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
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
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
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
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
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.