Putting the Cult Back in Culture

Source: Village Voice
Date: November 12, 1991

And now, the next Walt Disney Studios - the Church of Scientology! That is, if enterpreneurs connected with the Hollywood based cult can muscle into the film business with their proposal to homogenize films by tailoring them to the tastes of the unwashed masses.

It all began last July, when Future Films, a new, eccentric studio, began running ads in Variety and the Hollywood Reporter touting its revolutionary ideas. No one knew what to make of it all. The grand concept, to ask the public what they want to see on the giant screen and then give it to them, sounded like a refrain long sung in Hollywood executive suites. Some, of course, shook their heads at the company's unabashed zeal for reducing an art form to a reflection of our least profound values. But the meat of the story, it appears, may be not what the studio is proposing, but who the studio really is.

Future Films may be the latest, thinly disguised attempt by Scientology to gain widespread acceptance and suck thousands more into the movement. Cult watchers wonder if the upstart studio is related to a massive, sophisticated ad campaign now underway, which is designed to improve the groups dismal reputation, the result of a decade long mass of lawsuits and inquiries by the IRS, the courts, and governments around the world. Former members say the Church of Scientology is no Church at all, but rather an enormous totalitarian pyramid scheme whose bottom line is its bottom line, and whose modus operandi is fleecing the gullible and vulnerable, then enslaving them in the army under a sort of mind control. Scientology officials insist that the church is law abiding and that their critics are involved in an effort to discredit them. Many defecting "parishioners" have settled suits alleging such claims as mental and physical abuse by Scientology. Others have settled for larger sums, some exceeding $500,000 according to Time Magazine in a May cover story. Hence, whenever a new show opens with the same old cast, the alarm bells go off. Such is the story with Future Films.

"If the people running the organization can be linked to Scientology, then the sole purpose of this organization is likely to be to further the cult," says Cynthia Kisser, executive director of the Cult Awareness Network, a national organization, which has had a rancorous relationship with Scientology. Kisser says CAN regularly hears from people who were tricked into joining Scientology by related ventures. Alleged front groups include the antidrug organization Narconon and numerous business development seminars for chiropractors, dentists, and other professionals run by Sterling Management Systems and singer Consultants, two Church associated operations. (Inc. magazine called Sterling one of America's fastest growing companies.) All funnel cash back into Scientology through a non-profit religious corporation, the World Institute of Scientology Enterprises. WISE is dedicated to getting the teachings of Church founder L. Ron Hubbard into the corporate workplace. All related firms must pay WISE to use l ron Hubbard's technology, even though WISE is a not-for-profit religious corporation. "How can you have for profit companies paying a not-for-profit religious corporation to use religious doctrine?" asks one critic. Many people have described being hired by WISE-chartered companies, then pressured to sign up for Scientology training.

Future Films, which certainly made no effort to flaunt its links with Scientology, nevertheless drew the attention of some ex-Church members, who found telltale signs in the companies general air of mystery (it paid for its ads with cashier's checks), and in the ads' odd graphics and stilted language. The studio's short history is a classic tale of Scientology subterfuge. When the company first rode in on a wave of innocuous publicity, their press releases ( which hyped Future Films founder and CEO Robert Cefail as a "modern revolutionisy...[who] trumpets in a new era of film making...") failed to mention that its scientific method of gauging public film tastes was nothing more than a 900 number, costing up to $12 a pop. Back in August the Village Voice received word that Cefail and one other investor were linked to the Chuch; Future Films downplayed the fact, insisting that the religious affiliation was coincidental. (Cefail told the St. Petersburg Times that he was an Espiscopalian who takes Scientology training courses.) But a two month Voice investigation shows otherwise. Not only is Cefail a Scientologist, but so is virtually every identified executive and investor in the company -- some straight out of the Church's most elite circles.

Over the past two months, Future Films has beaten a path of retreat from its original claims that it is not a church operation. after weeks of delay, a faxed response from spokesperson Fred Cook admitted a connection with the Church-affiliated WISE: "The administrative technology of L ron Hubbard, who is also founder of Scientology, has been used successfully in businesses around the world. FUTURE FILMS uses this management technology and it is licensed to use copyrights and trademarks of L Ron Hubbard."

Future Films executives failed to respond to repeated Voice requests for interviews. CEO Robert Cefail appeared to be a phantom. Employees at several of his ventured could not say where to find him or when he would be reachable.

The company's concept, as advertised, lets the moviegoing public contribute its ideas and - as in all Scientology ventures - its money. asking people to pay to gripe may be lucrative but it's a bit odd coming from a man who paints himself as a market research kinda guy. Future Film's visionary, Cefail, reportedly chose the movie biz on the rather dubious assumption that celluloid purveyors did not adequately cater to the public. In a 1986 survey, Cefail discovered that J. Q. public goes to films 2.5 times a month, but would attend seven times a month if the product were more appealing. Cefail claims to have found that moviegoers want characters who are single and non controversial. "The American public had a tremendous aversion to unusual sexual practices or even, maybe, a married person going out with a single person," he told the Hollywood Reporter. He said he intends to make "McMovies." People want comedy, happy titles, and 1 hour and 52 minutes length. "The No. 1 film people wanted at that time was a romantic comedy set in the present during springtime. The place would be a big city (and the lead actors) would be 28 to 32 years old." No Thelma & Louise, please - 91 per cent want upbeat endings - and nix on the film 9 1/2 Weeks - 89 percent prefer stories with "good old-fashioned romance" over casual relationships, and "unusual practices."

After Cefail takes the public pulse., he'll bankrolll fiIms. He promises audience-driven product for everyone---and for the really motivated average American, a hierarchy of payoffs: T-shirts, tickets, casting calls. and even the chance to submit scripts. In one early press release, the studio touted its scientific methods and "capacity to interview and survey over 700,000 people with the ability to expand to over 15 million." It was not until weeks later that it became evident the primary vehicle was to be a 900 number-hardly an accepted method of gauging public opinion. Sometimes the company said the 900 number would give consumers a chance to appear in a film for having made a phone call. (The publication Communications Daily noted that if !he 900 numbers do only 50O percent of the business MCI says they could, they would still bring in $2 million to $4 million monthly.) Future Films recently pulled the plug on that service. Spokesperson Fred Cook said that it was "not really efficient enough," and other surveying techniques are being planned, though he wouldn't specify.

Despite the company's professed expertise, employees have been calling around Hollywood seeking elementary advice typically offered in Film Production 101. Hollywood public relations consultant Nan Herst Bowers received such a query and said she was amazed at the naivete of the caller. The woman didn't realize that Bowers was, until a year ago, a fellow Scientologist. Bowers says when she told her caller about her Scientology links, the woman became excited, telling her that everyone in the company was a Church member. Cook, in a letter to the Voice, said he could not verify his staffs religious affiliations or connection to the Church of Scientology. He said, "it's not something we ask of prospective employees when they are hired."

Tom Paquette spokesperson for the president of Scientology, says -there is no connection between the Church and the company and wanted to know what the "angle" of the story was. As for Future Films, Paquette was under the impression that "it's a group of businessmen who have some business."

In a letter to the Voice, the Reverend John Carmichael of the Church of Scientology of New York complained about efforts to report on links between the two organizations: "It is offensive on its face that you would choose to use the Voice to single out and attack a group of businessmen strictly because they belong to a particular religion. Would you accuse producer Barry Levinson of producing films as a 'front for International Jewry'? ... 1 have no doubt your story will omit the numbers of people who say Scientology has improved their lives." Indeed, despite court actions, media revelations, and condemnations from across the globe, Scientology continues to feistily expand, and to rake in up to $1000 an hour in fees from each person who takes the training regimen.

Although many devotees clearly believe in Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard, the now deceased founder and would-be messiah of the group, which claims connection to an 80-trillion-year-old intergalactic civilization, had more pressing concerns than redemption. "Make sure that lots of bodies move through the shop," Hubbard once wrote in a bulletin to lieutenants. "Make money. Make more money. Make others produce so as to make money.... However you get them in or why, just do it."Hubbard, who started out as a sci-fi writer developed a system, complete with outer-space jargon, that purports to help people eliminate past negative experiences from their psyches so they may realize their full potential, Hubbard turned his talents at fiction to creating a personal make-believe resume, from false World War II decorations and multiple death-and-rebirth sequences to a sham doctorate. Hubbard finally died decisively in 1986, but his creation lived on in 700 church centers in 65 countries.

Scientology promises that its trademark technique, called "auditing," can lead to a higher 1Q, "more energy to make more money," better health, and a longer life. The New York area newsletter says that officials "are eager to get you in and on your next step to the Bridge." They don't say: PLEASE DO EXTENSION COURSES. GET AU- DITED. BUY THESE BOOKS, BE THERE. Auditing involves what the church calls self-inspection as a way to purge hidden, painful experiences, known as "engrams," through guidance from a trained "auditor." Auditing is defined as the "action of asking a person a question (which he can understand and answer), getting an answer to that question and acknowledging him for that answer." The Bridge is the route to Clear, "symbolizing travel from unknowingness to revela- tion." Clear is a state achieved through auditing; "A Clear is an unaberrated person and is rational in that he forms the best possible solutions he can on the data he has and from his viewpoint." While "clearing" people's minds for greater productivity and success, trainers induce what Hubbard, a skilled hypnotist, originally called a Dianetic reverie. Experts describe it as a sort of spacey, pliant high that leaves people craving more. "It's essentially a hypnotic trance;" says Dr. Louis Jolyon West, the noted psychiatrist, who has been treating Scientologists for many years. "It's a trancelike state, counting backwards from seven over and over. Backwards into time, into the womb."