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'What the Bleep,' Channeling a Profit

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 20, 2005; Page N03

When the DVD of "What the Bleep Do We Know!?" hit the market last week, it did so after earning more than $10 million in theaters over the past year and a half and trailing only "The Incredibles" among preorders on Amazon.com.

Not bad for a movie you've probably never heard of. Or maybe you have: "The Bleep," as it's affectionately called among partisans, used the same kind of viral, grass-roots marketing that made such unlikely hits of "The Blair Witch Project," "Fahrenheit 9/11" and "The Passion of the Christ." Indeed, "The Bleep" may fairly be described as sort of a secular-humanist version of "The Passion," making the case as it does for a science-based, nonsectarian understanding of spirituality.


Marlee Matlin in "What the Bleep Do We Know!?," which has transcended financial expectations. (Photos Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment)

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Of course, some viewers see "The Bleep" as more akin to the anti-Bush polemics of "Fahrenheit" -- New Age propaganda pure and simple. And then there are those few skeptics who see in "Bleep" a hoax of "Blair Witch" proportions, their radar set off by the film's heavy reliance on a woman who claims to channel the voice of a 35,000-year-old spirit from Atlantis.

One thing's for certain: "The Bleep" is a certified phenomenon, all the more unlikely for being a part-fiction, part-nonfiction film that combines live action, animation, fantasy and realism to propound the theory that we create our own realities through the miracles of quantum mechanics and metaphysics. Marlee Matlin stars as an unhappy wedding photographer who embarks on a cosmic quest for meaning, her character's picaresque tale weaving in and out of talking-head interviews with scientists, physicians and philosophers. Although "The Bleep" received mixed-to-poor reviews (The Post's Michael O'Sullivan wrote that "it feels like a PBS special hosted by a series of low-rent Deepak Chopras and an infomercial for self-help audiotapes"), the film doggedly hung on at theaters while better films -- with bigger budgets and marketing efforts -- faded away.

Much of the credit for that success can be taken by John Raatz, whose Los Angeles-based public relations company, the Visioneering Group, masterminded "The Bleep's" marketing. Raatz, whose Web site describes the company as "a public relations firm linking spirit, vision and values with communication to promote a positive future," set up more than 100 screenings of "The Bleep" for yoga teachers and practitioners, as well as spiritual groups. He put ads for the film in publications such as Yogi Times, Whole Life Times and the Light Connection. He also enlisted employees and scores of volunteers nationwide to distribute posters, fliers and postcards touting the movie. At its height, "The Bleep" was in 200 cities and grossing between $500,000 and $600,000 a week.

But even before Raatz came aboard, word of mouth about "The Bleep" had begun to percolate, mostly because of the efforts of one of the film's three producers.

William Arntz, an Internet millionaire who ponied up the film's $5 million budget, had studied at Ramtha's School of Enlightenment, where JZ Knight, a middle-aged woman who claims to channel Ramtha, the Atlantis spirit, teaches ("The Bleep's" other producers also studied at the school). Arntz persuaded a theater in Yelm, Wash., where the school is located, to show the film, knowing that the ideas floated in the movie would find a sympathetic audience.

Next, he persuaded the management at the Baghdad Theater in Portland, Ore., where "The Bleep" was filmed, to show it on a week-by-week basis; the movie played there for an unprecedented 19 weeks.

At that point, Samuel Goldwyn Co., seeing a New Age cult hit, picked up the film for distribution, Arntz hired the Visioneers, and a phenomenon was born.

But not without controversy. Several viewers have felt hoodwinked that the identities and affiliations of "The Bleep's" "experts" are revealed only at the end of the movie. Several scientists have piped up to say that the filmmakers mangle quantum mechanics into an unrecognizable mishmash, and at least one of the film's on-screen sources, Columbia University philosophy professor David Albert, has distanced himself from the film, accusing the filmmakers of distorting his views. Meanwhile, the DVD of "The Bleep" continues to do brisk business, not to mention the T-shirts, hats and "Dr. Emoto Water Crystal" merchandise for sale on the "Bleep" Web site. The Post's Style section never did run a review of the film because this critic found it too stylistically lame and intellectually dotty to pass serious muster. But what the bleep do I know?


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