- The Washington Times - Friday, December 17, 2004

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — For more than one year, an inexpensive, independently produced, PG-rated movie with a simple story about the importance of love and family has packed audiences of all ages into a single theater here.

“People show up every day for ‘Uncle Nino,’” said Ron Van Timmeren, an executive vice president for Celebration Cinema, the regional, family owned movie chain that began running the film at one of its multiplexes on Dec. 5, 2003.

Now, the local phenomenon has landed a nationwide distributor — the same one that helped put out “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and “The Passion of the Christ” — and starting in February the rest of the country will finally get a chance to see what the fuss over “Uncle Nino” is about.

The film stars Joe Mantegna and Anne Archer as parents who are disconnected from their two children and from each other. All that begins to change when the family receives a visit from an eccentric, long-lost relative from Italy, Uncle Nino, played by veteran character actor Pierrino Mascarino.

“If we can have a film like this playing in some theater in Grand Rapids all year long, we can change things,” said Mr. Mascarino, who passionately thinks more movies about strong families need to be made. “Families can be put back together again.”

So far, “Uncle Nino” has run for 54 weeks, one of the longest test-marketing runs in the United States, said John Lange. He and his brother, Dan, are co-partners at Lange Film Releasing, the Illinois-based company that will distribute the film all the major studios rejected.

“We heard a little bit of, ‘It’s just not our kind of film,’ ‘Nice movie but not what we’re doing,’ ‘Not something we’d be interested in right now,’” said writer-director Robert Shallcross, a Chicagoan who wrote the 1994 peewee football movie “Little Giants” and worked for years directing television commercials.

An advertising friend of Mr. Shallcross’ who knew Celebration Cinema President John Loeks persuaded him to run it for two weeks.

“We didn’t think it would survive Christmas,” but it “opened well and then went up,” the first sign of a hit, Mr. Van Timmeren said.

“Uncle Nino” didn’t peak at the box office until its 13th week in release, and earlier this month broke the chain’s record run of 52 weeks held by “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” The film, whose last showing here is next week, cost between $2.5 million and $3 million to make and has grossed about $163,000 during its once-a-day showing.

Dade Hayes, managing editor of special reports at Daily Variety and co-author of the book “Open Wide: How Hollywood Box Office Became a National Obsession,” said it’s highly unusual for a modern movie to go nationwide from a single screen.

“It’s actually kind of an encouraging story if you think about it,” he said, “because it just feels much more organic.”

Miss Archer’s not sure why the film has touched Grand Rapids — but the actress is glad.

“I think it’s that people today are leading such fast-paced lives with e-mails and computers and everything and both parents working, and this film harkens back to the important things that make life pleasurable, that make a sense of family important and rewarding,” she said.

Mr. Mascarino lives in Los Angeles but has spent so much time — two months, by his estimation — in Grand Rapids during the past year that Mayor George Heartwell recently made him an honorary Grand Rapidian.

He has spoken at schools and churches, in front of clubs and on radio shows. He has surprised hundreds of moviegoers by slipping into dozens of showings of “Uncle Nino,” always hugging sometimes emotional audience members before they leave.

“The lights would come up, the sound would go down, and I’d say, `Hello, everybody, I’m Uncle Nino,’ and they would gasp,” Mr. Mascarino said.

Billie Sue Berends of Caledonia, Mich., liked the movie and its message so much that she formed a grass-roots support group, Nino’s Nieces and Nephews, to help spread the word. She often assists Mr. Mascarino when he comes to Grand Rapids. She has made so many appearances with him at the theater that she has seen “Uncle Nino” more than 100 times.

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