The power of 5

By Ellen Neuborne

At Five Sisters Productions, the filmmaking Burton sisters stay true to their individual artistic visions while maintaining an egalitarian and inclusive spirit.

For anyone who loved The Sound of Music or The Partridge Family, Five Sisters Productions is a fantasy come to life. Five Burton sisters have banded together to create an artistic venture in the image of these American cultural icons—but all grown up.

The five Burton siblings are artists in every possible sense: They act, sing, write, make movies and travel the country promoting their films and spreading their message. Their parents are on the payroll, and now that one sister is a mom, the next generation has joined in the fun, handing out fliers at opening night and taste-testing movie-house popcorn.

Sounds charming. Except, of course, that this is a life of hard work, constant collaboration and compromise, and many, many nights of making dinner out of canned tuna and concession-stand leftovers, according to the sisters. Although the staff of the Los Angeles-based company expands during filming and production—as it did for their 2002 theatrical release, Manna from Heaven—the core firm is made up of just the seven Burtons: Maria, Jennifer, Ursula, Gabrielle, Charity and their parents, Roger and Gabrielle Sr.

And there's more than enough work to go around, the Burtons report. “When we were on the road with Manna from Heaven, I was handing out fliers to people in line at a theater, and one man said to me, ‘Wow, you're living the dream!';” recalls Maria, the oldest of the 30-something sisters. (Mindful of Hollywood's youth obsession, they decline to reveal their precise ages.) “I thought, ‘He's got to be kidding!' I'm working 12- to 14-hour days doing grassroots marketing. This is not the glamorous life that people think of when they think of filmmakers.”

Manna is a comedic fable about what happens when you get a “gift from God” (a financial windfall), but many years later you find out it was a just a loan—and it's due immediately. The ensemble cast includes Shirley Jones, Cloris Leachman and Shelley Duvall. Middle sister Ursula plays a lead role. The movie—with a screenplay written by Gabrielle Sr., the sisters' mom—was released last spring on DVD.

The sisters hope their tiny company makes it big. “An executive said to us recently, ‘You have a reputation of being a boutique company that makes high-quality films and doesn't want to be corrupted by Hollywood's money,'” says Charity, the youngest Burton. “On one hand, we thought, ‘What? Corrupt us!'”

But until “corruption” comes knocking, Five Sisters is carving out its own way of making a company run. The sisters' management style is largely collaborative. They have constant, connecting, evolving conversations that help them prioritize their efforts, produce their art and, ultimately, support each other. They communicate regularly, via cell phone when necessary, to keep all five in the decision-making loop.

Last year, for example, Five Sisters was approached with an unusual business proposition. A company wanted to hire Five Sisters to help distribute a film. (Five Sisters had made a bit of name for itself in independent film circles for handling the distribution and marketing of Manna in-house.) The idea was intriguing—and potentially lucrative—but it was not a strictly artistic project and therefore a departure from the core business plan. The five caucused via cell phone—across multiple states and time zones. Tapping their free cell-to-cell wireless calling plan, the sisters were able to discuss the project, craft a counteroffer and make the corporate decision to move forward, all within an hour.

Not every decision happens that quickly. They schedule regular retreats in which the five leave their work behind and devote several days to discussing business goals. And they are always on the lookout for new ways to keep the conversation going. “When we were growing up,” recalls Jennifer, “there was a focus: How do we keep seven lives afloat at the expense of none? How do we do that without having the mother, father, or any of the siblings stuck with all the work? We had to figure out ways of thinking through problems so that everyone is able to get as much of their needs met as possible.” Take, for example, the selection of a director for Manna. Who would hold this title? Maria, the sister with the most direction experience, seemed a logical choice. But film-school-trained Gabrielle also wanted the job. The resolution: They co-directed.

A natural beginning

The company came together by organic inspiration rather than master plan. In 1997, Maria was at work in the film industry, directing a project in which Ursula was acting. Gabrielle, who at the time was fresh out of film school, also helped out. “When there's so much work to do, you just turn to your sisters, and they were right there to bail me out,” says Maria. It felt natural, she remembers. And it was the genesis of what would become the family business. On a weeklong retreat, the five hashed out their artistic vision, and their company was born.

From the start, they eschewed traditional hierarchy. There is no CEO of Five Sisters. Instead, they agree as a group to parcel out responsibilities according to talent, availability and willingness. Jennifer, who is married with a young son, manages much of the financial and business systems work; she coordinates with investors, manages e-mail and cell phone systems and, when pressed, takes the role of CFO. Gabrielle handles media relations and publicity.

Since they launched Five Sisters, the Burtons have produced a steady stream of projects, including three feature films—Temps, Just Friends and Manna from Heaven—and a short film set for release later this year titled The Happiest Day of His Life, a send-up of wedding rituals in which traditional male and female roles are reversed.

In many ways, companies like Five Sisters are rewriting the roles of the traditional family business, says Douglas Breunlin, director of the family business program at the Family Institute at Northwestern University. Traditionally, he notes, family businesses leadership was passed down from father to son. But today's family businesses are exploring new paths to power. “The next horizon for the family business will be tackling this multiple-leader type of arrangement,” Breunlin says.

Still, as the company has matured, some traditional business structure has seeped into the workings. Jennifer has tackled the standardization of everyone's e-mail and virtual address books. A new rule puts a time limit on the sisters' freewheeling discussion sessions. Now, when a point person makes a decision, the others have 24 hours to respond with ideas or changes. And additional efforts have been made to carve out time during the week for each sister to work on individual rather than group projects. Maria is directing a documentary. Charity is a teacher in the Los Angeles public school system. Ursula had a part in the movie Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. “We support each other as artists, so it's a balance between business decisions and artistic interests,” says Ursula.

‘Clap loudly for your sister'

Outsiders often comment on the notion of five siblings working together, the sisters report. “People either can't imagine how we work with each other—telling us they can't even get through a lunch with their siblings—or they think we just have fun all the time,” says Maria. “The truth is that we love working together, as we like each other—we often socialize together as well—but it's also lots of hard work. The hard part about working with your family is you don't have a separate family not connected to your work.”

Do they fight? It's a question asked so often, they've put the answer in the FAQ section on their website, www.fivesistersproductions.com. (Their answer reads, in part, “Obviously, everyone fights, but as sisters, we can disagree, yet know that we are on the same side, or more easily see where the other is coming from—and, at the end of the day, we know that we're going to be spending every holiday together—so we have a base level of trust on top of our shared artistic values.”)

It helps to have had a childhood steeped in collaboration training. In grade school, both Jennifer and Ursula tried out for the same part in a school play. Jennifer got it. “My parents' friend said to me, ‘Clap loudly for your sister. Next time she'll be in your audience,'” Ursula recalls. “This has turned out to be a sort of motto for us.”

Charity tells the story of a trip she and the other sisters took to Paris when Jennifer was living there and singing in nightclub. “We were going to sing something together at the club,” she recounts. “Well, someone—not me—thought it would be a good idea to perform the song in the Paris subway as practice. I hated it. I felt like I couldn't say no, but I didn't want to do it. We ended up talking about it afterwards and deciding that there shouldn't be any command performances. It led to something that is a ruling principle of our company: People are there by choice, and even though we are a family that works together, we each can decide on a project-by-project basis what we want our involvement to be. Good communication and maintaining personal and professional boundaries are critical to maintaining a company of creative people—particularly when you';re related to each other.”

That's esential, says Northwestern University's Breunlin, since the breaking point of many family businesses comes when individual interests get lost. “The trick to collaboration is to manage it such a way that individuals don't end up feeling overly compromised,” he says. “It's a delicate process, requiring a lot of conversations among family members.” That's something the five Burton sisters know well.

Ellen Neuborne is a business writer based in New York City.

First Turn: How the Burton sisters resolve conflictsHow do five sisters make a decision? Most of the time, the Burtons debate until they reach consensus. Sometimes, they take a vote. But in other cases, they reach back into childhood for a tactic that has stood the test of time in the Burton family: “First Turn.”

It was a system developed by the Burton parents when the girls were young to cut down on the “My turn!” whining that inevitably comes with childhood. The parents assigned each of their daughters a day of the week. On that day, that daughter would be first—the first to ride in the front seat, the first to use a special toy, the first to choose a chocolate from the box.

As the girls got older, First Turn was tweaked not only to grant privileges but also to assign chores, such as cooking dinner and taking care of the family dog.

Now that the five Burton sisters are business partners, First Turn lives on, both as an organizational system and as a reminder that they’ve shared a lifetime of solving problems and working as a team.

Idiosyncratic conflict-resolution mechanisms that are deeply rooted in a family’s history are common in sibling partnerships, according to Ivan Lansberg, a family business consultant with Lansberg Gersick & Associates in New Haven, Conn. “These strategies are often unorthodox from a management standpoint and imbued with the culture and folklore of the families who invent them,” Lansberg wrote in his 1999 book Succeeding Generations: Realizing the Dream of Families in Business. “I have seen enough of these conflict-management arrangements to conclude that the particular mechanism is not as important as the existence of a pre-established dispute-resolution process that the family is willing to accept. The specific mechanisms work in most cases because they openly acknowledge that disagreements are inevitable and because they promote a sense of fair play and equity over time.”

—E.N.

FROM OUR ARTICLES LIBRARY Seven sisters’ success in electrical contracting fieldSeven Sisters Inc., a commercial and industrial electrical contracting firm in Sedro-Woolley, Wash., is owned by the seven Snelson sisters, though not all of them work for the firm.

“My six sister-partners and I … grew up in the construction business and were raised to be independent and to believe we could do anything we wanted if we worked hard and smart enough,” wrote vice president Christine M. Thompson in “The sisters’ secret weapons” (FB, Winter 2001). “Since it never occurred to us that others might not think seven young women belonged in the electrical contracting business, [in 1980] we just went ahead and acquired an under-used electrical division that was being phased out by our father’s construction company, Snelson Inc.”

The company name “has been an excellent marketing tool,” Thompson wrote. “It makes us stand out in the contracting business, where a company’s identity is critically important. Just mentioning our name is a great conversation-starter. ‘Are you really electrical contractors?’ general contractors ask. ‘Are there really seven of you?’ Once they hear our name, they’re unlikely to forget it—and that awareness is the first step toward landing a job.”

To read the whole article—including Thompson’s account of the difficulties she and her sisters encountered in starting their business—see our Articles Library at www.familybusinessmagazine.com.

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Summer 2006

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