It sounds like a story straight out of Hollywood. An inexpensive, independently produced, PG-rated movie with a simple story about the importance of love and family packs in audiences...

Share story

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — It sounds like a story straight out of Hollywood.

An inexpensive, independently produced, PG-rated movie with a simple story about the importance of love and family packs in audiences of all ages for more than a year at a single theater.

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

The gentle film’s popularity is bolstered by great word of mouth from people who saw it, strong salesmanship from people who made it and a fervent promotional campaign from people who don’t stand to profit from it.

Only after the movie has run for many months and become a local phenomenon does it land a nationwide distributor — the same one that helped put out “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and “The Passion of the Christ.”

Starting in February, much of the rest of the country will have a chance to see what the fuss over “Uncle Nino” is about.

“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 has 10 locations, including a multiplex in northeastern Grand Rapids where the film opened Dec. 5, 2003.

“We didn’t think it would survive Christmas,” Van Timmeren said. It started out playing several times each day, but has been shown once daily during a matinee for the past five months or so.

“Uncle Nino” this month broke the chain’s record run of 52 weeks held by “Greek Wedding.” The last showing of “Uncle Nino” was set for either Tuesday or Friday.

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

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.

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.

The actor 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,” hugging sometimes-emotional audience members.

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

A passionate believer in the film’s message of the importance of strong families, he doesn’t so much promote “Uncle Nino” at his appearances as he does ask for support for more movies like it.

“If we can have a film like this playing in some theater in Grand Rapids all year long, we can change things,” he said. “Families can be put back together again.”

Billie Sue Berends of Caledonia 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 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.

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

“I think it’s that people today are leading such fast-paced lives with e-mail 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.

Writer-director Robert Shallcross, a Chicagoan who wrote the 1994 peewee football movie “Little Giants” and worked for years directing television commercials, said “Uncle Nino” cost between $2.5 million and $3 million. It has been shown in Grand Rapids about 900 times and grossed approximately $163,000, said Van Timmeren, the theater executive.

Shallcross took the finished film to Hollywood in early 2003, but all the major studios passed on it. “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,’ ” he said.

An advertising friend who knew Celebration! Cinema President John Loeks persuaded him to run it for two weeks. “It opened well and then went up,” which is the first sign of a hit, Van Timmeren said.

“Uncle Nino” didn’t peak until its 13th week in release.

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.”