Greek Out

Distributors still don't honeymoon with small romantic comedies

"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."

A family affair: Tony Shalhoub directs his wife, Brooke Adams, in Made-Up, which is opening without distribution.
A family affair: Tony Shalhoub directs his wife, Brooke Adams, in Made-Up, which is opening without distribution.

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.

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