Film on cult flirts with reality

St. Petersburg Times/August 2, 2001
By Robert Farley

It's a movie about cults based on fictional characters, says the director. But it's hard to miss the inspiration behind The Profit. The main character is a science fiction writer who founds a religion. Get it?

The leader starts The Church of Scientific Spiritualism. His name: L. Conrad Powers. The full-length feature film was written and directed by Peter Alexander, a 20-year Scientologist who broke from the church in 1997 and now calls it an elaborate fraud. It was funded in part by Bob Minton, the Church of Scientology's most vocal critic. And in three weeks, it will be shown to the public for the first time at an independent theater in none other than Clearwater, the mecca for Scientologists who come there from around the world for church counseling.

Filmed in eight weeks last summer amid the backdrop of Fort De Soto Park and the bustle of Ybor City, the production was the target of constant harassment from Scientologists, Alexander said. At one point, he said, members of the Foundation for Religious Tolerance of Florida handed out fliers denouncing the film's backers at the film site and followed crew members home to press them for information about the content of the film. Mary DeMoss of Clearwater, a Scientologist and founder of the Foundation for Religious Tolerance of Florida, calls the movie a "hate propaganda film." She denies anyone from her organization followed anyone home. And she says the fliers were intended to "let the people know who was behind this." And that, she said, is the church's nemesis, the Lisa McPherson Trust. McPherson was a 36-year-old Scientologist who died in 1995 after 17 days in the care of Scientology staffers in Clearwater.

The cast of the $2-million film is made up mostly of New York stage actors, Alexander said. But it includes cameos by many of Scientology's staunchest critics, including Minton, trust president Stacy Brooks, church critic Jesse Prince and attorney Ken Dandar, who represents the trust in a civil suit against the church. Alexander said he was introduced to the church in the late 1970s by his future wife. Over the years, he estimates he donated $1-million to the church. Alexander became vice president at Universal Studios, where he was executive producer for its tourist attractions.

Ten years ago, he started the Totally Fun Co., which specializes in creating theme park attractions, including most of the big attractions at Universal Studios in Orlando. His schism with the church developed not long after he and his wife split up in 1997. Alexander said he became convinced Scientology was a cult after he did some research on the Internet. For a while, he took up with the Lisa McPherson Trust but has since dropped out. Alexander said he began to read about various cults and some of the common threads that run through them. And then he decided to write a movie about it. "I thought, I got involved in a cult, and I'm a pretty intelligent guy," he said.

"Anyone could get sucked in by one of these groups unless they understand the mechanism of how it works." Alexander says the film is based on a fictional character he created, but has "many parallels to reality." Like L. Ron Hubbard and the Church of Scientology? "I'll let you draw that conclusion," Alexander said. "I say it's entirely fictional." Then he let loose a booming laugh. But the parallels are impossible to miss. For example, in the movie, one of the church devotees creates a device that "reads your thoughts" called the Mind Meter. Scientology uses something called an e-meter, a small electronic device that Scientologists say can track thoughts. Ben Shaw, a spokesman for Scientology, said he agrees with Alexander that the movie is fiction and has nothing to do with Scientology.

Shaw quickly added that the timing of the film appears to be a reaction to a permanent injunction handed down last week that aims to control the confrontations between church members and the trust in the streets of downtown Clearwater. "I have heard it's terrible," Shaw said of the film, "and that it looks like some sort of home video." St. Petersburg Times movie critic Steve Persall, who viewed the movie in an invitation-only pre-screening in June, offered this assessment: "The movie looks like any other exploitation flick: cheap production values, stilted drama, gratuitous nudity . . . and episodes that pop up and disappear without much detail except what's supposed to shove the audience into a desired reaction - in this case, outrage. It's hard to take seriously, in part because the story seems so far-fetched."

Shaw said the church has no plans to acknowledge the film opening Aug. 24. Nor does the Foundation for Religious Tolerance, DeMoss said. "It would only give them publicity," she said. So far, major film distributors have not beckoned. The Clearwater Cinema Cafe, a two-screen theater on the northeast corner of U.S. 19 and Sunset Point Road, is the only Tampa Bay area theater so far to commit to showing the film.

Theater owner Larry Greenbaum said he expected some heat when he decided to run the movie. "We like to run some films on the edge when we have an opportunity," Greenbaum said. He noted that he also ran Dogma, a film that satirizes Catholicism. "It's a decent little movie," he said of The Profit.

"It's sometimes humorous and kind of scary. When you see it, you can relate to it because we live in the middle of it." Greenbaum said he considered running the film alongside Battlefield Earth, a movie based on a book by L. Ron Hubbard, but he had a previous commitment to run Shrek. But if The Profit sticks around for a second week - and Greenbaum is convinced demand will warrant that - it will run alongside Swordfish, which stars Scientologist John Travolta. "That's purely coincidence, by the way," he said.

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