‘The Downline’ delves into Utah’s billion-dollar biz: Network Marketing
Network marketing promises a self-made American dream: work at home, work for yourself and earn big dollars.
The proposition can be irresistible. Not even the cameraman for "The Downline," a documentary about the subject, debuted at the Main Street Mall Thursday night as part of The Park City Film Music Festival could pass it up. At the half-way point of the film, he emerges from behind the camera to become the subject of the film a multi-level marketing (MLM) distributor himself.
"Andy would be editing footage and call me as he was watching the footage he’d filmed excited and wanting to do it," "The Downline" director Eric Martinis recalls of his director of photography and former Brigham Young University roommate. "He would set up the camera on a tripod and talk over some of the shots so that we couldn’t use them. Finally we just made him a subject in our film."
Martinis says Utah’s network marketing is a $4 billion industry in Utah and calls Utah County "the Silicone Valley of Network Marketing." In Utah County alone, he quotes that there are nearly 300 businesses in the MLM industry. Senators Bob Bennett and Orrin Hatch, he adds, fiercely protect the industry from government interference, because of its success in the state.
"Now that I live outside Utah on the East Coast and look back, I think Utahns are susceptible to the MLM industry because of the LDS culture. People are very trusting, and the companies bred a lot of good marketing people that were successful," he said after his film premiered.
A graduate of the BYU film program, Martinis was interested in making a film about the subject when he found out there weren’t any documentaries about it.
He calls "The Downline" a labor of love, editing 137 hours of footage in a four-month post-production period, and hiring illustrator Scott Jarrard to create tongue-and-cheek animation that diagrams the concepts of pyramid schemes and network marketing. The film also uses archival footage from MLM and pyramid scheme propaganda films from the 1950s and 1960s to lighten the content.
For 18 months, "The Downline" follows four main subjects who put down $1,000 each to join a Provo, Utah, start-up network marketing company called Agel: an ambitious "rookie" from Texas, a Utah "mother," a "professional" couple from Pennsylvania who have succeeded with other companies in the industry and a Texan millionaire "businessman" looking for a new project that will yield him additional residuals for his young wife and children.
In addition to having a film crew shoot conventions and interviews, Martinis handed each subject their own camera, which allowed him to collect footage from the subjects’ travels in Russia, Israel and Japan, affordably (the budget of his film, he says, was a little more than $100,000).
Of the group, Dan Schlager, the "rookie" with a degree in physical education, has the highest hopes.
"People didn’t think I’d amount to much," he says. "But I’m going to get my house in California, my Range Rover."
Shlager adds that he has confidence because of his youth he is in his mid-20s and if others his age see that they can live the lifestyle he leads, he is sure that they will become part of his distribution team.
Having a story to tell is key to recruiting others to make a commission, the scholars and professionals featured in the film stress, since not only do distributors earn money off of what they sell, but also on each new person they lure into the company.
Agel’s distributors sell vitamins in a gel form in single-serving packages. The idea behind the concept is that it’s something unique with a story to tell. Agel boasts a product so singular in construction that "it can be explained word-of-mouth."
"[Network marketing] is not really for everyone not everyone can do it," says Martinis. "While a lot of MLM’s would lead you to believe you can make a lot of money without really working, that’s really not the case and that’s when people get upset. There are different levels of success and if you’re not comfortable making more than your car payments, you won’t be disappointed."
Schlager eventually admits toward the end, that Agel was a lot of work, but a good learning experience. He goes on to work with Burnlounge, an Internet-based music download network marketing company, which he finds appealing because he says he always wanted to be in the music business.
"Once you work for yourself, you really can’t go back to working for someone else," he says.
David and Ann Feinstein, the "professional" couple who have worked in the industry before, go on to have great success introducing Agel to Israel, eventually earning the title of "Diamond Directors" from the Agel company. Footage of their home in Pennsylvania shows them living a comfortable life in a large home with a swimming pool, multiple cars and multiple dogs.
"When I look at people who have not had the same success, I know why: they’re not plugged in," Ann Feinstein claims. "They’re not plugged into the system."
But later, the film explains the wealthy "businessman" Hank Hutcherson seemingly so convinced of the marketing company, that he leaves Agel, and "mother" Tia Bunker ends up struggling to open the Russian market as she had hoped.
There many critics of the MLM company throughout the film, who additionally cast a shadow on the promise of the industry, explaining that they’ve known people who have lost their shirt, lost their friends, divorced their spouses and even taken their own lives after failing in network marketing.
In an interview for mlmblog.com, Martinis says the biggest surprise was how closed a lot of people are to talking about their business on camera.
"In a world where everyone is promoting themselves, the idea of a documentary film about network marketing shut them up pretty quickly," he told mlmblog.com. "I thought most people would jump at the chance. And it wasn’t limited to network marking professionals we found that anti-network marketing people were just as camera shy! We also really tried to interview Senator Orrin Hatch. Surprisingly, he had no comment."
While Martinis interviewed MLM company giants like Amway, NuSkin, USANA and Noni, none would agree to participate in his documentary, in part because of the "pyramid scheme" stigma attached to their industry.
Martinis was introduced to the MLM company Agel through his brother-in-law, he says, and selected many of his subjects by attending a "pre-launch" convention for the company.
The film was chosen as part of the Park City Film Music Festival’s fourth year lineup because seven original songs in the soundtrack were composed by two members from the band Live: Chad Gracey, a drummer, and Patrick Dahlheimer, a bassist.
Thursday evening, Martinis said though network marketing was not his cup of tea, he remains neutral on the subject and he was concerned that his film remained impartial.
"If I would have been super positive [about the MLM industry] I could have sold the film as a marketing tool, and if I would have been super negative, I could have slammed it," he explained. "It was important to me that it was balanced."
"The Downlie" will screen tonight at 8:30 p.m. at Towne Cinemas at 120 West Main Street in American Fork, Utah.
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