'Going Clear' Director Alex Gibney Says "Every Distributor, Every Festival" Threatened as Doc Opens Internationally
Alex Gibney's documentary opened in several countries in recent weeks against backlash from the Church of Scientology.
Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief is going international, but not without challenges from the Church of Scientology, which has succeeded in postponing the documentary's broadcast in the United Kingdom.
The damning doc on the church premiered in the United States on HBO in March and did open theatrically in several international markets during the past week. It has done respectable box-office numbers in each, but is facing threats of lawsuits from the church, director Alex Gibney tells The Hollywood Reporter.
"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," says Gibney.
In the U.K., broadcaster Sky halted plans to air the documentary in April due to concerns about Northern Ireland's libel law, which is more restrictive than Britain's Defamation Act 2013. "Ireland has pretty bad laws if you're thinking about a free press," says Gibney.
Sky can't show different Sky Atlantic signals in different regions for technological reasons, so the church's threats of litigation under Irish law (reported by The Guardian's Observer) caused the company to postpone the entire U.K. airing. Sky called the decision a delay rather than a cancellation, but it doesn't have a confirmed airdate yet, said a spokeswoman.
However, a theatrical distributor, deliberately keeping a low profile, released the film in 18 theaters in England and Scotland on June 26 and has scheduled several more theaters into July. The documentary earned $24,950 in its first weekend and, by the Friday, exceeded $47,620.
In Italy, the film was released in theaters on June 25 via Lucky Red, and it’s earned more than $20,00. On May 8, it opened in Canada via The Archive, and it's surpassed $100,000 (in addition to video-on-demand earnings). The Archive president Randy Manis says his company has not received threats directly from the Church of Scientology, though libel law in Canada is less liberal than in the United States and is similar to that of Northern Ireland.
"We've not really tried to play up any kind of controversy. We're just presenting a film by a talented filmmaker. We're letting people decide for themselves," says Manis.
For its part, the Church of Scientology has called the doc “one-sided, bigoted propaganda built on falsehoods.” Asked for comment, a representative told The Hollywood Reporter on Friday: "The church has repeatedly denounced Alex Gibney's film as biased, one-sided and containing numerous inaccuracies. The church has posted multiple documents and videos to inform the public of the truth about Gibney's documentary, available at:
While it's now two months from its opening, the documentary will continue expanding to other Canadian screens, with some new theaters requesting it and previous venues requesting its return, says Manis. “I'm hoping it'll still be in theaters when Mission: Impossible starts hitting those markets," says Gibney, noting that the franchise’s lead, Tom Cruise, is one of the greatest generators of interest in Scientology worldwide.
Likewise, he says Cruise's past relationship with Australian native Nicole Kidman has created interest in Scientology in Australia, where the film screened at the Sydney Film Festival in June. "The Sydney Film Festival got a lot of threatening letters, and they were taking them very seriously," says Gibney. "I was delighted with the way the Australians handled it."
He recalls an audience member standing up in the middle of one festival event: "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."
The film's Australian theatrical release, via Madman, began on June 18, grossing $57,307 on 14 screens its opening weekend and $80,887 in its first week. The distributor received letters from the church's lawyers threatening defamation lawsuits.
The film, represented by sales agent Content, has sold worldwide, but, presently, it is set only for nontheatrical release in most major markets including France, Germany and Japan. Interest in Scientology is higher in certain countries, like in France, where the church was convicted of fraud in 2009 in a case the French media speculated could lead to the organization's dissolution.
Gibney says the film nevertheless will resonate in countries less familiar with Scientology.
"It's about Scientology, but it’s also about religion, and I think a lot of countries that are deeply religious will appreciate the film," he says. "It's about how religion can use its sacred character to condone or cover up abuses, and I think that’s of great interest to a lot of people."
Alex Ritman, Pip Bulbeck and Ariston Anderson contributed to this report.