Western New York Catholic Newspaper

by Mark Ciemcioch

While many believe the election season to be over, for the Burton family it’s just beginning. But the election they’re preparing for is counted in tickets instead of votes, marquees instead of ballots.

Collectively, the family is responsible for making the independent movie “Manna from Heaven” and is beginning to reap the rewards of two years of work as the film opens in several markets, including Buffalo, in January. Since the movie doesn’t have the $35 million marketing budget many other studio films have, members of the family, parents Roger and Gabrielle and five sisters Charity, Gabrielle, Jennifer, Maria and Ursula, are traveling cross-country to promote the film in a get-out-the-vote effort.

“One thing that’s important for people to realize is how much power they have over the entertainment industry,” Jennifer said. “The only way movies like this will stay in theaters and continue to be made is to go see them.”

The Burton family has established quite a pedigree for themselves in the cultural community, as most of them have experience both in front of and behind the camera. Roger, who produced the movie, worked as a professional musician as well as a psychology professor at the University of Buffalo for many years before he retired to work with Five Sisters Productions, the company his daughters formed. His wife Gabrielle is a prolific writer, as the author of “Heartbreak Hotel” and “I’m Running Away from Home but I’m Not Allowed to Cross the Street.” “Manna” is Gabrielle’s third screenplay.

As for the daughters, Jennifer and Charity helped produce “Manna,” Gabrielle and Maria co-directed the film together and Ursula stars in the pivotal role as Theresa, the nun who becomes the catalyst for the latter-day events of the movie. Gabrielle and Jennifer both attended Harvard University (Jennifer earning her doctorate in English literature) in Cambridge, Mass., Maria and Ursula graduated from Yale University in New Haven, Conn., while Charity studied at Denison University in Granville, Ohio.

Filmed in Buffalo in mid-2001, the movie tells the story of one neighborhood that comes into a large windfall of money that mysteriously falls from the sky. A young girl proclaims the event as a “Gift from God,” and when she grows up and becomes a nun, she feels it’s time to pay the money back. Needless to say, the others aren’t really enthusiastic about the idea.

But for the creators of “Manna,” enthusiasm is not a problem when promoting the release of the film. The movie opened in selected markets in Missouri and Kansas in August and had a successful eight-week run, quite an accomplishment for an independent movie without a distributor. The Burtons, who have established a production company called Five Sisters Productions, have been working directly with the booking agents who determine what movies play in which theaters.

But because the movie has a relatively small marketing budget (and fundraisers are being held to increase that sum), members of the family are traveling to areas where the movie is playing and promoting the film themselves through interviews, flyers and setting up shop in supermarkets and churches.

It appears to be working. Following a successful screening in Washington, D.C., that was attended by Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., and Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, “Manna” opened in theaters in the capital region. Producers were very pleased when national chains AMC and Regal retained the movie at least through the beginning of the turbulent holiday season, including competition from a certain boy wizard named Harry Potter.

Western New Yorkers will have to wait a little longer to see “Manna” in a local theater. Originally set to open in the area on Dec. 6, the movie was pushed back to mid-January because an onslaught of franchise pictures and sequels have limited the number of screens. But the promotional push is still gearing up, with the cast and crew hitting town with events at churches, interviews with media and possibly a question-and-answer session with the filmmakers after a screening. A “Manna” van is also being created as part of the Art on Wheels exhibit. Similar to the Herd about Buffalo project from 2000, the van will be ready around the beginning of the year.

“Manna from Heaven” is another cultural brush with fame for Buffalo with a handful of films that either take place in the city or were filmed nearby, including “The Natural,” “The Last Seduction” and “Buffalo 66.” However, many of these movies featured very little of the city and were mostly filmed elsewhere (another movie, “Bruce Almighty” starring Jim Carrey, was partially filmed in Buffalo this year without the star ever setting foot in town). In the case of “Buffalo 66,” directed by Western New York native Vincent Gallo, the dreary cinematography of the film certainly didn’t do any favors for the tourism sector.

The Burtons took another direction with “Manna,” not only highlighting the various cultural, architectural and natural landmarks of the city, but also making the city a central character in the film, not unlike Woody Allen’s classic “Manhattan.” Shea’s, the Albright-Knox Gallery, the Niagara River and St. Teresa’s Church on Seneca Street are among the many landmarks seen in “Manna.”

“Buffalo is just unknown visually to people, and there are so many interesting architectural sights that people just don’t know about,” mother Gabrielle said, who tries to set many of her stories in the region. “They have an image of Buffalo being filled with snow and Bills games and that’s it. People have told me (“Manna”) is distinctly Buffalo.”

The role of religion also comes into play in the movie, as the screenwriter inserted her Catholic upbringing into the role of Theresa. Gabrielle said her Catholicism became part of her, and it managed to permeate into the comic fable that “Manna” is.

“It’s more culturally Catholic,” Gabrielle said of the movie. “The characters have a diverse berth of beliefs, so there’s a lot of ways people can relate.”

“(The movie) is something we were very familiar with,” said co-director Gabrielle. “We feel responsible to have a socially conscious movie. It’s not a religious movie per se, but it does appeal to a lot of religious people because it has values of community and rejuvenation.”

A key element to the films Five Sisters Productions make, as evident in “Manna,” is to create more of a family-oriented movie that everybody can see. The massive success of an independent movie like “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” which has grossed more than $200 million and is one of the most profitable films of the year, is showing Hollywood executives there is an audience for a product like “Manna.”

“What has been interesting to us is that this movie has had appeal to the Catholic audience, but it also has wider appeal,” Jennifer said. “People cared, and they wanted to see it out there. There aren’t that many movies that appeal like ‘Greek Wedding,’ but this is one of them.”

Just by talking to them, one can tell how proud the Burtons are of their product. Their third feature to date following “Temps” and “Just Friends,” “Manna” is their biggest production to date and includes an award-winning cast, including Seymour Cassel, Shelley Duvall, Frank Gorshin, Cloris Leachman and Buffalo native Wendie Malick. The Burtons found their family ties greatly helped in the production of the movie, to create the best product possible. This is the first time the five sisters worked on a script by their mother.

“They’re pretty tough though,” Gabrielle said of her daughters. “They cut out some of my best jokes, but they promised me they would be on the DVD.”

All joking aside, the Burtons all enjoyed working with one another, and are looking forward to doing it again.

“It’s really a great blessing,” said the mother. “It’s all very, very congenial.”