For the Burton Sisters, filmmaking is all in the family

By Lynne and Mardy DeMichele – United Methodist Council

The five Burton sisters from Buffalo, N.Y. are a recent phenomenon in the tradition of the Seven Little Foys, the Osmonds, the Jackson Five. Their uniqueness is that they not only perform together, but also they write, produce and direct their own movies.

The creative process of filmmaking can be a notoriously cantankerous one. Yet the Burtons: Ursula, Jennifer, Charity, Maria and Gabrielle appear to work together like fingers on the same hand, with their prize-winning screenwriter mother, Gabrielle B. Burton, supplying scripts.

As the Burton daughters were growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y., story telling was part of the family routine. Their musician/psychologist father, Roger, had them tell true stories of their daily lives to each other over dinner. Then while some of the girls did the dishes, the others read stories to them. And, unsurprisingly, they regularly went as a family to the movies, talking about them in detail afterward. With their parents’ guidance they learned to work together and to resolve disagreements – or even flat-out, classic sibling battles – with a mutual respect that still keeps things harmonious.

So how did the sisters end up as a film production company? After going their separate ways through college, they each got some hands-on creativity experience through various pursuits including work overseas, film school and acting jobs. In the early 1990s, Ursula and Maria teamed up to produce and perform in a musical revue in Los Angeles. That experience sparked an urge to find another project to do together. This time one of their mother’s scripts, “Just Friends,” was the focus, and Gabrielle joined in the work on it. Once the film was complete and getting noticed, Jennifer and Charity got on board and the Five Sisters’ train was rolling.

After a second low-budget film, “Temps,” brought notice from Variety, the film industry magazine, as well as encouragement at film festivals and special regional releases, they set their sights on their most recent production, Manna from Heaven. — with a twist.

Five Sisters Productions not only wants to make life-affirming, feel-good movies, they’ve decided to share box office proceeds with Habitat for Humanity on Manna’s national release. According to information provided by the company, they have offered to donate proceeds from an opening screening in each market to the local Habitat cause.

It would seem an appropriate tie-in, as Ursula Burton — who co-produced the film as well as acting in it — explains, “One of the themes of the film is community coming together to improve itself.” She goes on to say, “We want to take this opportunity to … reach beyond the boundaries of the film as a piece of entertainment and to use it as a chance to do something good for a local charitable cause.”

The Burton sisters not only produce (and often act in and direct) their films. They’re also a public relations juggernaut traveling to target markets and film festivals across the country. Each of them is endlessly promoting and spreading the word, and proving there is a desire in the marketplace for feel-good, independent movies with a mature cast.

Testament to the power of the sisters’ vision and contagious enthusiasm, the cast of Manna from Heaven includes such respected, “mature” actors as Shirley Jones, Frank Gorshin, Cloris Leachman and Louise Fletcher (all Academy Award winners).

The Burtons’ family-style, independent filmmaking focuses on human character and relationships that are optimistic. No competition for the big-budget blockbusters with special effects and mega-stars. Yet, we suspect they’re on to something.

To learn more about the Burton sisters and where “Manna From Heaven” is playing in your community, visit the Five Sisters Productions’ Web site.

Manna From Heaven
Production Company: Five Sisters Productions
Director: Gabrielle C. Burton, Maria Burton
Principals: Ursula Burton, Seymour Cassel, Shirley Jones, Cloris Leachman and Jill Eikenberry
Rating: PG (language and some sexual references)