Ex-members offer a rare look at the organization’s multiple studios and allege that Scientology used the audition process to recruit outside actors: “It’s an in-house film and no one’s going to see it.”
Ten years ago this month, the Church of Scientology purchased Hollywood’s historic KCET lot in Los Feliz, which it rebranded as Scientology Media Productions. It is from here that it operates the Scientology Network, which launched March 12, 2018, with a video message from leader David Miscavige. Appearing in a fitted blue suit inside a modern church building, Miscavige promised the TV station would “show you inside Scientology — who we are, what Scientology is and what Scientology can do. … We’re not here to preach to you, to convince you or to convert you. No. We simply want to show you.”
According to sources, however, proselytizing is exactly what the network is intended to do. Meanwhile, over the past two decades, Scientology has also used its audition process for in-house films to reach out to new recruits, as well as hosted acting seminars to draw in prospective members. Through a spokesperson, the Church of Scientology denies these characterizations.
The Scientology Network — whose website says it’s accessible to more than 20 million households throughout the U.S. — comprises nine unscripted series (including Meet a Scientologist and Destination: Scientology), a documentary showcase and in-house films ranging from The Truth About Drugs to The Way to Happiness that reflect the church’s dogma. It’s available on DirecTV and via Roku, Apple TV, Amazon and Google Chromecast and airs in 17 languages.
Scientology Media Productions sits just five blocks down Sunset Boulevard from the main Church of Scientology International L.A. KCET sold the property to the church in April 2011 for $45 million, according to the Los Angeles Times, which was adjusted to $28.8 million when the local TV station temporarily leased back space before finding a new location. The church reportedly spent $50 million restoring the lot to its 1920s look and updating the facilities. There are three soundstages, postproduction tools (with 20 Avid editing suites and 21 VFX stations), control rooms, music studios, mixing rooms, art departments, scene shops, radio booths, screening rooms, a magazine production space, a live-events hub — all with new, high-end equipment in 136,000 square feet of space and staffed by church members.
Production has been intertwined with Scientology from the very beginning, as founder L. Ron Hubbard wrote a handful of Hollywood scripts and continually emphasized the importance of getting his message to the screen. Golden Era Productions, located at the church’s Gold Base headquarters in Hemet, California, was the original media arm of Scientology and is still where most internal films for the organization are produced. Miscavige himself worked at Golden Era as a teenage camera operator, becoming chief cinematographer at age 17 and working his way into Hubbard’s inner circle, according to Lawrence Wright’s 2013 book, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief.
Marc Headley, who worked at Golden Era for a decade before leaving Scientology in 2005, tells The Hollywood Reporter that a typical year would see him and his team producing three to four films and 50 individual videos — largely PR for the church, showing its members changing the world and doing good. Since 2005, 5,200 videos and films have been produced (English and translated), averaging 90 a month, according to Scientology magazine Freedom.
During Headley’s time at Golden Era, the content was almost entirely for internal use and was under tight control by Miscavige; Headley remembers him signing off on every casting and daily. A single film, which typically clocked in at 15 to 45 minutes, could run $500,000 to produce. But labor was cheap: Sea Org members — the highest, most devout members of the church who sign billion-year contracts — were paid mere cents an hour, according to both Headley and the HBO documentary Going Clear. That is, until Shawna Brakefield, then a Scientologist herself, became head of SAGIndie — SAG’s outreach arm for independent filmmakers — during the late 1990s and mandated that the church pay its actors guild rates, says Headley.
At the beginning, it was all Scientologists who would appear in these films — there were acting courses given at the base, dictated by Hubbard, who fancied himself a skilled filmmaker and on-camera personality. Other, non-Sea Org Scientologists who had industry careers outside the church also took part.
“I remember doing my first tech [Hubbard’s term for his teachings] film and kind of being nervous, like what’s the expectation on set and what’s it going to be like?” recalls one former Scientology actor who asked not to be named. “And then walking on set and everyone was joking and smoking and swearing, and the director was hilarious and it was super professional. And I was like, ‘Oh, this is not at all what I expected. This is actually a lot of fun.’ ” He would go on to act in upward of a dozen church films, describing high-quality productions, high-tech facilities and rentals of professional camera equipment.
“They paid real money. The people were really cool. I just had no access to what was going on behind the scenes,” he says (referencing Headley’s book Blown for Good, where he documents alleged abuse in the church).
As the film enterprise expanded, a problem became clear: “The people that had acted in films would then escape and then become a ‘suppressive person.’ Then they wouldn’t be able to have that film air anymore because there’d be some guy who is now a huge suppressive person known about in the press or throughout Scientology, and then he’s the main part in this film,” says Headley. (A suppressive person is Scientology’s name for “antisocial personalities,” or those who speak negatively of the church.)
Many of Scientology’s longtime internal film stars had left the church by 2010, meaning the many projects they appeared in had to be scrapped, say sources. And often, these films were among Scientology’s most important, including introduction videos that every inductee to the church would watch.
“Over the years, it went from every single person in the film had to be somebody from the base, to the extreme opposite of no one on the base can be in a film,” says Headley, who estimates the church has spent tens of millions of dollars in recent years redoing its essential 30-something training and recruitment films with non-Scientologists.
Now requiring outside talent, Golden Era Productions pivoted, using a casting office at Hollywood’s Celebrity Centre to audition unaffiliated actors. Headley says around 90 percent of actors used in films during his final years in the church came through that line, at that time, with some church members still mixed in. (In a written response to THR, Scientology spokesperson Karin Pouw notes, “The only auditions ever held at Celebrity Centre ceased when Golden Era began exclusively conducting auditions virtually, like many production companies, in 2011.”)
Auditioning would become a major source of not only acting talent for the church’s projects but also a key recruitment tool. Casting notices for Scientology films are posted online, frequently with little transparency of who the work is for, other than a link to Golden Era Productions. One such listing posted on Backstage‘s casting site in May 2017 seeks “a Danish male voice to narrate several videos about the principles of communication” for $300 a day, while another 2017 post looks for “native speaking foreign male actors/voice talent in the Los Angeles area to narrate films and videos for us in several foreign languages.” Neither includes any mention of the church.
Valerie Haney, a former Scientology casting director, says she intentionally was secretive about the films she posted on LA Casting, Backstage and similar websites: “I never put Celebrity Centre on any of the addresses; I just said it’s this address, didn’t say it was Scientology. It was a very tailored way of doing it,” she says. “Then when they came in, they obviously saw it was Scientology, and then it was like, ‘OK, yeah, but it’s an in-house film and don’t worry about it, no one’s going to see it.’ It was definitely a way to get them in.”
In her response, Pouw writes “the doors of our Church are open to all, and anyone visiting for any reason — be it an audition or to fix the Xerox machine — is always welcome to take a tour, ask questions about Scientology and have those questions answered.”
Stephanie Urko, an aspiring actress, auditioned for the short film Gotta Sing! in April 2015 after seeing a posting on Backstage‘s website. The notice didn’t even mention Golden Era Productions but said it was for 8.0 Entertainment Group, a known Scientologist producer. Urko was new to Los Angeles from the East Coast and was told the audition would be at Celebrity Centre — she didn’t know of the center’s connection to Scientology and, after looking it up, didn’t think much of it. Urko went to the audition with no real requirements of what to prepare (“really strange in audition-land”) and afterward was told to wait until someone could escort her out. But when the escort came, she was led to watch multiple Scientology videos and taken on a 45-minute tour around the church’s grounds before she was shown out.
“It wasn’t like they were trying to push me into a back room and keep me prisoner or anything, but it definitely was like, ‘You are in this building, we’re going to try to convert you to thinking the way that we think,’ ” Urko says, adding that she never saw or was told anything about the film’s affiliation with the church.
Haney confirms that a recruitment strategy was built into the audition process: “The casting office was extremely strategically located right next to Division Six [the church’s public division]. So the actors had to pass Div Six Sea Org members and offices to get to the casting office,” she says, where church members would meet them at the exit with a pitch. “It was very exacting in terms of manipulation.”
Vocal former Scientologist Mike Rinder describes the recruiters’ thought process: ” ‘This person is in our building. Do you know how hard it is to get someone in our building? We’ve got to make the most of this and get this person signed up for something.’ And there was a pattern of how you go about doing that — it’s take them for a tour, show them a film or a video, give them an introductory lecture, have them do a test. There’s all these different methods that these people have in their toolkit.”
The church also seeks out actors beyond its doors: The line outside of Burbank’s Central Casting agency has served as a recruiting ground for Scientology. Multiple former Scientologists, including Haney, say that for years, the church targeted actors queued up for background extra work with promises of acting jobs and help with securing SAG cards.
A young actress who asked to remain anonymous was in the line in late 2018 and witnessed the church coming up to actors and telling them to “skip the line, come join us and we’ll get you working right away.” Central Casting reps would come outside regularly to warn actors that they weren’t affiliated with the company and didn’t agree with what they were saying, she recalls.
“I think that they know how to sell it to new actors because we just want to work in any way that we can,” she says. “And they say, ‘Oh, we can get you the connections you need, we could get you your SAG card, we can get you started in your career.’ “
A spokesperson for Central Casting wouldn’t specifically discuss the church’s attempts to recruit actors from its line but broadly confirmed that it had dealt with solicitors at its Flower Street office (before moving to Magnolia Boulevard in December 2019) and informed those auditioning that the solicitors were not affiliated with the company.
Acting seminars and workshops, which the church regularly holds at the Celebrity Centre, are another recruiting tool; they range from technique classes to personal branding lessons to meet-and-greets with Scientologist industry professionals. Leah Remini, who has become the most famous dissenter with her A&E docuseries Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath, taught one of these seminars during her time in the church. She says she put together an extensive course to genuinely teach young people about acting but was pushed by officials to refocus on selling Scientology services and courses.
“Doing ‘acting seminars’ was to sell books and to sell Scientology services; it wasn’t for the purpose of helping actors,” she says, with phrases like “raw meat” and “bodies in the shop” used internally as a way to describe potential recruits. Remini says church representatives would be in the room during classes and intervene to talk with attendees, giving them basic tests and pushing entry-level courses. Ads for these seminars were run in magazines and online with promises that Scientology could bring Hollywood success.
“For actors, the thing that is pitched to them is, ‘We’ll tell you how to deal with casting directors,’ or, ‘We’ll tell you how to get your next acting job,’ or, ‘We’ll give you the tools you need and the methods you need in order to be able to succeed in Hollywood.’ And it’s all bullshit,” adds Rinder, with the seminars a way of introducing Scientology’s introductory, inexpensive “Life Improvement Courses.” “It is the means of getting someone in the door, to then be put on the conveyor belt to ultimately become a full-fledged Scientologist and give over enormous amounts of time and money to Scientology. That’s what this is all about.”
Pouw responds: “We have tools and technology on communication and human behavior to assist in one’s life. Artists who have achieved success through application of Scientology in their lives have hosted seminars at Celebrity Centre to help others similarly succeed,” and adds that anyone who attends a seminar at a Church of Scientology “does so because they are curious about how Scientology can help them.”
Sources including Rinder and Remini say that during their time in the church, if a Scientologist was successful at bringing someone through the door via a seminar, they also received 10 percent of the money a new recruit paid to the church for the rest of their tenure; Going Clear notes the late Beverly Hills Playhouse acting teacher Milton Katselas received this same commission for bringing in curious young actors through his acting school. (Today it has no affiliation.)
Pouw responds: “What you describe is not a practice of the Church and never has been. Churches of Scientology are supported by donations from parishioners. To the extent another member may have assisted in raising donations, that member may be paid a fundraising commission, a practice used by many charities, including religious institutions.”
These seminars have gone virtual during the pandemic, running nearly daily, increasing the church’s outreach to those outside of Los Angeles and largely led by actors and Hollywood entertainment executives with limited credits.
In May 2016, the church held a grand opening for its new 4.5-acre KCET property following five years of renovations.
Said Miscavige in a speech during the opening ceremony: “As the saying goes, ‘If you don’t write your own story, someone else will.’ So, yes, we’re now going to be writing our story like no other religion in history. And it’s all going to happen right here from Scientology Media Productions.”
The new operation moved much of Scientology’s production to Hollywood but maintained Golden Era’s desert film studio to produce Hubbard training films, according to a release from the church. But, as those who were around Miscavige in the years leading up to the KCET purchase note, there was more behind the studio launch.
“He buys property because Scientology rakes in huge amounts of money and doesn’t spend it on anything, it does not provide a public benefit,” says Rinder of the church’s tax-exempt status. “So buying buildings is the one place where Scientology invests money because it retains the asset.” Nonprofit tax expert Ray Madoff says that while the church has no spending obligations, it is common for charities to diversify their assets with real estate purchases.
Scientology also owns late musician Chick Corea’s former Los Feliz recording studio and more than a dozen other Southern California properties. Rinder says the new facility, which now is also used to create Super Bowl ads and videos countering critics, has vastly more space than the church could ever use, when even Golden Era had “shooting and editing facilities to produce like five times as much as they put out.”
When Headley worked at Golden Era, he toured John Travolta and his wife, Kelly Preston, around those facilities. Travolta famously starred in 2000’s Battlefield Earth, based on a novel written by Hubbard, which was not shot on the base. According to Going Clear, Miscavige was deeply involved in filming and gave notes on dailies — it bombed and won a Razzie for worst picture of the decade. However, Headley says that despite high-profile church members in the industry, the facilities were not used for Hollywood shoots.
“Something David Miscavige was very sensitive to is there’s all sorts of tax ramifications when you start doing shit like that — like if Tom Cruise is using a tax-exempt film studio for a for-profit movie company, then how the fuck does that work?” Headley says, adding that during his time, the most work he ever saw Cruise do on a Scientology property was use a library at Gold Base for Mission: Impossible research. “That starts to get like, it’s just not worth it. It’s not worth it for Tom. It’s not worth it for Dave. It’s not worth it for any of the lawyers. It’s just kind of an invitation for nonsense.”
With Scientology’s current content plate, which includes the pandemic-inspired specials Stay Well and Scientologists@home, Rinder and Remini see a church desperately trying to bring in new members and hold on to those who are left, which in 2019, Battlefield Scientology: Exposing L. Ron Hubbard’s Dangerous ‘Religion’ co-author Tony Ortega estimated in Los Angeles Magazine sits at 20,000 devotees, down from its peak of roughly 100,000 worldwide during the early ’90s.
“The stuff that’s done at Gold [Base], that is for indoctrinating Scientologists. The stuff that’s done at KCET is to try and promote Scientology and sucker people to come in,” says Rinder. Remini says when she was still a parishioner, propaganda videos influenced her to stay in the church. They are aimed, she says, at those “wondering if the money that you’re spending, the time that you’re giving, the sacrifices you’re making — where you’re disconnecting from your own sons and daughters — are worth it.”
Independent filmmaker J.R. Biersmith, a non-Scientologist, briefly worked on the Scientology Media Productions lot when his documentary Men in the Arena aired on Scientology Network in 2018. The network reached out to his distributor about showing the film, which follows two Somali National Football Team friends chasing their dreams. After agreeing — with the appeal of reaching a greater audience — Biersmith went to the lot to shoot an accompanying Q&A video about his film. He is one of more than 20 indie directors who currently have projects on Scientology TV.
He was taken on a tour of its state-of-the-art facilities and blown away: “I just remember being like, ‘This place is insane, like Ellen [DeGeneres] needs to move her lot over to here.’ ” He recounts being impressed by what he saw and the people he met — he was so taken aback by one young composer’s skill that he asked for his contact information for future projects, which was quickly shot down, he says. Biersmith was told their films were “not about the church, it’s about doing good work” and was under the impression that his doc would be aired with little religious branding and a seeming firewall from the church; this turned out to not be the case, he says, as it was branded as part of the “Scientology Network presents Documentary Showcase.”
Looking back on the experience, Biersmith says he wishes he had done more research, referencing Remini’s and Ortega’s work exposing how many people have expressed being hurt by the church. “The more that I understood the magnitude of their stories, the more it gave me pause,” he says. “Like, is there really a separation of being an advocate of the film and where it should live? I think I was trying to strike a balance, and I still don’t know if I did the right thing.”
This story first appeared in the April 28 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.