Some want weddings. Others want champagne receptions at sunset on their own private beach. Others, still, want to take a leaf straight out of the film script and “dance and kiss on the beach.”
It’s called the Mamma Mia! effect. And nowhere is it felt more keenly than on the Aegean isle of Skopelos, where the capacity for life to imitate art has gone full throttle since the release of the film version of the hit Abba stage show.
“The phones never stop ringing,” says Mayor Christos Vasiloudi. “People call in all the time asking how they can get to our Mamma Mia! paradise.”
Greece may have been hit in recent weeks by some of the worst civil disturbances in decades, but this week, as Mamma Mia! surpasses Titanic to become the highest-earning movie ever released in the UK, the island where most of it was shot was struggling to keep up with outside interest. And, with it, increasingly odd requests.
“It’s extraordinary. I’ve had requests from people in England, Hungary, Australia, asking whether they can marry here, hold champagne parties here, buy land here,” said Mahi Drossou, a local travel agent. “One English couple wondered whether they could book the beach that features in the film for a private wedding. And an Austrian couple just called in with a request to hold a ‘renewal’ at the Ayios Ioannis chapel where the [film] wedding takes place.”
Until the arrival of the Hollywood star cast 15 months ago, Skopelos (population 4,696) was best known for its plums, pears and pine trees. Without an airport, reachable only by ferry and devoid of the gaudiness of other Greek resorts, few could have imagined that the 96 sq km isle, set in the northern sporades east of Athens, would become the backdrop of a blockbuster featuring Meryl Streep, Colin Firth and Pierce Brosnan. Even fewer could have foreseen its emergence as the film’s star.
“Who would have guessed?” spluttered Giorgos Tsolovikos a 57-year-old transporter who had a bit part, with his mechanised tricycle, in the film. “I had no idea that the one who kept singing and dancing and screaming and crying [Meryl Streep] was so famous. I was in the scene where she drives up in the jeep and they kept saying don’t look at the cameras when she comes.”
Indeed, as the fictional Greek island “Kalokairi” in Mamma Mia! the isle might have gone unnoticed had it not been for the repeat viewings that have produced its runaway success. Mesmerised by the rugged island’s spectacular scenery, fans appear to have gone to great lengths to uncover its identity.
“I’ve met people who have come because friends had seen the film four or five times and they wanted to see what all the fuss is about,” said Dimitra Rekkas at the town hall. “The producers checked out at least 25 Greek islands before opting for Skopelos. They chose our island because of its greenness and the fact it really is a small paradise.”
The film’s success could not have been better timed for a country whose tourist-dependent economy has been hard hit by violent anti-government protests. On Thursday – thirteen days after riots erupted over the police shooting of a teenage boy – Greek officials announced that hotel bookings had dropped by 40%, prompting Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis to announce emergency measures to boost tourism.
As the personification of Greece as it used to be – carefree, idyllic, life-affirming – the movie has also pepped up the mood of a nation that, with the exception of Hungary, has become wracked by money worries and pessimism, according to an EU poll released this week.
“When I saw it, I felt like a dancing queen,” said Fotini apadopoulou, a student. “It made me stop worrying about all the other terrible stuff that has pushed us onto the streets in protest.”
Predictably, officials hope the Mamma Mia! effect will reach other parts of Greece. On Skopelos locals are already preparing for the Mamma Mia! movie tour. But they also insist that it’s not only about money, money, money.
“Okay, we need Mamma Mia! in this economic crisis but a lot of us would hate it if the film that promoted our island also ended up destroying it,” said travel agent Mahi Drossou. “It’s great that people want to come and marry here and dance and kiss on our beaches but Skopelos has an unspoilt natural beauty and we want to keep it that way.”
The winner takes it all:
• Mamma Mia! the musical first premiered in London in 1999, and has been performed in 160 cities in 11 languages
• Around 30 million people are reported to have seen the stage show, which takes some £4m a week in ticket sales
• The film version, starring Colin Firth, Julie Walters, Meryl Streep, and Pierce Brosnan cost £28m to make
• It is the highest grossing British film ever at the UK box office
• Judy Craymer, the movie’s producer who also owns the rights to the story, is estimated to have earned £90m from the film and stage show
• Globally, Mama Mia has been the sixth most successful film release of the year