The morning after he uploaded his new movie “Froning: The Fittest Man in History” to the iTunes store, in early October 2015, the director Heber Cannon received a phone call from somebody at iTunes, who sounded bewildered.
“Froning,” a documentary about the four-time CrossFit Games champion Rich Froning Jr. that Cannon made as an employee of CrossFit Inc.’s media team, had shot overnight to the top of the U.S. iTunes sales chart for independent movies, and was sitting in third overall, directly below “Jurassic World” and the Melissa McCarthy comedy “Spy.” According to Cannon, the iTunes rep wanted to know how a film they’d never heard of had wound up beside blockbusters.
“They called us and said, ‘Who are you guys? How did you do this? What’s going on?’” Cannon said in a recent video interview. “We didn’t even have distribution. We had just done it ourselves. But when we dropped the film, it was like wildfire.”
Cannon and his creative partner Marston Sawyers, who work together under the name Buttery Bros, followed up “Froning” with a string of documentaries about athletes performing at the CrossFit Games. Held annually since 2007, first at a remote ranch in Aromas, Calif., and now at the 10,000-seat Alliant Energy Center in Madison, Wis., the CrossFit Games test athletes in a wide range of skills including running, cycling, Olympic lifting and gymnastics, and are designed to determine the fittest man and fittest woman on the planet. The films, which include “Fittest on Earth” (2016), “Fittest on Earth: A Decade of Fitness” (2017) and “The Redeemed and the Dominant: Fittest on Earth,” (2018), depict the Games in all their arduous, sweat-soaked agony, focusing on every explosive muscle-up and hefty snatch.
Tyson Oldroyd, a member of the CrossFit media team and a coordinating producer on the documentaries, credited their success to a community that is “just so hungry” to see their sport in action. “We’ve had some wild and exciting success around the launch of our films over the years, and the audience continues to show up,” he said in a recent interview. “The CrossFit community is and always has been ravenous for our content.”
Nico Bade, an owner of the CrossFit affiliate Mamba Gym and the founder of the German national CrossFit league, the Fitness Bundesliga, likened a CrossFitter watching the documentaries to a basketball fan watching LeBron James in the N.B.A. “Everyone has his hero or his role model in the sport, and we want to see them perform, as well as see them behind the scenes,” Bade said. “How are they warming up? What are they eating? Are they nervous before a competition?”
A familiarity with CrossFit isn’t mandatory to enjoy these movies. But, Bade said, it does help to have done these kinds of exercises — like handstand push-ups and jump rope double-unders — to have a sense of what the competitors are going through. “You cannot really relate to how hard this if you don’t already do the sport,” he said.
Mariah Moore, who assumed directing duties on the CrossFit docs after Cannon and Marston were laid off in 2019, said that films are mostly for a built-in audience. “These films were made for CrossFitters by CrossFitters,” she said in a recent interview. “Because we’re part of the community, we know what the community wants to watch. We don’t have to stop and explain what CrossFit is every time. The viewers know. It’s a franchise at this point, like ‘Fast and the Furious.’”
Although some people do discover CrossFit through the documentaries and not the other way around — particularly when some of the films began streaming on Netflix and were available to watch on Delta Air Lines flights, reaching broader audiences — an audience of CrossFitters may be audience enough. Justin LoFranco, the founder of the CrossFit news blog Morning Chalk Up, pointed out that while CrossFit as it stands is “anything but mainstream,” CrossFit athletes have shown a “tremendous buying power” as a community.
“CrossFit is not on the tip of everyone’s tongue or the fitness trend du jour,” he said, but added, “if 24 Hour Fitness were to release a documentary, where do you think that would sit on the charts?”