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Praying for 'Manna'

As they man their table at the Ballston cinemas, the Burton sisters know they’re living week-to-week.

Gabrielle, Maria and Ursula Burton sit in the mall for hours on end, waiting to pass out fliers to moviegoers, blue sheets of paper extolling the virtues of “Manna from Heaven,” the film from their own Five Sisters Productions. They are joined occasionally by Anthony Dobranski, an Alexandria resident and one of the backers of the film.

It’s a peculiarly uncinematic way of merchandising the film. There are no television ads to draw in crowds, no cardboard cutouts of the main characters, next to no advertising budget at all, and the Burtons don’t stay in deluxe hotel rooms but depend on Dobranski’s generosity during their stay in the Washington area

But it’s the best way to breathe life into the independent film, said Gabrielle Burton, co-director of the film with sister Maria – a grass-roots campaign that brings the filmmaker and film viewer face to face.

The three Burton sisters, along with siblings Charity and Jennifer, all ranging from late 20s to mid-30s, financed the production of “Manna” in 2001 and have been touring the country with their movie over the last three months, setting up shop in friendly cinemas and encouraging local audiences to support “heart-warming independent cinema.”

“The thing we need to communicate to people is, they can’t wait,” said Ursula Burton, co-producer and actress in “Manna.” “This movie won’t stick around if they don’t go right away. Literally every single Monday determines if we go or not.”

“MANNA” TELLS the story of a group of working-class friends and neighbors who one day find their dreams coming true: Money seems to be falling from the sky.

They are convinced that the money will let them buy their way to true happiness. But soon after the movie begins, the action shifts to a generation later, and it becomes clear that money hasn’t solved anyone’s woes.

“So, many years later, one of the characters who convinced them all to keep it says they have to find out where it came from, and give it back,” said Gabrielle Burton.

It’s an unpopular idea, and one that a pair of con artists try to turn to their own benefit. But in the end, Gabrielle Burton said, in returning to their roots and their community, “everyone ends up doing at least one selfless act. In that moment, they end up getting the dreams they thought the money was going to buy them.”

It’s a modern-day fable, Ursula Burton said, a fable that her sisters said plays on pop culture concepts of American history. “The beginning has a ‘50s feel,” Maria Burton said.

“The idea is to not set it in a specific time,” Gabrielle added. “It begins when everything was young and innocent.”

“Manna” was filmed in Buffalo, where the Burtons went to high school and where they’re parents still live. But they were born in Washington and spent their childhoods in Bethesda.

It mixes in some religious overtones, but it’s not a religious movie. “It’s not Pollyanna-ish,” Gabrielle said. “It ends hopefully, but it doesn’t mean the world’s a perfect place. Like [‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’] is set in a Greek community, this is set in a Catholic community. It’s respectful of it, but it’s not a Christian movie.”

The cast is a mix of Burton sister cameos and more familiar actors from film and television. Shirley Jones and Frank Gorshin, 1960s-70s television fixtures on “The Partridge Family” and “Batman,” respectively, play the couple of con artists. Shelley Duvall, Jill Eikenberry and Cloris Leachman also add their talents to the mix.

THAT CAST, and “Manna’s” upbeat ending, have ended up stymieing some Hollywood marketers.

“A lot of the independent film companies are set up for more edgy films,” Maria Burton said. “A lot of the ones who like our movie said to us, ‘We just don’t know how to sell these movies.’”

But the success of “Greek Wedding” over the summer opened some doors. That film opened in April, scattered around the United States and taking in just over $500,000 on its opening weekend. By the beginning of November, the film had earned $185 million in the United States alone.

The Burtons hope to find similar success for “Manna” and hold their breath every Monday to see how close they’ve come. They opened the film in the Washington area on Oct. 9 and have been hanging on for three weeks already. To stay in cinemas, though, the Burtons have to make about as much money as the other films at the theater, and they have to compete for space with the oncoming tide of winter movies.

“They count up Friday-Saturday-Sunday tickets. Most movies lose 30-50 percent of ticket sales in that second week, and the same thing in the third week. By their fifth week, they’re usually done,” Gabrielle Burton said. “What’s unusual about ‘Manna’ is that it’s building audience. It’s been holding its own, or increasing a little bit its ticket sales.”

“It’s like living with my own ‘Project Greenlight,’” Dobranski said.

“How many filmmakers devote a year of their life to go out and work on a movie’s promotion?” Ursula Burton said.

IT’S STARTING TO pay off, though. At Ballston, the Burtons hear comments from moviegoers who have already seen their film, and they see copies of e-mails that impressed audience members have sent to their friends.

“An interesting thing about the way theaters work is that people go to the same theaters, whatever’s in their neighborhood,” Ursula said. “So as a week goes by, every fifth or eighth person will say, ‘Oh my gosh, I saw your movie, and it’s wonderful!’”

That makes the person standing behind the effusive viewer that much more likely to see “Manna” himself, she said.

But it’s also a treat for moviegoers to meet the filmmakers face to face.

“Opening weekend, I took a bunch of my friends and family,” Dobranski said. “My mom, the next day, the first thing she said to me was, ‘My goodness, people were stopping by the table afterwards and talking to them.’ I think people like to be involved, they want to see behind the curtain.”

An Unlikely Angel

Anthony Dobranski is not a veteran film producer. In fact, “Manna from Heaven” marks his first time in film credits.

But it was a natural choice to get involved in the film, he said. “Ursula and I went to college together,” he said. So he tried to keep track of her after school and saw the first Five Sisters film, “Just Friends,” on the Romance Channel.

“I thought it would be interesting to invest in a move that would let Five Sisters take the next step, and make a studio-quality film,” he said.

One of his rewards was an extra role in a crowd scene at the end of the movie, filmed over a free weekend when he took a trip to the Buffalo set. “In the movie, I’m visible in the background in one crowd scene,” he said. “But my parents saw me.”

Where and When

“Manna from Heaven,” rated PG for language and some sexual references, plays at 2:05, 4:40, 7:15 and 9:55 p.m. at Regal Ballston Common 12, 671 N. Glebe Road, inside Ballston Common Mall. More information is available online at www.fivesistersproductions.com, www.regalcinemas.com or by calling 703-527-9466. Tickets are $8.50 for adults, $5.25 for children and seniors, and $6 for shows before 6 p.m.