As Alex Gibney’s bombshell “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief,” the documentary exposé of the Church of Scientology that dragged him through the gauntlet to get made, heads abroad, the Church is doing everything it can to put the kibosh on global play.
“Every step of the way, every distributor, every festival has received multiple threatening letters from the Church of Scientology. Some have come very close to buckling,” director Gibney told THR. His film premiered at Sundance and debuted theatrically and on HBO in March, stoking the ire of the Church, which has challenged even journalists who cover the movie.
The Church of Scientology postponed broadcast in the UK, where broadcaster Sky shelved the film in April over concerns regarding libel. While Sky says this is a delay, not a cancellation, no new airdate has been set.
A low-profile UK distributor, however, did release the film on 18 screens, per THR, in Scotland and England, where “Going Clear” has so far met sizable UK business. Italy and Canada have opened the film well, including VOD numbers, and it will continue to expand in those territories.
Because of the film’s salacious look at the Tom Cruise-Nicole Kidman divorce, highly public yet steeped in mystery (Lawrence Wright’s book takes an even closer look at this), interest has brewed in Australia, where the film screened at June’s Sydney Film Festival. “The Sydney Film Festival got a lot of threatening letters, and they were taking them very seriously,” Gibney told THR. “I was delighted with the way the Australians handled it.”
He said at that festival, an audience member stood up in the theater and “He said, ‘I want you to be aware that the head of the Australian Church of Scientology is here today,’ and pointed the guy out. I asked him if he would like to comment, and he declined and promptly left the room. They don’t like to come out in public because there are often ex-Scientologists there who know how things really work.”
HBO, no stranger to scandal-making with its ever-broadening documentary slate, commissioned Gibney’s adaptation of Lawrence Wright’s “Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief” just after the nonfiction book was published in January 2013. The book analyzes the history of L. Ron Hubbard, and of Tom Cruise and John Travolta’s various, and wildly public, relationships, among others. Wright gained notoriety in 2011 when he profiled screenwriter/director Paul Haggis—who broke from the Church in 2009 in the wake of its startling pronouncements about Prop 8—in The New Yorker.
Anticipating legal and religious retaliation, HBO President Sheila Nevins has said that some 160 lawyers looked at the film, which The Church of Scientology combatted with a full-page lampoon of Gibney in The New York Times after he and Nevins “refused” to meet with church executives.