How Much Trouble Does ‘The Master’ Spell for the Church of Scientology? (SPECIAL REPORT)

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As if the Church of Scientology didn’t have enough trouble already, what with the end of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes’ marriage and the muckraking epic article about their union in Vanity Fair. Now comes a little art house movie, one that made just $736,311 on five screens when it opened over the weekend, yet could be the biggest PR disaster of all for Scientology.

The Master, a thinly veiled biographical drama about a self-help guru much like L. Ron Hubbard who founds his own religion in the 1950s, seems poised to be a solid hit. Though it opened in a very limited release over the weekend, it scored a record-breaking $147,262 per-screen average in those five theaters, which suggests a strong buzz about the film that bodes well for its fortunes as it moves into wider release. Plus, the movie has critics raving — over the direction of Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood) and the performances of Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams — making The Master the year’s first awards frontrunner and guaranteeing that it’ll be the subject of conversation for the next six months.

And that could be bad news for Scientology, already reeling from Cruise’s divorce and other PR nightmares. For an organization heavily dependent on its association with prominent Hollywood folk like Cruise and John Travolta, a group whose litigiousness often scared away anyone who might say anything negative in print or on film, the release of The Master suggests that both Scientology’s sway over Hollywood and its ability to intimidate naysayers and defectors is on the wane.

Just how potentially embarrassing is ‘The Master’?

The Master tells the story of a Hubbard-like character named Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), a science fiction author who launches his own faith, one that promises self-improvement through the use of “processing,” a series of questions intended to uncover inner trauma and resolve issues that have lingered in past lives. The movie depicts him as a charismatic demagogue who buys his own line of con artistry and lashes out when confronted with the contradictions in his belief system.

The Master’s release comes on the heels of Maureen Orth’sVanity Fair article detailing claims that the Cruise-Holmes marriage came about only after the Mission: Impossible star auditioned several actresses as possible brides, settling for a time on Iranian-born actress and church member Nazanin Boniadi. It’s an account that’s been confirmed by Crash director Paul Haggis, Hollywood’s most famous Scientology defector, who says he is a friend of Boniadi’s. Over the weekend, an eight-page cease-and-desist letter to Vanity Fair was revealed, threatening legal action and calling the story a regurgitation of old falsehoods. The magazine is standing by Orth’s reporting.

“There’s no question that the movie comes at the worst possible time for the church,” wrote Tony Ortega, editor of the Village Voice and a Scientology expert who has been writing about the organization for 17 years, in an e-mail to Celebuzz. “Scientology is literally splitting apart as David Miscavige’s controversial tenure as church leader reaches a kind of breaking point. He’s trying to get more and more money from fewer and fewer people, and many longtime, loyal members are now breaking away to form an independence movement. That would be enough of a crisis for Miscavige, but the Cruise-Holmes divorce made things exponentially worse because it brought so much media attention to what’s been going on. And now, The Master is going to reach potentially millions more, and many of those audience members will naturally want to learn about the real figures behind its characters. They’ll turn to the Internet for that information, which will only increase interest in news stories about Scientology and its problems.”

According to Ortega — who gave the church another bit of bad news last week with his decision to quit the Voice and turn his Scientology columns into a book — the current crisis goes back much further than the unflattering Tom Cruise stories of recent months. “Scientology has been in serious trouble since 2009, when the Tampa Bay Times released its devastating series, ‘The Truth Rundown,’ which featured former high-level church executives speaking out for the first time,” Ortega told Celebuzz. “In the three years since, we’ve learned even more about the shocking conditions at Scientology’s international base in California, where officials who have fallen from favor are kept in appalling conditions, according to court testimony.”

But recent weeks have provided such a perfect storm of bad news for Scientology that some Hollywood observers wondered if distributor Harvey Weinstein — who knows better than anyone in Hollywood how to milk a controversy for silver at the box office and gold at the Oscars — had moved The Master’s release date up a month from its initial October berth just to cash in on Scientology’s current PR woes. The Weinstein Company has denied such a motive, insisting that it’s just taking advantage of positive buzz for the film generated at Venice and other recent film festivals.

The Weinstein Company reportedly received some anonymous threats over the film’s impending release but did not take them seriously. There have been no threats of legal action from the church, perhaps because Anderson’s screenplay has changed all the names, some of the details, and invented some characters and events out of whole cloth, allowing the distributor legal cover. Or perhaps the church realizes that ignoring the film is a smarter strategy than calling attention to it. “I’d be really surprised if the church filed a lawsuit over the movie,” Ortega told Celebuzz. “As you saw in the letter to Vanity Fair, they make a lot of threats, but that didn’t stop [Vanity Fair editor] Graydon Carter from publishing Maureen Orth’s story.”

Is Scientology avoiding threats because filmmakers and studios are no longer afraid of the church? Back in the early ’90s, the church was vigilant about policing potentially unflattering content in movies and TV shows; even a single proposed joke at Scientology’s expense could provoke a campaign of harassment, as the makers of the 1991 John Candy film Delirious discovered. By 1999, however, Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy could make a movie, Bowfinger, that mercilessly lampooned Scientology (fictionalized in the film as a cult called Mindhead), without suffering any repercussions. The church ignored that film, which was soon forgotten. That seems to be the strategy it’s taking today with The Master.

Ortega told Celebuzz that such a strategy is “playing it smart,” but Mike Rinder, the former chief spokesman for Scientology (who left the church in 2007), said it’s a sign of confusion and desperation. “The organization (read Miscavige) is probably troubled by The Master because they tried to stop it and couldn’t,” Rinder told Celebuzz in an e-mail. “In my estimation (and I have NOT seen the movie) based on the statements of Paul Thomas Anderson, the church would have been much smarter to take him at his word — that this is a movie ‘inspired by’ events in L. Ron Hubbard’s life and use it as a springboard to promote to people the real story of the life of L. Ron Hubbard.”

But that’s not the approach the church is taking, either with Vanity Fair or the Weinstein Company. Instead, Rinder said, the organization is either pouting or blustering. “The Weinsteins may receive a similar letter,” noted Rinder, “but it will [present] no more of a threat than the empty bleatings sent to Vanity Fair. The only difference being that they won’t sue Vanity Fair because the story is true, and they won’t sue the Weinsteins because the story is NOT true (and you cannot defame a dead person….). Miscavige and Cruise have lost all credibility.”

He added, “Sooner or later the media would realize that the threats from the church were all bark and no bite. As time has gone on, David Miscavige the leader of the church, has become increasingly ensconced in a bubble of sycophants. And thus his inability to understand the ramifications of his actions that create one public relations disaster after another. From sending “squirrel busters” with cameras on their head to try and harass and intimidate former members, to denying on national TV that they engage in “disconnection” to writing increasingly shrill “threat letters” that are now the subject of derision, Miscavige is in a tailspin that I think it is too late to pull out of.”

In any case, It’s not likely that an awards contender and art-house box office hit like The Master will drop off the radar any time soon. And its presence will only exacerbate what Ortega said “is the biggest crisis in the church’s 60-year history, and it shows no signs of slowing down.”

Anderson, who directed Cruise’s Oscar-nominated performance in 1999’s Magnolia, reportedly screened The Master for the actor as a courtesy. No word on what Cruise thought of the film.

UPDATE: (Tuesday, September 18, 10:30 AM ET) Amy Scobee, a former top church insider who left Scientology in 2005 after 27 years, told Celebuzz she thinks The Master is a major concern for the church (“I think it worries them greatly,” she said in an e-mail), but that Hollywood no longer finds the organization intimidating. “They are a laughing stock in Hollywood and they have lost respect,” she wrote. “No one likes a bully, which they are to the ‘t,’ and people are no longer afraid to speak up, thanks to the numerous defectors and media outlets that weathered the storm of retribution. We lived and kept speaking out. And were not worried about being sued (though threatened several times) because what we’re saying is true and can be easily proven. They would definitely not want to go legal and get all their dirty laundry out in the open even more.”

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