Finding local theater for made-in-Vegas ‘Yonkers Joe’ no easy task

Getting an independent movie made — and getting it into theaters — is always a crapshoot.

But for "Yonkers Joe’s" Las Vegas-based producers, finding a local theater to show the movie — which filmed here in 2007 — represented a particularly challenging roll of the dice.

The $2.5 million drama — about an old-school card and dice "mechanic" reconnecting with his Down syndrome-afflicted son — opens today at the South Point for a weeklong run.

Yet audience members will have to buy their tickets, not at the main box office, but at an adjacent table. And when they watch the movie at the South Point, they won’t see the name of the movie’s distributor, Magnolia Pictures, on the print. Nor will they spot the Century Theatres logo — or that of its corporate parent, Cinemark.

That’s because "Yonkers Joe" currently is available via video-on-demand — and Cinemark, along with Las Vegas’ other big theater chains, has a policy against showing movies audiences can watch on V-O-D.

So the "Yonkers Joe" run amounts to a "four-wall" deal, separate from the South Point’s day-to-day Cinemark operations.

Not that it’s a coincidence the movie ended up at the South Point; after all, executive producer John Gaughan’s father, Michael, owns the place.

"It doesn’t hurt," acknowledges Trent Othick, who produced "Yonkers Joe" under the banners of his personal production company and GO Productions. (Othick’s the "O" to Gaughan’s "G" in GO Productions, along with his brother Matt, but the movie’s executive producers also include star Chazz Palminteri, poker pro Phil Ivey and Cannery Resorts partner Bill Wortman.)

Despite the Gaughan family ties, "we were nervous to show (Michael Gaughan) the movie," Othick admits.

After all, although "we look at it as a character study of a subculture," Othick explains, "Yonkers Joe’s" title character and his pals perpetrate dice and card scams, trying to outsmart opponents — whether they’re in backroom poker games or Glitter Gulch casinos.

Yet Michael Gaughan "really loved the movie," Othick recalls. "That blew us away — we didn’t expect that one."

Maybe it’s because the movie’s authentic gambling elements set "Yonkers Joe" apart from many Hollywood-made counterparts, according to Othick, whose father was a professional gambler.

"They play off the stereotypes of the past," Othick says of such studio-backed gambling movies as "Lucky You" and "21." (Of the latter, Othick says, "they had an interesting back story, but the minute they get to Vegas, it’s a total cheesefest.")

To play "Yonkers Joe’s" title hustler, Palminteri learned to manipulate dice and cards and "I got pretty good," he admits — which meant "if I did it 10 times and got it twice," that was good enough to get it onscreen. "If I was gonna go out and hustle, I would need to do it 10 times out of 10. I’m not good enough to start hustling."

When writer-director Robert Celestino first wrote "Yonkers Joe," all the action took place on the East Coast. (The Rampart Casino plays an Atlantic City casino in the movie.)

But Othick convinced the filmmaker that he could move the film’s climax to Las Vegas "and still keep it gritty," Celestino says. "I’ve seen a lot of movies about high-class" con artists, he says, but "you have to maintain consistency. These guys are not going to take down the Bellagio."

Such "bread-and-butter" hustlers may work the shady side of the street, but "these guys are artists," Celestino insists, explaining how the movie "is delving into a subculture — you can’t just look in the phone book and find it."

He should know; Celestino based "Yonkers Joe’s" title character on his father. The character’s son, meanwhile, was inspired by a cousin who has Down syndrome.

Both aspects of the story appealed to Palminteri, who describes it as "a great caper" with "a great father-son story."

That combination made "Yonkers Joe" a hit when it premiered last April at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival — and when it went on to other festivals, from Michigan to Colorado. (Oscar-winning documentarian Michael Moore featured it at his Traverse City, Mich., festival, while Celestino "had one woman cry in my arms" following another festival screening.)

A few years ago, "Yonkers Joe’s" festival successes might have sparked a bidding war for distribution rights, Othick acknowledges. But changing times — and changing economics — have altered its theatrical fate.

Although it’s been "in and out of theaters since Jan. 9," playing everywhere from New York and Los Angeles to Denver, San Diego, Portland, Ore., and Tucson, Ariz., "Yonkers Joe" will get a better shot at finding a wider audience when it hits DVD on May 19.

In the meantime, Las Vegans finally have a shot at seeing it on the big screen — and catching up with what audiences in other cities already have discovered.

Contact movie critic Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.

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