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A Self-Help Conspiracy

Mixing 'Da Vinci Code' intrigue with life advice, 'The Secret' climbs DVD and book charts

By CAMILLE RICKETTS
January 27, 2007
Wall Street Journal

Take some fairly standard self-help advice about focusing on your goals. Add "Da Vinci Code"-style mysticism and conspiracy theory, along with a dose of Hollywood special effects. Use word-of-mouth and the Internet to bypass traditional film marketing, and get the stars to participate for free.

The result is "The Secret," a movie that's emerging as one of the year's most successful multimedia franchises -- and shaking up the self-help category. The DVD is the No. 5 top-seller on Amazon. A tie-in book is No. 6 on The Wall Street Journal's nonfiction best-seller list, where it has been for the last four weeks, and is the No. 8 audiobook on iTunes. It's also available online as a streaming video for a $4.95 fee.

With a soaring soundtrack and CGI effects reminiscent of adventure films like "The Mummy," the 92-minute film follows a secret purportedly known to thinkers from Plato to Albert Einstein, but often kept hidden from the masses. This history is suggested through a montage of mysterious images: Medieval knights hiding yellowed scrolls, soldiers marching with torches, Enlightenment philosophers reading by candlelight. Interviews with advice experts -- many sitting in front of Da Vinci-like drawings of man -- are interspersed. The film's trailer promises nothing less than "a new era in mankind."

It is perhaps the most dramatic example of an emerging "enlightainment" subgenre that blends life advice with elements of entertainment. The creation of Rhonda Byrne, the 55-year-old head of an Australian production company whose previous credits include TV programs such as "The World's Greatest Commercials," the film has everyone from studio executives to book publishers taking notice.

So what exactly is the "Secret"? Simply stated: Envision what you want, and it will come to you. The message is elaborated on by the film's cast of 24 advice experts of varying levels of fame, most notably Jack Canfield, author of the best-selling "Chicken Soup for the Soul" series. The ensemble approach marks another departure for self-help projects, which usually promote a single guru.

Pat Thompson of Kansas City, Kan., was so intrigued by the film that she organized a screening for 40 friends and guests at a local Thai restaurant. "It's in today's language, so everyone can understand it in their own lives," says Ms. Thompson, who has bought two copies of the DVD and frequently lends them out to friends.

The enlightainment genre will get another boost this spring when 20th Century Fox releases "Seven Spiritual Laws of Success," a Deepak Chopra film that co-stars Olivia Newton-John and is loaded with special effects, including a sandcastle that is transformed into a tower to illustrate the power of the mind. Hay House, a publisher of self-help books, is about to begin production on a movie version of a 20-year-old title, Louise Hay's "You Can Heal Your Life," with an expected budget of $1 million.

If these films take off, it could mark a new phase of expansion for the growing self-help industry, estimated at $9.6 billion by Marketdata Enterprises. Figures like Dr. Phil McGraw, Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer have built massive multimedia empires. Self-help books alone account for more than $580 million in annual sales; 11 million copies were sold in 2006, up from 9.5 million in 2004, according to Nielsen BookScan, which says it tracks about 70% of retail book sales.

As with many self-help systems, Ms. Byrne's personal story is at the heart of the philosophy. In 2004, Ms. Byrne says, her company was on the brink of bankruptcy and she was struggling to cope with the death of her father. When things seemed to be at their worst, her 24-year-old daughter gave her a book. The book is unnamed in the movie, but on the "Secret" Web site, Ms. Byrne identifies it as Wallace Wattles's "The Science of Getting Rich," published in 1910, a classic of the self-help genre. She decided to make a film to share the book's message, which she says she has also identified in millenia-old texts.

A portion of the film's funding came from one of Australia's biggest TV channels, the Nine Network, which will air it as a special next month. Ms. Byrne says she mortgaged her apartment to raise more production funds, and credits "The Secret" with helping her to raise the $3.5 million for the film's budget.

This ensemble of experts proved instrumental to jump-starting word-of-mouth about the film. Between them, they had direct-marketing lists with hundreds of thousands of names. Before the release, they sent out a mass email linking to the film's trailer. Recently, some of them have promoted the movie on "Larry King Live"; next week, they will be appearing on "The Oprah Winfrey Show."

One similar project getting a lot of buzz: a just-released DVD of "The Celestine Prophecy," the 1993 best-selling novel that blends fiction and spiritual philosophy, from Sony Pictures. The film sandwiches New Age theories between jungle scenes shot in the Costa Rican rainforest. "We see this as an underserved and growing market," says Jeff Yordy, vice president of marketing for Fox Home Entertainment.

As for Ms. Byrne, she's working on a sequel but won't reveal her release date: It's still a secret.