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Real problems with a fictional movie

By STEVE PERSALL

© St. Petersburg Times,
published August 24, 2001


photo
Peter D. Alexander, The Profit director.
Peter D. Alexander believes he's doing a public service with his film The Profit. For the Church of Scientology, The Profit is just a nuisance.

Moviegoers can see for themselves beginning tonight. Alexander's work of fiction, based on the life of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, begins an exclusive run at Clearwater Cinema Cafe at the corner of U.S. 19 and Sunset Point Road.

Alexander declares his movie to be a warning against the influence of religious cults. It's the story of a charismatic opportunist named L. Conrad Powers, who bears a close resemblance to Hubbard. Powers creates the Church of Scientific Spiritualism in the image of Scientology as projected by decades of media coverage and courtroom disputes.

Ask Alexander if The Profit is based on Scientology, and he'll offer coy denials. Answering yes could make him vulnerable to the Church of Scientology's legal machine, yet he can't resist steering a questioner -- and moviegoers -- to that conclusion. He's stretching the liberty of fiction to its limit.

The Profit is a rant against Hubbard and Scientology, no matter how many cults the filmmakers claim to have researched and incorporated into the story. Their feelings about the church are unmistakable on screen and in conversations.

Consider Alexander's response to my first question last week about future theatrical distribution for The Profit:

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[Photo: Courage Productions]
Actor Eric Rath plays The Profit’s lead character, L. Conrad Powers, whose life is parallel to some aspects in the biography of L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology’s founder.
"I can't go into all of that, because, of course, the evil empire will jump all over whoever else is going to show it next," he said.

When asked to identify the "evil empire," Alexander said: "Well, who do you think I'm talking about?"

He suggested two Web sites, telling me to "look up all about Scientology. Then when you know something about it, then you call me back."

Later, Alexander wouldn't comment on comparisons between The Profit and Scientology. Anyone "can ascribe whatever they want" to his film.

He expressed dissatisfaction with my recent published description of The Profit as an exploitation film: "That was a disgrace . . . You could be responsible for somebody to lose their life. Think about that, buddy, by discouraging somebody from seeing something that might help them out.

"(The Profit is) an educational tool for people who want to learn about cults and cult mind control. It's true for whether it's Scientology or the Moonies or thousands of others that use the same tactics. You can only learn from the leader, who cuts you off from society, which then allows you to be mentally manipulated into becoming a cult member, a deluded adherent."

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[Photo: Courage Productions]
The Profit’s uniformed corps, soldiers of Scientific Spiritualism, invites comparison to Scientology followers.
Alexander was a Scientologist for 20 years and is estranged from his three children since leaving the church in 1997. He makes no bones about his belief that Scientology is a fraud, yet offers no confirmation that The Profit is chiefly based on the church. That makes the film's pulp fiction transparency seem like a prank against Scientology rather than the threat a documentary version might provide.

Church of Scientology headquarters in Clearwater isn't taking The Profit seriously, at least not on the record.

"Certainly the church has not had any interest in it," said spokesman Ben Shaw. "Peter Alexander says it's fiction and doesn't have anything to do with us. I haven't seen it, but from what I understand it's a pretty bad movie, a terrible movie."

Shaw was asked if anyone planned to see Alexander's film out of curiosity.

"Not likely," he said. "In fact, you can change that to a no."

Alexander thinks the Church of Scientology has been interested in The Profit since filming began in Ybor City and Fort De Soto Park last year. After a June screening, the writer-director discussed what he perceived as Scientologists' interference during production -- and at the Cannes Film Festival in May, where The Profit failed to find a distributor.

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[Photo: Courage Productions]
Behind the scenes of The Profit, crew and talent mingle on location. Some Tampa Bay area locations were used in the movie, which premieres tonight at Clearwater Cinema Cafe.

Protesters from the Foundation for Religious Tolerance in Florida, led by Scientology member Mary DeMoss, picketed the set and distributed angry fliers. Some cast and crew members claimed they were under surveillance. Promotional videos shipped to Cannes reportedly disappeared. Alexander thinks someone disguised as him picked up the package.

Shaw said he has no knowledge of any church-organized effort against The Profit, adding: "I don't know what some people may have done."

All I know is that The Profit doesn't do what Alexander wanted. It preaches to the choir of Scientology critics, with some of the most notable ones appearing in cameo roles. Viewers who don't have a vested interest get some National Enquirer-style entertainment without much to consider seriously after the show. Those are the people a statement against cultism should reach.

Many viewers won't know Hubbard's biography, so Powers' resemblance and the details Alexander offers about impotence, devil worship and other lurid topics -- whether they're true or imagined -- feel like cheap shots at a dead man. Interesting from an exploitation-movie point of view, but not appropriate for the informative warning Alexander purports his movie to be.

Yet, so much publicized material about Hubbard and Scientology creeps into the picture -- IRS hassles, FBI infiltration, military uniforms and sci-fi theology -- that whatever fictional leaps Alexander makes undermine the film's message. The movie keeps us interested, making the connections between headlines and celluloid, but sometimes feels far-fetched.

The Profit would make a stronger statement if Alexander used his Scientology experience to produce a documentary or a no-holds-barred version of Hubbard's life that calls him Hubbard. Backing off for whatever reason doesn't serve his cause. It's an odd choice for a movie made by a company called Courage Productions.

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