It's about as inviolable as the laws of physics: When movies open in limited release, their per-screen averages as weeks go by almost always move in one direction — down. But that's not what happened to the gravity-defying "City Island," a little family drama/comedy whose average attendance actually grew in the film's fifth weekend in theaters and might just be a lesser version of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding."
Assigned a New York and Los Angeles release on March 19 by Anchor Bay Films, the movie about a bickering but ultimately devoted family very quickly starting doing respectable business. While the premiere weekend's returns of $32,000 were notable, they weren't exactly exceptional. But as Anchor Bay, a division of Overture Films that formerly specialized in direct-to-video exploitation fare such as "Heartstopper" and "Hatchet," took "City Island" into more cities, the returns scarcely dipped as audience buzz spread throughout the nation.
Playing in Minneapolis at the Landmark Theatres Edina Cinema, for example, "City Island" last week surged 41% from the previous weekend. It has been the Minnesota art house's No. 1 film for four straight weeks, says Anchor Bay President Bill Clark. He says the movie is performing exceptionally strong in cities as diverse as Phoenix, St. Louis and Washington, D.C. This coming weekend, "City Island" will grow from 77 locations to 269. "Our plan is to continue to expand," Clark says.
The film's total gross is still small: About $1.3 million overall, which nonetheless makes it Anchor Bay's highest-grossing release yet (easily surpassing last year's Ashton Kutcher gigolo film "Spread," which grossed $250,000). But hidden within those figures is some significant data. In the film's fourth week of release, "City Island's" per-screen average totaled $4,422. A week later, that average take went up to $4,575. (For comparison, the per-screen results for Sony Classics' "A Prophet" dropped from $2,694 to $1,747 in the critically acclaimed French film's fourth and fifth weekends.)
Anchor Bay says that among the 77 locations that the film played in last weekend, "City Island" was the top-grossing release in 38 of the complexes. For the last two weekends, Saturday-night shows at the Landmark in West Los Angeles (where the film has been showing since March 19) have sold out, often hours in advance.
That's the kind of result that is directly attributable to strong word of mouth and some repeat business, as Anchor Bay is not spending big sums of money advertising "City Island," which it acquired after it showed at last year's Tribeca Film Festival, where it won the audience award. So far, the company has spent slightly more than $2 million releasing "City Island," whose English-speaking rights it bought for less than $500,000. In order to seed early buzz about the film, Anchor Bay held more than 200 promotional screenings before its release.
"Anyone who sees the film loves it," Clark says of the movie. "The audience is one of the key marketing tools for this movie." About 55% of "City Island's" ticket buyers are women, and some 75% of the audience is 35 or older. The film follows correctional officer Vince Rizzo (Andy Garcia), who furtively is trying to become an actor but has his hands full with a hysterical wife (Julianna Margulies), a daughter secretly working in a strip club (Dominik García-Lorido), a son (Ezra Miller) obsessed with obese women and Internet porn sites, and another, illegitimate, son (Steven Strait) who's an ex-con and doesn't know Rizzo is his dad.
In an effort to drum up awareness for "City Island," writer-director-producer Raymond De Felitta blogged incessantly about the film's making and release. "I'm really interested in how the viral world is affecting how people make decisions about entertainment," he says. "The blog definitely created some awareness and just created a good vibe for the movie."
Similar to "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," critics have not been gushing over "City Island," but have given the film supportive notices, with many reviewers appreciating the film's populist appeal. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, critic Glenn Whipp said, "‘City Island' scrapes by and delivers a smile or two because it does contain a fundamental understanding of the rot that sets in when people hide their true selves from the ones they love."
The challenge for Anchor Bay is to mine the audience response without getting in the way of the movie's own momentum. At screenings, audiences frequently talk back to the movie, often in a memorable scene where Rizzo auditions for a Martin Scorsese-Robert De Niro movie, doing a terrible Marlon Brando impersonation.
"People will scream, ‘I can't believe he's doing that!' " says Garcia, who has traveled to Miami, Chicago, Dallas, Boston and Philadelphia to promote the movie, on which he received a producer credit. "What it tells you is that people are really rooting for this guy." And, so it seems, for the movie.