By MARY FRANCES MCCARTHY
HERALD Staff Writer
What would you do if the doors to a delivery truck opened and spilled money onto the street in front of your house, and no one was around to see you take it? Would you keep the money? Would you try to find the owners?
In the new movie “Manna from Heaven,” a Buffalo family faces this dilemma. Their solution comes from the child Theresa, who everyone knows is touched by God, when she says to her doubtful mother, “God helps those who help themselves.”
The family equally divides the money and vows to use it to better themselves.
Theresa, who becomes a nun, receives a message from God years later telling her that the money was only a loan and must be paid back.
The movie focuses on the family’s struggles to raise the money and find out who to pay back.
“Manna From Heaven” was produced by the Burton family — a family that many would think unusual. Five Sisters Productions, a company made up of five sisters who actually get along, produced this film which was written by their mother, Gabrielle. Their father, Roger, also joined them in their third film to act and produce. Every member of the family has contributed in a different way to make this movie.
The five Burton sisters, Maria, Jennifer, Ursula, Gabrielle, and Charity, have been performing together since they were kids, but they did not always plan on going into business together.
In 1977, on a family vacation in which they followed the Oregon Trail to California in the family station wagon, the sisters created an act for the Gong Show. When they arrived in California they actually tried out for the show, but they were disappointed when their vacation plans forced them to leave before they could perform.
The sisters all had their own careers when Five Sisters Productions came into being. Ursula and Maria had produced and acted in the production “A…My Name is Alice.” Following that show, they were asked to develop films. When they started working on their first film, “Just Friends,” in 1995, the sisters joined in to help. Their second film, “Temps,” was written by Gabrielle, and they all decided to work full-time on producing it. They officially named themselves Five Sisters Productions in 1997.
While all of the sisters produced “Manna From Heaven,” a few of them also held other roles. Gabrielle and Maria shared the role of directing the film. Maria and Ursula also acted in major roles.
Jack Valenti, head of the Motion Picture Association of America, sponsored a congressional screening of “Manna from Heaven” on Oct. 9, where U.S. Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) and U.S. Representative Karen McCarthy (D-MO) urged their colleagues, and others present, to support independent filmmakers in America. These leaders see this film as an all-American film made by an all-American family. They hope that other American filmmakers will be able to receive more support so that they do not have to go overseas for less expensive production costs.
The sisters see film as “one of the most powerful mediums today.” They feel a personal responsibility to “make films that are entertaining and also have a sense of hope on a personal or social level.”
“Manna From Heaven” is rated PG because of a few words of harsh language and some tame sexual references. The most clothing a viewer will see removed in this movie is a shoe.
The Burton sisters not only use their film to spread hope, but they have also partnered with Habitat for Humanity. They are donating the proceeds from an opening in each market to the charity.
In order for the film to survive and prosper, Five Sisters Productions is relying on grass roots efforts to spread the positive reviews of the film. The movie had a very small budget, under $5 million. Many of the investors had invested in the two previous films. Instead of using all of their money to open big in New York and Los Angeles, they decided to start in the mid-west and opened in Kansas, and are hoping that word of mouth will fuel the movie and it will be able to eventually prosper in the larger markets.
The Burton sisters are on a whistle-stop tour to visit the areas where it will premiere in order to raise awareness about the film. The film must be well-received on opening weekends in order to survive and continue playing, and in order to play in more theatres. AMC theatres will decide in the New Year whether or not they will open the film nationwide.
“Manna From Heaven” has received many awards, including: Special Audience Award at the Sarasota Film Festival; People Choice Award at the Ft. Myers Beach Film Festival; Audience Award at the Big Bear Film Festival; and the N.Y. State Filmmakers Award at the Empire State Film Festival.
The cast of the movie contains many award winners as well. Many of them were cast against type, but they merge to form an unusual family. The members of the family and town include Academy Award nominee Seymour Cassel, Shelley Duvall, Jill Eikenberry, Academy Award winner Louise Fletcher, Frank Gorshin, Faye Grant, Tony Award nominee Harry Groener, Academy Award winner Shirley Jones, Academy Award winner Cloris Leachman, Emmy nominee Wendie Malick, and Austin Pendleton.
Manna from Heaven will open Oct. 25 at the AMC Hoffman Center in Alexandria and The Regal at Ballston Commons. It will also open that weekend in Washington and Bethesda. Check local listings for theatres and times.
HERALD Photo by Mary Frances McCarthy
FIVE SISTERS PRODUCTIONS — Jack Valenti, chair and CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America (left), met with the members of Five Sisters Productions, the Burton sisters, and their parents before a Congressional screening last week. The Burton sisters (seated from left) Charity, Gabrielle, Maria, Jennifer, Ursula, Gabrielle, their mother, and Roger, their father, all worked on the film “Manna From Heaven” which was written by Gabrielle, the mother, and starred Ursula.