If you've been in contact with me recently, you'll know that I've become addicted to listening to podcasts recorded at the Commonwealth Club of California. I can't go more than a minute without referencing one of these interesting lectures/discussions. The discussions cover a wide range of topics, including state and federal policy, technology, the economy, and, in this case, food.
While washing the dishes just now I was listening to a May 18, 2011 talk by Anna Lappe entitled "Diet for a Hot Planet". She pits the disinformation machine of Industrial Agriculture (read: "Eeeevil") against the consensus (btw, if not everyone yet agrees, it's not yet a consensus) that we need healthy, sustainable farming. I'm on her side. But then, to demonstrate how enlightened the general public is, and therefore how skeptical we are of Industrial Agriculture's attempts to trick us, she says, "I just recently saw that Food, Inc. was just named as one of the top-selling DVDs of all time" (13:34).
Whuuuut? Food, Inc.? The documentary? Have I been asleep at the wheel while a documentary of all things has catapulted to the top of the DVD sales charts? Let's consult The Numbers, that great gospel of information (which, by the way, lists Food, Inc. as the 180th highest grossing film for 2009).
2009's DVD sales chart is topped by Twilight, at 10,233,407 units sold. Wow, that's a lot. How a lot is it? Well, if Food, Inc. is going to step up to the challenge, it will need to sell DVDs to approximately 17 times as many people as saw the movie in the theater. Which means that each person who saw Food, Inc. in the theater must have rushed home, phone-treed their top 16 friends (let's assume the theater goers will treat themselves to a copy), and shouted, "Listen up, peeps: Food, Inc. is so incredibly good, you need to rush out right now, not to the theater, where you can see it for $10, but to the video store, where in approximately five months you can BUY the movie for a mere $20! Go, go, go!"
To date, Food, Inc. has earned $4,215,785 in DVD sales. That's not quite enough to make it into the Top 100 for either 2009 or 2010 (assuming all of its sales were lumped into one year). Okay, but wait; there are a lot of different ways to slice the data. Maybe Anna Lappe is talking about top-selling documentary DVDs. Huh, huh? And we'll use a strict interpretation of the word 'documentary', so that Food, Inc. needn't compete with the indomitable Jillian Michaels: 30 Day Shred ($12,018,213 in DVD sales to date). But Michael Jackson's This Is It has grossed $44,715,642. That's right, the King of Pop.
So, um, what list is Anna Lappe talking about? Maybe she's talking about Amazon's best-selling list, per this article. Now I'm rather skeptical. Food, Inc. is ranked #12 in 2010 (not too bad, but also not #1). It was ranked 38th for its DVD debut week. Searching, searching. BOOM, there it is. For the week of January 25th, 2010, Food, Inc. is indeed the biggest seller; so big, in fact, that it is the biggest seller of January altogether. Though it drops to #4 the next week, and keeps dropping thereafter. By February 8th, Michael Jackson and Jillian Michaels have re-assumed their proper place in the world.
Okay, so I was wrong. Food, Inc. was a top-selling DVD. Emphasis on was. The week of Lappe's talk, though, it wasn't even in the top 100 (though Jillian Michaels held strong at #14). In my opinion, it's a mis-representation to say that a DVD "was just named as one of the top-selling DVDs of all time" when, in fact, it topped one vendor's list for one week, a title claimed by, presumably, approximately 500 other titles at one point or another. Also, "all time" implies a cumulative effect, looking across, you know, "all time". But since over "all time" Food, Inc. has brought in just over $4 million in DVD sales, and the week of Lappe's talk, for just that single week, Justin Bieber: Never Say Never earned $8,766,313 in DVD sales, I must conclude that, in fact, I was not asleep at the wheel: Food, Inc. is not a best-selling DVD of all time.
I'll let Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen ($217,527,512 in sales) duke it out with Twilight (10,233,407 units) to determine the semantic definition of "best-selling". But Food, Inc. will be lucky to get nose-bleed seats at that fight.
(I can't resist this bit of irony. Shortly after Lappe's talk, the Commonwealth Club hosted a lecture entitled "Tangled Webs: How False Statements are Undermining America". You're undermining America, Anna Lappe. Go, Twilight! But seriously, people. Eat your veggies.)