The Biz: 'Wedding' gets big fat reception

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The surprise summer hit "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" was built with a grass-roots marketing program-quite literally. "We gave out Frisbees at picnics," says Paula Silver, president of Beyond the Box Productions and marketing consultant for the film's producer Playtone Pictures. "I went up to Seattle to a Greek dance festival to give out T-shirts."

Through such unconventional measures, the marketing minds behind the independent film began the buzz that eventually led to $124 million in box-office receipts. The strategy was to begin with private screenings and souvenirs doled out at Greek organizations, churches and dance festivals, and then widen the net using a broad range of marketing tools.

Some marketing executives claim the movie, which has a plotline that appeals particularly to women of all ethnic backgrounds, sold itself as word spread about the film. But a number of other key strategies-such as avoiding the usual film-festival/art-house channels for independent films-made it feel like a bigger Hollywood release, according to Ms. Silver. Now, "Wedding," a tale about a young Greek woman falling in love with a non-Greek while she struggles to get her family to accept him, is on track to blast past Artisan Entertainment's "The Blair Witch Project," another film with limited media support that generated $140 million in U.S. box-office revenue.

That's quite a feat for a film that opened in April and cost only $5 million to produce. Later in summer, it was up against Sony Pictures' Entertainment's "Spider-Man" and New Line Cinema's "Austin Powers in Goldmember." Its initial marketing budget was $1.2 million-including $400,000 for print and $300,000 for local cable TV spots-a fraction of the $20 million to $40 million a major studio spends on a wide-release movie.

The strategy hinged on building buzz among those who aren't film aficionados. "I thought it could be commercial for people who weren't avid moviegoers as well as avid moviegoers," says Silver.

"Wedding" broke the tradition of most independent films by signing up marketing partners, normally the province of larger releases-albeit on a smaller scale. "Wedding" tied in with retailers Bed, Bath & Beyond and Things Remembered for point-of-purchase displays and a sweepstakes. In addition, Conde Nast Publication's Bride's ran a sweepstakes .

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Additionally, Silver sent around the film's stars to many small markets, like Kansas City, Mo. Most major studios prefer to run "junkets" where actors sit in a hotel in either Los Angeles or New York and give out-of-town reporters interviews. "We were so cheap I did the flowers for the junket," says Silver.

That's since changed. Buoyed by its success, the filmmakers behind "Wedding" have added some $19 million in media advertising support.

Ms. Silver emphasized the marketing work was a team effort, led by Gary Goetzman, president of Playtone Pictures, and Paul Brooks, president of Gold Circle Films, a major financial backer along with HBO. Publicity companies GS Entertainment, Wolf & Kasteler and PMK were also heavily involved. IFC Films, a division of IFC Entertainment, distributed the movie.

Other factors also made the film work. Its spring-summer schedule helped because "there wasn't a good chick flick out there this year," says Mark Workman, president of First Fireworks Group, an Los Angeles entertainment marketing consultant. "Every seat is being filled."

"Wedding" started in eight cities and 104 screens, gradually growing to more than 1,800 screens. For some 23 weeks now, "Wedding" has had a high per-screen revenue average.

Despite the groundswell, some critics believe marketing had little to do with the film's success. Instead, like all good marriages, compatibility and chemistry played a role. "This movie is 100% film-driven; it isn't marketing driven," says one film-marketing veteran. "The marketing people did everything right, but the film did all the heavy lifting."

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