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<b><i>Manna From Heaven</b></i> Opens in Buffalo

The Burton Sisters
The Burton Sisters

By Joyce Kryszak

Buffalo, NY – The locally filmed movie, Manna From Heaven, returns to Buffalo Friday night at several AMC and Regal theatres. It's the next -- and biggest stop -- on a grassroots "whistle stop" distribution by the Buffalo born, Five Sisters Productions.

This weekend's ticket sales are crucial to having the movie held over and distributed more widely. Until now, the Burton family has been selling their movie, city by city, with the same devotion -- to the film -- and each other -- that got it made in the first place.

Some have compared the Burton's movie to the surprising success of My Big Fat Greek Wedding -- another feel-good film that defied all odds, and industry standards, by winning audiences across the country. Why? Well, like the "big fat" summer hit, Manna from Heaven's plot is fun, quirky and filled with heart. And it boasts an all-star cast. But what really makes this movie sing is inspiration.

The family behind this family values flick is truly inspired. There are the Five Sisters -- hence the name of the company: Maria, Jennifer, Ursula, Gabrielle Jr. and Charity. Then Mom and Dad, who are, as you might guess, the genesis of the talent. The second oldest daughter, Jennifer, says it helps to have a big family when making a film, and marketing it on a shoestring.

"The average advertising budget for a studio film is $35 million. And we are basically working with green fliers and our own energy," said Jennifer Burton."

They have both energy and green fliers to spare. There's a good chance you've seen them around =- piles of green flyers, cleverly printed to look like twenty dollar bills -- lots of Manna from Heaven. And the Burton clan handing them out, personally greeting audiences across the country on what they call their "whistle stop tour." Maria admits the approach is a bit unorthodox.

"We've had some silly kind of things," said Maria Burton. "Like once a "Meet the Burtons" in a grocery store from 2 to 6, and some people came in and said, 'I don't like the movies, but can you tell me where the eggs are?'"

But it's a novelty that seems to be paying off. Although, you'll not get all the Burtons to agree on why.

Jennifer believes, without taking anything away from the movie, that having a story behind the story certainly doesn't hurt.

"There has to be some reason that people go to the box office the first weekend, or the second weekend to see a movie," said Jennifer Burton. "And there's always some story that gets people there, or a star they want to see -- something in particular. So, having people say, 'oh, yeah, there were five sisters,' is something to get them there in the first place. But, what's been really striking is that once we get them in there, they tell their friends, and that's why we grow in the box office."

Still, quality films aren't all that distinguish this family raised in Amherst. Their resumes include schools like Harvard and Yale, as well as a list of film credits. And, everyone wears at least two hats, often exchanging roles as directors, actresses and editors. Most amazing is that they do it without a hint of animosity. Young Gabrielle, who disagrees with Jennifer about what draws people to the film, says their disagreements actually make their art better.

"We know that we're all on the same team, so, that's a wonderful richness," said Gabrielle Burton, Jr. "And the differences of opinion actually make us each really think through our creative decisions, why we want something. It's not just an impetuous kind of decision, but, something we really talk through."

Another team member is Gabrielle Senior, the girls' mother, and screenwriter of the film. She says the girls learned to support one another at a very young age, when two of them tried out for the same part in a community play.

"Jennifer got the part and Ursula didn't, and she was devastated," said Gabrielle Burton, Sr. "And her Godfather told her, 'clap loudly for your sister, because some day she'll be in your audience.' And that really became the family motto. We tried to teach that everything would come around, that there would be enough for all."

It's a philosophy that was extended to another family tradition. "First Turn," as the Burtons call it, became an efficient way of dividing both responsibility and privilege. The seven family members were each matched to day of the week, taking over all the chores and perks of their assigned day. They recall some of their unconventional "first turn" dinners.

Ursula remembers too what it was like being the one in the spotlight. When it came to entertaining, she says some of them enjoyed it more than others.

"I remember when Maria used to direct these magic shows, I actually hid one year, because I hated being her assistant so much," said Ursula Burton. "And I hid behind my father's bass, which terrified everyone because they couldn't see me, and they were running through the house a million times looking for me. And when they sent everyone home and my parents were going to call the police, I finally came out...and Maria said, 'Ta da!'"

Those talents grew, quite naturally, into successful independent film careers, as well as the family run company. Charity says it's never stifling. She says working as a family gives them a special freedom.

"We're in it as a family, we're in it as people who love each other, and desire to have a product out there that we're proud of, and other people will be proud of," said Charity Burton."

And no one is prouder of Five Sisters Productions than their parents. In fact, their Dad, Roger, came out of retirement to be the producer for this film. But Roger says his favorite credit is being co-producer of the five girls.

"It's such a privilege to work with your family, and your children, and to feel that they're so very, very good," said Roger Burton. "They're really tops,"

You can meet the Burtons this weekend. They will be greeting fans at local AMC and Regal theatres when Manna From Heaven opens this Friday in the Buffalo area.