Think they don’t make movies the way they used to anymore? Think again

By Amy Deeds
Gannet Newspapers

Think they don’t make movies the way they used to anymore? How does this sound: a family-friendly film with a PG rating, a star-studded cast, and a witty script that substitutes sharp comic timing for pratfalls and bathroom humor?

No, it’s not in the Top Ten yet. In fact, “Manna from Heaven” hasn’t even had a nationwide opening yet, but it’s exceeded expectations and enchanted audiences everywhere it has opened thus far, earning extended runs and great word-of-mouth.

Haven’t heard of “Manna”? You’ve got lots of company; most of the country hasn’t. But now’s your chance: The little film with the terrific cast and strong ties to Central Ohio opens tomorrow at several area theaters. How long it stays is entirely up to you and the rest of the movie-going public.

Gabrielle C. Burton, of Delaware, is co-director and co-producer of the film, which is produced by Five Sisters Productions. Another of the five sisters, Charity, is a ’94 Denison grad. Both expect to be in Columbus this weekend for the opening.

“Manna” was shot in Buffalo, N.Y., the Burtons’ hometown, with a cast that includes three Academy Award winners, an Academy Award nominee, and a Tony nominee. More and more talented actors are looking to smaller, independent films for the roles that studio films don’t offer them. Gabrielle C. Burton said that all of the actors who read the script, including Shirley Jones, Cloris Leachman, Seymour Cassel, Jill Eikenberry, and Frank Gorshin, signed on enthusiastically. “Wendie Malick called us on her cell phone from an airplane as soon as she had finished reading it,” Burton said.

A restricted production budget wasn’t the only hurdle; the bigger obstacle is distribution. The average marketing budget for a studio film is $35 million, money that the Burtons didn’t have. What they did have was complete faith in their project and a determination to get it to the audience they knew was out there.

“We opened the movie in August in Missouri, and it’s been gradually picking up momentum. We opened on one screen, and then it went to Kansas City and opened on one screen and expanded to three screens. Then it went to Washington and opened on four screens. And then in Buffalo, and now Columbus, we’re getting what would basically be considered a small studio release,” said Burton. “The Buffalo opening went wonderfully. (‘Manna’) opened as the number 47 film in the nation, playing in just one city. And on a per-screen average, it was number 14 in the nation.”

“A normal independent film often plays one or two weeks in the theater, and then it’s gone,” Gabrielle explained. “Studio movies will get booked in for a month or six weeks at a time. An independent film, even if you’re doing well, if a studio film is booked, you’ll get bumped. One of the theaters in Buffalo, we were the number two film, and they still bumped us, because they had all this studio pressure. But five of the theaters (in Buffalo) kept renewing it, and that’s extraordinary, because when you’re an independent, you are the first to go.

“Most films lose 30-50 percent of their box office (after the first week), but this one has been retaining it. I think it was the AMC CEO that said, ‘This movie is defying gravity.’ So it could be a ‘Greek Wedding.’

“(‘Manna’s’) performance already has been very impressive to the theaters. And the Buffalo moment was a very important decision point for the theaters, because if it couldn’t have held its own in eight theaters, then it wouldn’t get any other bookings. And not only did it hold its own, but it opened as the number-one movie in Buffalo, which was incredible. Now the next step is, can it hold its own in Columbus?

“All of the Columbus theaters are booking us for only one weekend at a time. They count up Friday, Saturday, Sunday ticket sales, and compare it with all the other films in the multiplex. It could even be number two or three and still get bumped by studio pressure,” Burton said.

“What’s most interesting is that it’s really up to the people. We have a sort of a campaign slogan: ‘Vote at the box office.’ For any movie that you care about, just make sure that you’re aware that you’re casting a vote for more movies like that. For ‘Manna,’ it’s incredible how every ticket sale directly affects its future. Will it get renewed for next week? Will it go to other cities? It really comes down to people. They are the ones getting your movie out.

“There are a lot of films out there that play on the idea that the world’s an awful place, very violent films that don’t necessarily contribute anything. We care about making films that are both very entertaining and can affect people’s lives, that are worth watching. I think that film is really one of the most powerful mediums today, and (filmmakers) need to be aware, even if they’re trying to sell tickets, of what message they’re putting out there,” Burton said.

“I don’t know if there was ever a good time to be an independent filmmaker. It’s very difficult. A lot of people say, ‘Oh, I’ll wait for the video’ of independent films. It’s very hard now to get video deals unless the movie is already a blockbuster in the theaters,” Burton explained.

“It’s so unusual for filmmakers to try to buck the system and get their movie straight to audiences. It’s really exciting that it’s working. It’s exhausting, but it’s exciting.”