around Hollywood. Her roots were as a member of the comedy troupe Second City, a six-year engagement she says she landed after standing in for a no-show performer one night. At the time, Vardalos was selling tickets in the box office.

After Vardalos arrived in Los Angeles in 1995, she survived mainly by doing commercial voice-overs by day while perfecting her stage show at night. She drew her material from the antics of her eccentric, overbearing Greek family and its relationship with her Puerto Rican husband. As the one-woman show evolved, he was turned into a white professor, providing more laughs and conflict with the family as he courted Vardalos before their big wedding.

Since the movie's premiere in April, Vardalos has come a long way from those small beginnings.

This evening she is in the running for moviedom's ultimate accolade, an Oscar, in the best original screenplay category. She also has her own sitcom, "My Big Fat Greek Life," for Viacom Inc.'s CBS network.

The comic has assembled an A-list team of handlers. Chief among them are star Tom Hanks and his actress-wife Rita Wilson, whose Playtone Pictures was the film's lead producer. Her career is being guided by Brillstein-Grey Management and United Talent Agency. One of her lawyers is Martin Singer, an aggressive litigator whose clients have included Bruce Willis, Mike Myers and Sylvester Stallone.

Pushed Into the Wings

As Hollywood's new darling steps to the top, however, some of her early allies are wondering what hit them.

"It was a great big happy family ... in the beginning," said Paula Silver, a veteran marketing consultant who helped sell "Greek Wedding" -- until she was bumped by Playtone.

Silver is credited with helping create the grass-roots marketing campaign that steadily pushed "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" into the record books as the most profitable independent film ever.

Silver, a former marketing chief at Columbia Pictures, started the campaign by drumming up enthusiasm in Greek communities throughout the country. She held private screenings at churches, picnics and dance festivals, handing out everything from T-shirts to Frisbees. She worked out a deal with the manufacturer of Windex -- a product with a featured role in the film -- to donate money to a Greek foundation in Chicago, where the movie is set.

As momentum gained, the media took note of Silver and the marketing strategy. And that did not sit well with Playtone, which wanted the spotlight sharply focused on the star of the film, not the ad campaign. Soon, Silver found herself out of the loop.

"I cared that Nia Vardalos and her story were the most important things," said Hanks' producing partner, Gary Goetzman. "When something is successful, maybe people expect us to keep calling them and petting them. So maybe we didn't show enough love."

Silver, who associates say feels betrayed, declined to comment about her treatment.

Others involved in the film's launch and expansion believe they also were pushed into the wings.

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