'Wild Wild Country' and the Booming Business of Cults on TV

Courtesy of Netflix
Sheela, the Rajneesh cult's second-in-command, in 'Wild Wild Country,' from executive producers Mark and Jay Duplass.

The industry has long mined cults, but Netflix’s buzzy docuseries, combined with Nxivm headlines, has heated up the market.

Cults have long been fodder for television and film, from dramatic depictions like Paul Thomas Anderson's 2012 The Master and Hulu's recently canceled The Path to silly treatments, like Netflix's Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which will launch its fourth and final season May 30. The past year alone saw American Horror Story: Cult and Paramount Network's Waco, starring Taylor Kitsch as David Koresh.

Still, recent NXIVM headlines, combined with the buzz surrounding Netflix docuseries Wild Wild Country, from Jay and Mark Duplass — which explores an '80s Oregon cult led by Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh — have made guru-themed projects especially hot. There's already a fictionalized Nxivm series in the works at Megan Ellison's Annapurna, which optioned the rights of The New York Times' October exposé "Inside a Secretive Group Where Women Are Branded."

"Cults are absolutely in the zeitgeist," says Justin Benson, who co-directed, with Aaron Moorhead, sci-fi horror film The Endless, about a UFO death cult, which premiered at Tribeca.

Other cult content in the pipeline includes the second season of USA's anthology series The Sinner, which stars Carrie Coon as a spiritual seeker who becomes the "de facto leader of a mysterious commune." Breaking Bad's Vince Gilligan has a limited series in development at HBO about Jonestown, the religious sect led by Jim Jones in Guyana that ended in mass suicide. Jake Gyllenhaal also plans to tell the Jonestown story in a scripted cult anthology that A+E Studios is shopping.

Though Charles Manson died in November, the horrific murders his followers committed continue to captivate the industry. Quentin Tarantino is finishing casting Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, set against the backdrop of the Manson murders, with Margot Robbie in talks to play Sharon Tate. Hilary Duff is set to portray the murdered actress in the upcoming horror film The Haunting of Sharon Tate, while Matt Smith stars as Manson in the indie Charlie Says. Emma Cline's debut novel, The Girls, which offers an account of the Manson family told from the perspective of the women in the cult, recently was acquired by producer Scott Rudin.

Meanwhile, Wild Wild Country itself may be getting a scripted retelling. Sources say prominent Indian actor Aamir Khan has bought the life rights for Rajneesh acolyte Ma Anand Sheela. "Our feeling is we kind of did what we wanted to do," says Chapman Way, who made the docuseries with his brother Maclain. "But I'd be really excited for someone to take the ball and run with it."

This story first appeared in the May 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.