Think they don't make movies the
way they used to anymore? Think again
By Amy Deeds
Think they don't make movies the way they used to
anymore? How does this sound: a family-friendly film with a PG rating,
a star-studded cast, and a witty script that substitutes sharp comic
timing for pratfalls and bathroom humor?
No, it's not in the Top Ten yet. In fact, "Manna
from Heaven" hasn't even had a nationwide opening yet, but
it's exceeded expectations and enchanted audiences everywhere it
has opened thus far, earning extended runs and great word-of-mouth.
Haven't heard of "Manna"? You've got lots
of company; most of the country hasn't. But now's your chance: The
little film with the terrific cast and strong ties to Central Ohio
opens tomorrow at several area theaters. How long it stays is entirely
up to you and the rest of the movie-going public.
Gabrielle C. Burton, of Delaware, is co-director and
co-producer of the film, which is produced by Five Sisters Productions.
Another of the five sisters, Charity, is a '94 Denison grad. Both
expect to be in Columbus this weekend for the opening.
"Manna" was shot in Buffalo, N.Y., the Burtons'
hometown, with a cast that includes three Academy Award winners,
an Academy Award nominee, and a Tony nominee. More and more talented
actors are looking to smaller, independent films for the roles that
studio films don't offer them. Gabrielle C. Burton said that all
of the actors who read the script, including Shirley Jones, Cloris
Leachman, Seymour Cassel, Jill Eikenberry, and Frank Gorshin, signed
on enthusiastically. "Wendie Malick called us on her cell phone
from an airplane as soon as she had finished reading it," Burton
A restricted production budget wasn't the only hurdle;
the bigger obstacle is distribution. The average marketing budget
for a studio film is $35 million, money that the Burtons didn't
have. What they did have was complete faith in their project and
a determination to get it to the audience they knew was out there.
"We opened the movie in August in Missouri, and
it's been gradually picking up momentum. We opened on one screen,
and then it went to Kansas City and opened on one screen and expanded
to three screens. Then it went to Washington and opened on four
screens. And then in Buffalo, and now Columbus, we're getting what
would basically be considered a small studio release," said
Burton. "The Buffalo opening went wonderfully. ('Manna') opened
as the number 47 film in the nation, playing in just one city. And
on a per-screen average, it was number 14 in the nation."
"A normal independent film often plays one or
two weeks in the theater, and then it's gone," Gabrielle explained.
"Studio movies will get booked in for a month or six weeks
at a time. An independent film, even if you're doing well, if a
studio film is booked, you'll get bumped. One of the theaters in
Buffalo, we were the number two film, and they still bumped us,
because they had all this studio pressure. But five of the theaters
(in Buffalo) kept renewing it, and that's extraordinary, because
when you're an independent, you are the first to go.
"Most films lose 30-50 percent of their box office
(after the first week), but this one has been retaining it. I think
it was the AMC CEO that said, 'This movie is defying gravity.' So
it could be a 'Greek Wedding.'
"('Manna's') performance already has been very
impressive to the theaters. And the Buffalo moment was a very important
decision point for the theaters, because if it couldn't have held
its own in eight theaters, then it wouldn't get any other bookings.
And not only did it hold its own, but it opened as the number-one
movie in Buffalo, which was incredible. Now the next step is, can
it hold its own in Columbus?
"All of the Columbus theaters are booking us
for only one weekend at a time. They count up Friday, Saturday,
Sunday ticket sales, and compare it with all the other films in
the multiplex. It could even be number two or three and still get
bumped by studio pressure," Burton said.
"What's most interesting is that it's really
up to the people. We have a sort of a campaign slogan: 'Vote at
the box office.' For any movie that you care about, just make sure
that you're aware that you're casting a vote for more movies like
that. For 'Manna,' it's incredible how every ticket sale directly
affects its future. Will it get renewed for next week? Will it go
to other cities? It really comes down to people. They are the ones
getting your movie out.
"There are a lot of films out there that play
on the idea that the world's an awful place, very violent films
that don't necessarily contribute anything. We care about making
films that are both very entertaining and can affect people's lives,
that are worth watching. I think that film is really one of the
most powerful mediums today, and (filmmakers) need to be aware,
even if they're trying to sell tickets, of what message they're
putting out there," Burton said.
"I don't know if there was ever a good time to
be an independent filmmaker. It's very difficult. A lot of people
say, 'Oh, I'll wait for the video' of independent films. It's very
hard now to get video deals unless the movie is already a blockbuster
in the theaters," Burton explained.
"It's so unusual for filmmakers to try to buck
the system and get their movie straight to audiences. It's really
exciting that it's working. It's exhausting, but it's exciting."
Return to Publicity