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.
"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.
One is Berney, former head of marketing and distribution at IFC Films, who oversaw the release of the smash Mexican movie "Y Tu Mama Tambien." With "Greek Wedding," he used a strategy in which the movie would be rolled out slowly in America's mainstream theaters, rather than limiting it to the art-house crowd.
IFC saw potential in the film when other distributors took a pass. By last fall, everyone was a believer. Theater owners honored Playtone and its handpicked financing partner, Gold Circle Films, at their annual convention. Accepting the award for the production team was Gold Circle President Paul Brooks, who failed to mention the contributions of IFC, an omission that surprised many in the audience.
Brooks said the slight was unintentional.
"If, in my nervousness, I forgot to thank IFC and Bob, then it was my mistake," Brooks said. "They were absolutely crucial, especially early in the process."
Brooks also was forced to apologize to another member of the Berney family -- Bob's wife, Jeanne, a veteran publicist with public relations firm Rogers & Cowan. She was instrumental in aggressively publicizing "Greek Wedding" in key markets such as New York, but she said she was fired after Gold Circle complained that it wasn't getting its share of the burgeoning press.
"When people start grabbing for positions, other people get pushed out," she said. "It was not handled elegantly."
Brooks said Berney wasn't fired but simply dropped when her contract expired. Gold Circle, he said, agreed with Playtone that a fresh approach was needed.
"The nature of a big success," he said, "is that everybody has different views on how valuable they were in the process."
Nonetheless, Brooks said he was sorry and hired the publicist to work on his company's current release, "Pool Hall Junkies."
Producer Jim Milio also counts himself among the victims of the Hollywood star system that enveloped "My Big Fat Greek Wedding."
Milio and two partners own a production boutique called MPH Entertainment, which first bought Vardalos' screenplay and had begun trying to line up financing when no one else seemed willing to take a gamble. All that changed, however, on a fall night in 1997 when Rita Wilson dropped into Hollywood's Acme Comedy Theatre to see Vardalos' one-woman show, "My Big Fat Greek Wedding." Milio also was in the audience.
Wilson, half-Greek herself, was enthralled and shared her enthusiasm with Vardalos after the show. According to Milio, who was standing nearby, Vardalos introduced him as the director of her future movie, although the actress does not recall saying so. But it wouldn't be a stretch: Milio had just directed her in a low-budget feature called "Men Seeking Women."
Vardalos whipped out a copy of her screenplay and gave it to Wilson, who in turn urged her Oscar-winning husband to help jump-start the movie project. With Playtone's sudden entry, Milio and MPH were overmatched. He said he suddenly found himself pitted against the actress whose career he had tried to advance.
"We had a number of heated exchanges," he said of Vardalos, who has denied trying to shove aside MPH. "She was really terrified that a dream of a lifetime, working with Tom Hanks, was going to go by the wayside if we dug in our heels and didn't give up the script.... I understand why she was upset. But on the other hand, we had a business stake in the project."
After months of legal squabbling, MPH's partners sold the screenplay rights in exchange for $200,000, co-executive producer credits and a small percentage of the film's profit. That would amount to pocket change compared with the tens of millions of dollars that Playtone and its eventual partners would one day reap.
Also at the Acme on that milestone night was talent manager Rick Siegel, who was representing Vardalos' husband, actor Ian Gomez. Siegel was so impressed that he signed her the next day. The timing was perfect, given that Hanks' involvement was looming on the horizon. Siegel would soon side with Playtone in trying to push MPH aside. But he too eventually would find himself on the outs. Vardalos fired him in late 2000, just two days after the film finished shooting.
By then, Vardalos' most trusted advisors had convinced her that Siegel was mostly watching out for himself. Among other things, he was pushing hard for a producer credit on the movie.
"There was a clear perception that her interests were secondary to his own personal interests," said Vardalos' lawyer, Singer.
Although Siegel received commissions from Vardalos' screenwriting and acting fees, the ouster deprived him of the ability to bask in -- and capitalize on -- the stunning success his client would achieve when the movie became the year's sleeper hit.
Siegel has not gone quietly.
In January, with the film's domestic gross topping $200 million, he filed a lawsuit alleging that Vardalos owed him a fortune in additional commissions, based on a long-standing oral agreement between the two. In his complaint, Siegel said his company, Marathon Entertainment, was "integral in the artist's success." He cited, among other things, the fact that he jointly produced Vardalos' play with Wilson when it moved to the Globe Playhouse in West Hollywood, pitching in $20,000 of his own money.
Vardalos' lawyer has said the suit is "absolutely without merit." Striking back, he filed a complaint with the California Labor Commission accusing Siegel of violating a law that bars managers from acting like talent agents, who actually book jobs for their clients.
In his court case, Siegel has denied wrongdoing and is challenging the law's constitutionality. His attorney, Gerard Fox, contends that Vardalos used his client to open doors and then slammed them shut in Siegel's face when she found more powerful friends.
Nearly invisible in all the sniping over money and credit is a woman who was with Vardalos from almost the beginning. Madeline Cripe directed the stage show and thought she would be involved in the production of the movie and a possible TV sitcom.
But Cripe's name has been conspicuously missing from all the press hoopla surrounding Vardalos' success. According to friends, Cripe said she felt cheated because she not only had directed the stage show but also had helped shape the material that led to the movie. Cripe, a TV sitcom director, reportedly made her displeasure known to Vardalos personally and through an attorney.
One confidant was Marc Hirschfeld, head of casting at NBC. He had introduced Cripe to Vardalos when the comedian was looking for someone to direct her stage show.
"They had some sort of falling out," Hirschfeld said.
The conflict apparently was resolved in recent days as The Times pressed Cripe for details, which she declined to provide. Instead, the law firm that represents her faxed a letter to the newspaper saying all is well between the two women.
"Nia is an enormously talented actress and writer, and I had a wonderful experience working with her," Cripe wrote. "I have no dispute with Nia and have been fully compensated for my work in connection with my contribution to the stage play." Cripe did not elaborate.