Greek Out

Distributors still don't honeymoon with small romantic comedies

Jun 11, 2003 at 4:00 am
You need not leave the house to know what's playing in movie theaters in coming weeks. You've already seen these films, with titles consisting of letters followed by numbers. There's no surprise in the dark, just the bumping into of familiar faces, legally blond or largely green, and furious franchises going full throttle till the next Movie Event of the Summer arrives to terminate another box-office record. As it turns out, the feel-good movie of these warm-weather months is a documentary, Capturing the Friedmans, about a would-be pedophile and his accused accomplice, his youngest son--feel-good, because you feel good it got made and wound up with distribution that allowed such a small movie to be found among so many computer-generated giants trouncing the monstroplex till August.

But do not tell Tony Shalhoub, Vanessa Middleton and Brooke Adams and sister Lynne Adams there's no room at the inn for their small romantic comedies, which slowly begin making the rounds this summer after lingering on shelves for more than a year without distribution. These filmmakers, including one well known as an award-winning actor (Shalhoub) and another who was a network-TV series producer in her 20s (Middleton, former writer for Cosby), are barging into the multiplexes without big-studio approval--party-crashers, tired of begging for an invitation.

They don't want to hear how there's no audience for their movies. Bullshit, they'll say. There are plenty of adults out there who want to see people on screen who look like them, talk like them, feel like them--people who aren't trying to save the world, just their own little worlds. They've seen My Big Fat Greek Wedding's box-office receipts. They've heard about how no one wanted the movie that became the highest-grossing independent film of all time (made for $5 million, made $350 million worldwide). Enough already. If a stranger will not show them love or give them money, they will manufacture their own good fortune--even if it breaks them or breaks them in half.

"Distribution companies are stupid," says Brooke Adams, the actress whose filmography includes such movies as David Cronenberg's The Dead Zone and Philip Kaufman's Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake.

"Oh, yeah--that'll ingratiate us to them," says Shalhoub, co-star of such films as Big Night, Galaxy Quest and The Siege and a leading-actor Golden Globe-winner for his starring role in TV's Monk. "Let's print that."

On a hot Sunday morning in June, Shalhoub sits in a Dallas hotel restaurant eating his omelette. To his left sits wife Brooke; to his right sits Brooke's sister Lynne, an award-winning playwright still best known to a certain audience for her portrayal of Leslie Bauer on Guiding Light. Lynne has been in Dallas for two weeks, preparing for the opening of a film she wrote and co-stars in, Made-Up, which also features Brooke and Shalhoub, who makes his directorial debut. Made-Up. Despite having no distributor, the film opened May 30 at the Angelika Film Center, its first booking outside the film-festival loop--all because Lynne Adams refuses to give up on the movie.

The warm, charming Made-Up, originally a one-woman play written by Lynne and directed by Brooke, tells the story of a former actress (Brooke) coping with fading good looks, a superficial daughter (Eva Amurri, daughter of Susan Sarandon) who wants to make over her mother so she can win back her ex-husband (Gary Sinise), a sister who wants to capture the transformation on film (played by Lynne) and a restaurant owner (Shalhoub) who falls for Brooke's character. It's been floating around the film-fest circuit for more than a year; the thing's been around so long it played South by Southwest in Austin this year and in 2002--when it won the festival's audience award. In fact, Made-Up has garnered several such prizes, enough to convince Lynne not to ditch the film even after accruing a small stack of rejection letters. Only last year, Entertainment Weekly deemed Brooke and Shalhoub the "It Family Affair" because of their pairing in the "festival-circuit fave."

"You can see how far that's gotten us," Shalhoub says.

"Brooke keeps saying, 'Why can't I just feel the success of it already?'" Lynne says. "Because people do love it, and it would be nice to be able to just take that in. But in a way, the fact audiences love it so much makes it harder to just let it go."

"I don't want you to let it go because you feel the success," Brooke corrects her sister. "I just want you to feel the success."

It has not been so easy. Not only have distributors passed, but Lynne says Lifetime also wanted nothing to do with Made-Up. So the sisters and Shalhoub decided to press on without assistance, hoping to book the film in a couple of major markets so they could make some money, pay for more prints and try to expand it slowly.

Eventually, George Mansour, a veteran theater booker, suggested they open their $230,000 film in Dallas at the Angelika, among the first theaters in the country to make a hit out of My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Lynne papered the town with posters; she also saw the first billboard advertisement the film has received, a gift from an old friend of Shalhoub's.

"As difficult as it was directing for the first time, it turns out that was the easy part, because the difficulty is really getting this movie out," Shalhoub says. "It has nothing to do with the creative side. Lynne spent a long time nurturing first the play and then transitioning the play into the movie, then persuading me to direct and all of us changing hats. It was really, really like giving birth...But when all was said and done, that was the fun part. That was the easy part."

"This experience was like giving birth and not being able to find a school to put the baby in," Brooke says.

"Not being able to find your baby, actually," her husband adds. "It's that old story of the creative side and the business side of this industry and how it's very hard trying to figure out what it is that brings those two sides together."

Vanessa Middleton has been trying to decipher the same thing since January 2001, when she thought for sure she'd be leaving the Sundance Film Festival with a deal for the romantic comedy she had written, directed and financed. So electric was the buzz surrounding her funny, thoughtful 30 Years to Life--sold-out screenings, good reviews in the trades--she figured it was only a matter of time before she had a suitor, especially given her good ensemble cast (including Saturday Night Live's Tracy Morgan and Living Single's Erika Alexander) and her own cred as a writer for SNL and other network shows.

But none arrived, and for two years Middleton would hear that her film, about young African-Americans trying to get in and out of relationships, was a "tweener"--meaning, she says, "it's not black enough to be a black film and not mainstream enough to be a mainstream film, because these people are black and not white." Like Shalhoub and the Adams sisters, Middleton had enough with begging and on June 20 is putting the film into theaters in Memphis, Manhattan and Atlanta all by her lonesome. It's more than appropriate, given that when she was a Yale undergrad, her senior thesis was about how black filmmakers can't tell their stories because there are no black-owned-and-operated distribution companies willing to back them.

"What we're doing is rare, but you will find people willing to say, 'I will go this direction,'" says Middleton, who co-produced the film with hip-hop artist Timbaland. "It's not about validating us; Timbaland and I aren't looking at this as a make-or-break thing. It's about doing good business and getting the work seen. Melvin Van Peebles and Spike Lee blazed the trail for black filmmakers. It's not hard to get an independent film made. The barrier is distribution."

Distributors won't argue. Bob Berney, who was head of marketing and distribution for IFC last year and was among the key people responsible for making financial successes of My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Y Tu Mamá También, will tell you that independent romantic comedies are the hardest sell. The reason? Studios and distributors have discovered that audiences only want to see funny-kissy movies with name-brand actors; the genre is, he says, "the territory of big stars."

And distributors who specialize in art-house releases, which succeed in large part because of reviews and word of mouth, don't have the money or time to spend promoting romantic comedies starring relative unknowns or actors, such as Shalhoub and Adams, who are in their late 40s and early 50s and unlikely to appeal to the teen audience. Berney reminds that even a more recent, from-nowhere success like Bend it Like Beckham, which has made $20 million in the United States alone, had been floating around for months before Fox picked it up.

"Despite Greek Wedding, most distributors, and I don't think I am included because I did it, think independent romantic comedies are hard," says Berney, who picked up Greek Wedding after Lions Gate turned the film back to its financiers, including Rita Wilson and Tom Hanks. "Distributors think without J.Lo, no one will go."

Made-Up and 30 Years to Life have going for them one thing My Big Fat Greek Wedding didn't: They're good. They don't play like pilots for sitcoms, they don't suffocate beneath a surfeit of sight gags and pratfalls. Even Berney will admit that Greek Wedding hit big because it had "commercial elements" as a "broad, slapstick comedy." Made-Up and 30 Years to Life are for grown-ups, and there's no place for grown-ups at the movie theater--unless they're dropping off the kids for 2 Fast 2 Furious--which is precisely why you'd think someone would take a chance on them.

So these films will creep across the country, one theater at a time. Lynne Adams and Middleton both suggest they're interested in distributing films like theirs, because they know there's a void out there. Adams has the time to do it. To hear Middleton talk about it, she has no other choice. "What am I supposed to do?" she asks, sounding more than a little exasperated. "Go back to television and have a whole bunch of old white guys rewrite my stuff?" Not bloody likely.