Manna From Heaven: One Ticket at
By Scott Gowans
Gannett Papers (Syndicated)
February 14, 2003
This is the way one fairy tale goes:
A woman's screenplay gets noticed by a Hollywood somebody,
and suddenly her tiny, sweet film becomes the biggest independent
film ever, better known as "My Big Fat Greek Wedding,"
generating box-office receipts to the tune of over $200 million.
And then there's another story, called "Manna
It is a film conceived and produced by a quintet of
siblings, the aspiring filmmakers who make up Five Sisters Productions,
and it opens tomorrow in a handful of Columbus theaters.
How does this tale end? Nobody knows yet.
The production team consists of Charity (producer,
graduate of Denison University), Gabrielle (director, producer),
Jennifer (producer), Maria (director, producer, actor), and Ursula
Burton (producer and actor). Keeping it all in the family, mother
Gabrielle B. Burton wrote the screenplay and co-produced, while
father Roger served as co-producer as well as music director. Two
previous films, 'Just Friends" and 'Temps," also came
out of the family's collaborative efforts.
All seven Burtons appear in "Manna," alongside
established stars Seymour Cassel, Jill Eikenberry, Louise Fletcher,
Frank Gorshin, Faye Grant, Harry Groener, Shirley Jones, Cloris
Leachman, Wendie Malick, and Austin Pendleton. In case you're counting,
that's a total of three Oscar winners - Jones ("Elmer Gantry"),
Fletcher ("One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"), and Leachman
("The Last Picture Show") - plus an Oscar nominee (Cassel)
and a Tony nominee (Groener).
"Manna" is a light-hearted fable about a
neighborhood in Buffalo, N.Y., that is mysteriously showered with
$20 bills, which the residents see as a gift from God. Years later
they discover that the gift was in fact a loan, which must be repaid
immediately. However, the loose-knit family of recipients has splintered,
and a nun, who is central to the story, must reunite them. (Read
the related review by Amy Deeds for the full scoop.)
Most feature films are initially booked for multiple
weeks at multiplexes. A big box-office return means longer runs,
and duds are shown the door quickly. Grass-roots, word-of-mouth
campaigns are rarely attempted these days for that reason. No matter
how much advance buzz films generate, or how many glowing reviews
light the path, if the people don't come, it will disappear.
'In essence, every person can influence the types
of American movies being made and offered to the public," said
director/producer Gabrielle. 'By going on the opening weekend, they
are, in fact, 'voting' for movies. With the focus now for movie
distribution based on weekend box-office reports, especially the
opening weekend in theaters, people have the power to 'vote' at
the box office and influence future Hollywood decisions. It's really
up to the people.'
Movies such as "Manna" have an especially
steep climb. Approximately 1000 films are made every single year
-- that's three a day. Cameras and editing systems are cheap, turning
anyone with a dream into the next potential Steven Soderbergh. Film
festivals such as Sundance, which can make or break careers, turn
away entries by the hundreds.
On the plus side, more and more name actors are opting
for independent fare, often agreeing to a cut in salary, for the
chance to do something not offered by formulaic Hollywood productions.
On-set frills (trailers, gourmet catering) are minimal, but everyone
in the project understands the trade-offs.
What the Burtons have on their side is a strong, collective
voice; a family-friendly product; tenacity; and the desire to do
whatever it takes to fill seats. They are traveling around the country
in the "Manna Van" on their whistle-stop tour. 'It's a
seven-day-a-week job," Gabrielle said. 'We're in theaters for
anywhere from 8-13 hours day, meeting the audience, talking to them,
signing autographs. But this has been so powerful, so rewarding.
Someone in Kansas City gave us a car. She liked the film so much,
and she knew we needed something to get around in."
On certain nights, the Burtons will conduct Q&As
for group screenings for club members, retirement homes, churches,
etc. (Send an e-mail to manna@NOSPAMfivesistersproductions.com to request
a session.) Prizes, including signed posters, are available to groups
of ten or more. Proceeds from select screenings go directly to the
sisters' favorite charity, Habitat for Humanity.
According to the sisters, word of mouth is carrying
the film. 'The CEO of AMC (Theatres) said, 'This movie is defying
gravity,'" said Gabrielle. In every city in which the film
has opened to date, it has spread to more screens, and runs have
been extended to accommodate demand.
'People have said that they want to see more intelligent,
feel-good films about rediscovering hope at any age," said
co-director Maria Burton. 'They often say that there just aren't
enough films like "Manna' out there now - an American-made
independent comedy with a terrific cast. In fact, the big hurdle
is competing against the studio films. Movies today have millions
and millions of dollars average budget for advertisement. Well,
we've got green fliers (that look like oversized $20 bills)."
Four years ago, the seeds of "Manna" were
sown. 'Film is so unbelievably impossible to do," Gabrielle
said, 'that there's no way we could have come this far if we weren't
all passionate about this. We have to be that. It can't be a business
As Gabrielle noted, 'For "Manna,' every ticket sale directly
affects its future."
Writing the end of their story is largely up to you.
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