When the movie "What the Bleep Do We Know?!" first screened in San Francisco in July, it ended in a bull session involving hundreds of filmgoers.
By the time the staff of the Metreon cinema had finished sweeping up the last kernels of popcorn in the theater aisles, no one had left their seats - over 600 people were buzzing about the independent movie that poses metaphysical questions such as "Is matter real?" and "What effect does thought have on our bodies and our experience?"
The low-budget movie, which expands to 151 screens this weekend, is partly a fictional story of a woman experiencing a midlife crisis and partly a documentary-like look at the big questions of life, the universe, and, well, everything. (Imagine a Hallmark Channel weepie spliced together with Carl Sagan's "Cosmos.")
"What the Bleep?!" has developed into a word-of-mouth hit following a gradual nationwide rollout that began nine months ago in a small Washington town. As it's opened in more and more theaters, it's garnered repeat business from many moviegoers. Some have even formed discussion groups to talk about the film's attempt to create a unified theory of reality by combining ideas from quantum physics, neural science, and mystical philosophy.
That's not to imply that "Bleep" is a massive phenomenon. But the movie's longevity in theaters and $5.5 million box-office total - impressive for a film its size - may reflect a growing interest among some segments of American society in the connections between mind, body, and spirituality.
"These [ideas] have always been popular among a subset of people but I think now, especially, they're really coming into their own," says Laura Sheahan, senior religion editor at Beliefnet.com. "It's becoming more mainstream to try to reconcile spirituality with brain chemistry or questions of the body."
Put in that wider context, the film's box-office draw isn't surprising. Interest in searching for connections between health and spirituality can be seen in everything from the boom in yoga to the research activities of medical schools and institutions like the Mind/Body Medical Institute in Boston. Newsweek recently devoted a cover story to "The New Science of Mind & Body."
"What the Bleep Do We Know?!" has so far found most of its core audience by marketing to groups that already list toward the concept that thought can affect one's experience. It has drawn an audience ranging from members of the Unitarian Universalist church and the Bahai faith, to chiropractors and practitioners of Chinese medicine, to fans of Dr. Wayne Dyer or the Institute for Noetic Sciences.
"This community is deeply connected by e-mail," says Steven Simon, cofounder of the Spiritual Cinema Circle, a DVD subscription service of inspirational films.
Those Internet ties, in addition to fliers posted in Yoga studios, health food stores, and churches, helped the picture expand from showings at film festivals to isolated cinemas around the Northwest. Each time "Bleep" appeared on a new screen, theater owners were astonished at the response to the movie. At the Harkins Valley Arts cinema in Tempe, Ariz., "Bleep" continues to monopolize the theater's single screen five months later. After a similar turnout in Los Angeles, the film was picked up for distribution by Samuel Goldwyn Films.
The movie has had a rougher time from movie reviewers, who have treated the film little better than a documentary equivalent of "Gigli," as well from investigative journalists. Some critics insist that "What the Bleep?!" is less interested in exploring the cluster of similar ideas in the mind/body area than it is in promoting a hidden agenda. All three of the film's directors are students of the Ramtha School of Enlightenment (RSE), a sect based in Yuma, Wash. "Bleep" includes interviews with RSE founder JZ Knight, who claims to channel Ramtha, a 35,000-year-old spirit. A chiropractor and a former Roman Catholic priest interviewed in the film are not identified as RSE students, an omission that some critics call less than candid.
Director William Arntz, the movie's financier, says the film was meant to communicate core propositions shared by many schools of thought and some scientists.
"So many different groups get so much from it and say, 'this is exactly what we teach,' " says Mr. Arntz. "I think that shows the universality of what we were talking about, which was our intent all along."
"Bleep" enthusiasts are eager to discuss it with others. Forums about "Bleep" vary from a colloquy held by Cincinnati fans of spirituality author Ken Wilber to a five-week course by a Religious Science Church in Denver.
"I think when people go to see this film, it's a catalyst. It opens up the whole possibility of talking about 'what is reality?' " says Richard Miles, a San Francisco-based lay minister in the Unity Church, who has hosted seven public discussions on the movie. "That kind of thing isn't talked about and people want to talk about it."
Mary Ann Brussat, a movie reviewer for Spirituality/Health magazine, cautions that the movie is too quick to offer simplistic answers to complex questions and suggests that its appeal may lie in people's desire to control an uncertain world. "You can say, 'We're in control' whereas, frankly, most religions say we are not the ones ultimately in control," she says. "I think that's what the yearning is about. It's more for control and for a system than it is for engaging the big questions."
For Janice Robillard, a Boston-based book dealer who saw "What the Bleep" because a friend in San Diego recommended it, the movie is a step toward reconciling religion and science.
"Of course, I don't know that much about quantum physics but, on the other hand, everything they said I've imagined," says Ms. Robillard. "When I think in the way that they're thinking, that's always when I feel most peaceful and at one with the world."