(Not) Coming to a Theater Near You!

NPR – On the Media
November 8, 2002

transcript of interview with FIVE SISTERS PRODUCTIONS:

BOB GARFIELD: I got an e-mail the other day from a friend of my mom. She said I had to run, not walk, to this independent flick called Manna from Heaven.


WOMAN: It’s a gift from God.

WOMAN: Many years ago I told you the money was a gift.

WOMAN: You ever hear about a bunch of money disappearing from here a number of years ago -maybe a big heist?

WOMAN: Nevada, New York, Illinois, Kentucky — list just goes on with no pattern at all.

BOB GARFIELD: The story is about a Buffalo, New York family that suddenly has cash raining down on them, changing their lives materially and spiritually forever. It’s a movie I probably would never have noticed had I not been grass roots marketed into attending by Five Sisters Productions, the family team that among them wrote, produced, directed, acted and now is independently distributing Manna from Heaven against the chance that it will become the next My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Joining me now is about 60 percent of Five Sisters Productions, Gabrielle, Charity and Ursula Burton. Ladies, welcome to OTM.


MS. BURTON: Thanks for having us.

MS. BURTON: Yep. We’re really glad to be here.

BOB GARFIELD: Now you shoot the movie, you edit the movie and you have a finished film, Manna from Heaven. How do you get it in theaters?

MS. BURTON: Normally moves– a filmmaker makes a movie, sells it to a distribution company. The distribution company hires a booking company, and the booking company works with the theaters to get it out. And what we came up against was that– the top distributors watched the movie — all of them really were very positive about it, but they said it just hasn’t been done before — that a feel-good American independent hasn’t been marketed successfully, and independent feel-good movies are expected to be British. They were interested in distributing the movie in New York and L.A. for a weekend — seeing if it stuck, and– not putting much money -marketing money into it, so we said well why don’t we just not put the marketing money into it – you know – go around and pass out our green fliers and see how it goes. And it’s been really surprising a lot of places.

BOB GARFIELD: Now when the distributors were telling you, you know, you’re neither fish nor fowl — we don’t really know how to do this — no, we’re going to pass. You must have been quite demoralized, but at the same time My Big Fat Greek Wedding was becoming the phenomenon that it is, and it was the proverbial snowball rolling down the hill, gathering mass and speed as it moved. I assume that you’re thinking in terms of Big Fat Greek Wedding and, and hoping that you can duplicate that miracle.

MS. BURTON: Yeah, we were – we had come up with that idea of marketing a movie like this, very similar to what Greek Wedding then went and did, and they clearly had that same idea — that there’s an under-served audience of filmgoers who do want to see feel-good but intelligent and witty, entertaining films. The hardest thing is really getting over the hump of the opening weekend. The whole business is geared toward movies performing huge box office on the opening weekend. A lot of people complain there aren’t movies out there, but they don’t go out on the opening weekend, and they usually, a discriminating audience that would like Manna from Heaven, will wait two weeks to read the reviews, get some sense from their friends who’ve seen it, and by that point it might be gone.

BOB GARFIELD: Now my wife and I went to see Manna from Heaven, and we walked into the theater and we were about to buy our tickets, when you, Gabrielle, practically ran across the lobby and tackled us– [LAUGHTER] [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]

GABRIELLE BURTON: Well I didn’t knock you down–

BOB GARFIELD: –in order to get us to make the decision to buy the ticket for Manna from Heaven. [LAUGHTER] How– Now that’s grassroots when you’re, you know, actually physically subduing individual movie patrons.

GABRIELLE BURTON: Well, yeah. We basically hang out at the theaters– for the first couple of weeks and what was interesting was people love the idea of directors and producers being in the theater and meeting them, and then talking to them after.

MS. BURTON: If every single one of the people that we meet likes the movie and brings back 10 friends, that’s the goal.

BOB GARFIELD: So it’s kind of like a chain letter with popcorn. [LAUGHTER]

MS. BURTON: Yes. It actually – we do give out these pages after where we say if you can do 5 things for the Five Sisters, one for each sister, and one of them is telling 5 of your friends — e-mailing them to come to the movie, and what we’re hoping is that people will be telling their friends and family around the country, and then once we’re moving across country on our whistle stop tour with the movie, it’ll get an audience bigger and bigger, sort of like Greek Wedding did.

BOB GARFIELD: Let me ask you the cold, hard question — are you going to make it?

MS. BURTON: Well we hope so!

MS. BURTON: Hope so!

MS. BURTON: I think the hardest thing is getting over that, that hurdle of the whole market of movie distribution being geared to the opening box office — and they almost have it down to a science, which really every movie pretty much corresponds to — a movie opens, it loses 30 to 50 percent of its box office the second week – 30 to 50 percent the third week, and by the fifth week it’s usually pretty much gone. And what happened with Manna from Heaven was the third weekend in Kansas City it doubled its box office, and so that really popped up on the radar for the exhibitors — the theaters. So they’ve said this is very interesting, and if there’s a way that we can get people to come out earlier, they can handle the pressure from a lot of the product that’s out there from the studios, because studios need theater space as well for their blockbusters and really it just comes down to it’s a business. It’s not immoral or moral. Hollywood’s just making movies that sell tickets.

BOB GARFIELD: Well listen, all best of luck to you with Manna from Heaven. Gabrielle, Ursula and Charity Burton, thank you for being with us!

MS. BURTON: Thanks so much.

MS. BURTON: Thanks so much for having us.

MS. BURTON: Oh — can I say people should check on our web site for where the movie is going cause it’s going all around the country and it’ll be opening wider in January. And our web site’s www.FiveSistersProductions.com. That’s all spelled out.

BOB GARFIELD: Gabrielle, Charity and Ursula Burton are filmmakers who created the Capra-esque indie Manna from Heaven.

BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media from NPR.

copyright 2002 WNYC Radio