Actors use their power in Hollywood to various ends. Some demand money. Some want to name a director or veto a co-star. Lately, doing business with Tom Cruise, one of Hollywood's most bankable actors, means a bow in the direction of his religion, the Church of Scientology. Increasingly public about his long association with Scientology, Cruise, earlier this year, invited film executives involved in distributing his summer movie, "The War of the Worlds," on a four-hour tour of three different Scientology facilities in Los Angeles. About 20 managers from United International Pictures, which is distributing the Steven Spielberg-directed film abroad for Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks SKG, took him up on the offer in late January.
Andrew Cripps, president of United International Pictures, said no one was forced to attend, though at least one executive who took the tour – who spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared repercussions at work – said the visit was regarded by some as an unwelcome business obligation.
The encounter came after Cruise had sponsored a "Scientology tent," offering what his spokeswoman, Lee Anne De Vette, called "assists" – a kind of massage administered by volunteer ministers – along with religious literature, on the "War of the Worlds" set. Also, the star had recently sent out a holiday greeting that included Scientological precepts on a plastic plaque.
Notwithstanding Mel Gibson's very public declaration of faith with his "Passion of the Christ," Hollywood insiders typically shy away from open discussion of their religious beliefs. But De Vette, who is Cruise's sister, said he had been inviting colleagues to learn more about his religion in order to combat what he viewed as prejudice against a group that some critics have branded an exploitative cult.
Scientology has not been recognized as a religion in many European nations and remains under federal surveillance in Germany, where it is regarded as a dangerous sect. Adherents say Scientology is a method of counseling and courses that helps individuals break free from negative emotions and lead more rewarding lives.
Founded in 1954 by the science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology has long had a close connection with celebrity. Contending that artists "are a cut above man" – according to a church Web site Hubbard said, "He who can truly communicate to others is a higher being who builds new worlds."
The church has celebrity centers in several cities where actors and other famous figures come to study and meet. (John Travolta and Kirstie Alley are among the best-known Hollywood adherents.)
In the last several years, Cruise has spoken more freely about Scientology in his many interviews promoting various films. And, increasingly, executives who do business with him have found themselves spending time at church facilities.
Thus, top managers from Paramount, which has backed many of Cruise's films, including the "Mission: Impossible" series, and from the Creative Artists Agency, which has long represented the star, have graced one of his tables at an annual gala in the group's Hollywood center.
A spokeswoman for the studio declined to discuss the executives' encounters with Scientology. But Cripps of United International Pictures, who attended both the Brussels and Los Angeles tours, acknowledged that he still was not quite sure what the religion is all about.
"I think religion is a really personal thing," he said. "I admire the work that they do in terms of their programs, that was an eye-opener to me. But what it actually means to be a Scientologist, I don't think I fully understand."