Blogging "City Island": Anatomy of an indie breakout

Is our little movie just a modest success -- or a big fat Italian-American smash that will play all summer?

Published April 26, 2010 12:30PM (EDT)

arrives to the premiere of the film City Island, in New York, Wednesday, March 10, 2010. (AP Photo/Stuart Ramson) (Stuart Ramson)
arrives to the premiere of the film City Island, in New York, Wednesday, March 10, 2010. (AP Photo/Stuart Ramson) (Stuart Ramson)

Another picture of mine opened at Radio City Music Hall. It opened quietly with no great beating of drums of baiting of breath ... so quietly did the picture open, it failed to merit the usual second-week holdover at the Music Hall: a black mark against future business ... The critics, too, were caught with their adjectives down. The Nation pontificated, "entertaining, but to claim any significance for the picture would of course be a mistake."

The writer is Frank Capra, three-time Oscar-winning filmmaker and truly the first "star" director -- his name above the title guaranteed box office business. The movie he's talking about is "It Happened One Night," starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. Pray continue, Frank.

Then it happened. Happened all over the country -- not in one night, but within a month. People found the film ... funnier, much funnier than the usual. But, biggest surprise of all, they could remember in detail a good deal of what went on in the film and found that everybody else did and that it was great fun talking about this and that scene ... theaters sold out for weeks and weeks. Critics went back for a second look.

Capra's classic 1934 screwball comedy did indeed "open quietly" but by the time the next year's Oscars rolled around, "It Happened One Night" captured all five of the top awards -- best actor, best actress, best screenplay, best director and best picture -- the only film to claim all five awards for the next 40 years ("One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" was next). "It Happened One Night" was the first film to have been anointed a "little movie" that had bigger, stronger legs than anyone had initially thought.

The term "sleeper hit" came into existence around this time -- though for the life of me I can't figure out the etymological origins of this phrase. (Perhaps everyone was asleep when the film opened?) One way or another, "It Happened One Night" -- a seemingly modest little comedy that tenaciously hung around in theaters until it was an Oscar-winning smash -- was the movie that gave birth to the phenomenon knows as "The Little Movie That Could." Sticky phrase that -- too cute by half, as the English would say. But there it is.

It's a story that people love to hear -- proof that the Davids really can beat the Goliaths: movies that are small in scale or budget and yet deliver something audiences seem hungry for -- warmth, humor, a glimpse of life and love that somehow feels refreshing and unforced. Audiences make these movies hits by continuing to show up. Certainly "Little Miss Sunshine" was one of these "little movies." (The studio even self-consciously played up the old catchphrase when Oscar time came around with a new advertisement, showing the iconic VW bus accompanied by the words: "Little Best Picture?") The gold standard for such movies is, of course, "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" -- a movie that most distributors didn't want, that had no stars in it and that got mediocre reviews across the board ... and went on to make $140 million.

Now, I'm not making any such claims for "City Island" ... yet. But I do have stats. And stats can be weirdly instructive. Before delving into them, though, a brief recap of the uncertain history of the movie:

  1. Movie finished, submitted to Sundance. While waiting for an answer, we show it to a sales agent who shall remain unnamed ...
  2. OK, it was Cinetic. And they pass on the movie, gently telling us that there is no way it is a theatrical film, but that if we'd like to make a nice little DVD deal they'd be happy to introduce us to their nice little DVD division ...
  3. Which we pass on, awaiting word from Sundance. Alas, said word turns out to be "No."
  4. Which makes us wonder about that DVD deal -- but only for an instant. For next we show the film to the Tribeca Film Festival, whose programmers love it and schedule it for their festival in the spring where --
  5. Surprise: "City Island" becomes the festival breakout hit, winning the audience award. This should lead to many offers of distribution and in fact does lead to quite a few phone calls from distributors, all of which result in:
  6. Nothing. No offers, no sales. Except for one spunky young company that hangs around patiently waiting for us to finally realize that they truly love the movie and will get behind it. So we sell it to:
  7. Anchor Bay Films and begin the long process of figuring out how to sell and publicize the film and when to release it -- which turns out to be ...
  8. On March 19 of this year.

Now, when we sold the film to Anchor Bay, it was in a low-impact, open-small-see-what-we've-got kind of way. They would open us in two theaters -- New York and L.A. -- with some good print advertising and as much on-air stomping as the cast would agree to do (I was fortunate to have a cast full of supportive people). Andy Garcia pledged and delivered as many television appearances as they could book for him. And Julianna Margulies, despite her grueling television schedule with "The Good Wife," committed to doing as much big-ticket stuff as she could fit in. Thanks to that pledge and the enormous popularity of her TV show (and her Golden Globe/Emmy wins), she wound up doing David Letterman's show the week prior to our opening -- a major score.

So what happened on opening weekend? On Friday morning it was hard to guess the direction the wind was blowing. The reviews were positive -- but mixed-positive might be a more accurate assessment. Two big guns -- the Los Angeles Times and New York Times -- came out with "we didn't love it but we didn't hate it" kinds of reviews. I was in L.A., where the crowd at the Landmark seemed pretty good. In New York, my producer Lauren Versel was haunting the Angelika, where the big opening weekend attraction clearly was "Greenberg."

You might as well know the truth: By the end of your very first Friday in theaters, your distributors will have a pretty accurate picture of what awaits your movie. Even though Saturday is traditionally a much stronger movie day, projections for the weekend can quite accurately be made without the Saturday figures, based on Friday's performance. You can't let this freak you out. But it will if you think about it. Eight years spent getting something made and it gets all of five (or four) showings before its fate is sealed?

Well, you opted for showbiz. That's the story.

On Saturday morning, March 20, we got news from Anchor Bay Films: 

We're off to a solid start.

Well, that was a relief. On Saturday the Landmark theaters were quite full -- I was pacing the halls and bugging the very nice ticket-takers for looks at their seating charts. Lauren was up to the same in New York and called me from outside the theater where there was a line to buy tickets. The Angelika shows five movies at a time, so it's impossible to know what they're on line for. That is, unless you canvass the crowd as she did. Many were on line for "Greenberg," which was selling out. So Lauren simply started telling people to see "City Island" instead. On Monday morning, we heard the following from Anchor Bay Films:

We had a very good opening. And we're well-positioned for next weekend. 

First bullet dodged. Our reviews were mostly positive and the studio liked the first figures that came back. But you can never relax in this business and the key was in how well we held up the following weekend. We always knew we were a "word of mouth" movie more than anything -- reviews and publicity are only going to take a movie like ours so far. So we awaited the following weekend -- we were scheduled to expand to another eight cities -- with some trepidation.

I won't take you through the blow-by-blow of the next weekend -- there was rain, signage issues, other movies opening, etc. But ultimately there was good news on the report that arrived after the second weekend: We were up on Saturday from the previous day. That suggested people were telling their friends, "Go see this movie I just saw."

The trades -- Variety and the Hollywood Reporter -- started describing the performance of our "little movie" as "sturdy" and "impressive." Great. But what does all this mean? Trends are what these projections are all about. And the trend we were seeing was that our movie seemed to be gaining momentum, not losing it. In addition, the "word of mouth campaign" seemed to be working.

On the fourth weekend we were open, Anchor Bay told us that we were No. 1 or No. 2 in many of our complexes, and we were adding screens.

The fact that the screens were going up was great. But more significant were the locations where the film seemed to be performing. The fact that a movie about a Bronx-based, Italian-American family was achieving No. 1 status in Denver, Houston, Atlanta and Seattle seemed to disprove one of the many myths that early on clung to our movie and made selling it difficult: that it was a movie that would only perform in New York, to New York audiences. If the movie could cross urban/cultural barriers and speak to audiences in places that know not from the San Gennaro Festival (New York's ultimate Italian extravaganza, given every year on the streets of the Lower East Side), then it might in fact play in the so-called hinterlands, the land of the ubiquitous and much-desired "multiplex audience."

The growing popularity of the movie and its ability to reach audiences was socked home on the following weekend, when many of our screens gained audience from the previous week.

And that morning, indieWIRE reported the following:

Anchor Bay Films' "City Island" -- starring Andy Garcia and Julianna Margulies -- continued to be an under-the-radar success story. Going from 45 to 57 screens, the film grossed $259,000. That made for a 30% increase, seeing its per-theater average actually rise despite a higher screen count ($4,544 vs. $4,422 last weekend). After five weeks, "Island" has taken in $842,858, and should soon become the first $1 million grosser in young Anchor Bay Films' history.

Result? Anchor Bay ordered up a significant increase in prints -- we will be rolling out to several hundred theaters over the course of the next few weeks.

Will it work? Will people continue to attend the movie and tell their friends? Will summertime's blockbusters come and handily displace us once and for all? Or will our "little movie" prove that it "can" by attracting audiences consistently, proving to be an antidote to high-octane summer entertainment?

Certainly the PG-13 rating that we fought hard to achieve is a big help. But not for the reasons you may think. It's not so much a movie that chases after a youthful audience -- though people under 18 can totally relate to the story of screwed-up family dynamics. The PG-13 is very much for the older crowd -- the seniors who are hesitant to see movies that are rated R for fear of too much violence. That this demographic is coming out to see the movie was demonstrated by a stat showing how strong the "early-bird" showings were -- the 1 p.m. shows that are usually sparsely populated. Our early shows are frequently as strong -- or almost as strong -- as the "after work" screenings. (Yesterday I schlepped out to the theater we're showing at in Encino -- the 'burbiest of L.A. 'burbs -- and peeked in at the 1:20 crowd: The theater was three-quarters full. And there were plenty of walkers in the aisles. God bless the seniors ... and, for that matter, the unemployed. )

So those are the stats that currently define the course "City Island" is on. As a result of those stats, more and more exhibitors are calling us and wanting to book the film. Anchor Bay Films is doing a careful job of determining where and how the film will play best so as not to burst the bubble that appears to be growing larger with each weekend.

But there's another way to measure where the film is going, one that I never tire of. It involves seeing the film in a crowded theater and listening to the audience react. Starting with the first screening of the film last year at Tribeca, we began to see how engaged the audience was with our story. The laughs were louder than we expected, and there is a scene -- I won't say which -- that always provokes applause (sometimes a lot, sometimes a little, but always some measurable amount of applause).

Something else happens that we couldn't have planned on: Audiences become wrapped up enough in the story that they start to talk back to the screen at crucial moments. This "breaking the fourth wall" thing is always a fun part of the moviegoing experience, but is usually reserved for movies that encourage such behavior: I always enjoyed seeing the "Die Hard" movies for just that purpose -- it's the feeling of uninhibited release, of being part of a crowd that is on the same roller coaster ride. But our movie is no roller coaster ride. So why do they react so openly, so verbally, to the story's twists and turns?

I don't know. And in a sense I don't want to. It's the magical element in filmmaking that can never be defined or counted on. But I do know one thing: That transportive experience -- where you, as an audience member, become so wrapped up in the movie that you forget you're in a public place and instead commune with the movie as if you're a part of it -- is exactly what makes you tell your friends: See the film while it's in theaters.

Look -- the fate of "City Island" remains to be seen. "My Big Fat Greek wedding" took months to gradually climb to 1,000 screens ... and then just sat there, attracting moviegoers with the ease of a honeycomb attracting bees. That movie is, of course, a one-of-a-kind phenomenon. On the other hand, every phenomenon is a one-of-a-kind thing ... until it happens a second time. For there is truly no rule in filmmaking that is constant. Let Frank Capra have the last word on that subject:

The only rule in filmmaking is that there are no rules, and the only prediction is that all predictions are by guess and by God until the film plays in theaters. And who would have it any other way? Uncertainty is the fun of it all: the door that can't be locked by film rajahs against adventuresome newcomers. 

By Raymond De Felitta

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