Manna From Heaven: One Ticket at a Time

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 From Heaven.”

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 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 decision.”
As Gabrielle noted, ‘For “Manna,’ every ticket sale directly affects its future.”

Writing the end of their story is largely up to you.