The 4400 block of Sunset Boulevard sits at the nexus of three neighborhoods — East Hollywood, Los Feliz and Silver Lake. Residents of each can now peer outside their homes at night and see a large, glowing S, looped through two triangles, looming 150 feet overhead, like a beacon.
It's perched atop a radio tower, above what is thought to be the city's oldest continuously used movie studio, and one of the few studios deemed by the city to be a cultural landmark.
In May, after four years of fantastically expensive renovations, the studio had its grand reopening — as Scientology Media Productions.
David Miscavige, the church's so-called "ecclesiastic leader," says the studio is "our uncorrupted communication line to the billions," according to a Scientology press release.
"Because, as the saying goes," he added, "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."
Scientology's had a run of bad press recently. Lawrence Wright's 2013 book, Going Clear, painted a devastating portrait of the secretive religion. Director Alex Gibney's 2015 documentary adaptation of the book for HBO was even worse. So it seems Scientology's new studio will, naturally, aim to counterbalance the glut of critical coverage.
"Yes, Scientology is in the news — that's certainly proof that the religion is so interesting," reads the press release. "But now Scientology Media Productions IS the media."
L.A. Weekly's request for a tour of the new studio was denied. But photos provided to us by the church depict a state-of-the-art facility offering soundstages with "robotically controlled cameras," a scenery shop, screening rooms, a visual-effects center and even a television broadcast studio, with the rumored goal of, eventually, creating a 24-hour Scientology cable station.
The lot also will house Scientology's publishing department, which says it produces more than a dozen monthly publications including The Auditor, Celebrity, Reality and Freedom magazine — the "voice of the Church of Scientology."
"The department," boasts the studio's publicity brochure, "is powered by an advanced, computerized, automated media system — the latest technology to disseminate Scientology spiritual technology."
The brochure depicts a studio that is as beautiful and advanced as any in Hollywood.
"I have no doubt it looks like those renderings," says Tony Ortega, former editor in chief of the Village Voice, who now blogs about Scientology full-time at the Underground Bunker. "I have no doubt they put together a fantastic studio with all sorts of equipment. The question is why?"
The studio originally dates back to 1912, when Hollywood was still an independent city that was transitioning from farmland to moviemaking utopia. The studio was owned, or in some cases rented, by a succession of independent and unsuccessful movie producers. Among them were an optometrist named Siegmund Lubin, who went bankrupt within four years, and director Charles Ray, who produced The Courtship of Myles Standish, which, at a budget of more than $3 million ($1 million of that coming from Ray's own pocket), was one of the most expensive silent films ever made. It was a disastrous failure and Ray, too, would declare bankruptcy.
The roughly five-acre lot survived the years practically by accident. Majestic Studios, where D.W. Griffith filmed both The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, was half a block away; it's now a Vons grocery store, and its backlot is now the Vista Theatre.
In the 1940s, Ray's old studio became Monogram Pictures. In the '50s, it became Allied Artists. In the '60s, it was ColorVision. A handful of notable films did get made around that time — Invasion of the Body Snatchers, El Cid and, of course, Tickle Me, starring Elvis Presley. ColorVision went bankrupt in 1969, and the lot and well-worn studio were bought by KCET in 1970 for $800,000.
"It was run-down," says historian Marc Wanamaker, who worked for KCET and wrote a book on Hollywood's Poverty Row. "Anyone would look at it and say, 'You have to demolish this.' But KCET didn't have money to demolish a studio. So KCET cleaned it up and modernized it as best they could."
In 2011, the publicly run TV station, newly independent from PBS, decided to sell the studio. There were a number of interested buyers but only one who wanted to preserve the studio, which had been declared a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument in 1978 — the Church of Scientology, which purchased the lot for the princely sum of $42 million.
"It made the L.A. Conservancy very pleased," Wanamaker says. "We're not big Scientology fans, but when it comes to saving the properties, I don't care who they are. They've been very good stewards of their buildings."
According to Scientology spokeswoman Karin Pouw, the church owns "more than 30 properties" in Greater L.A. Most are in Hollywood.
Scientology's portfolio includes a number of gorgeously remodeled historic buildings, such as the 1927 hotel Château Élysée, now the Celebrity Center International, and the 1923 Christie Hotel on Hollywood Boulevard (the first hotel in Hollywood to offer individual bathrooms), now the Church of Scientology Information Center.
A Church of Scientology Community Center in South L.A. is a beautiful 1930s art deco building; the Church of Scientology in Pasadena occupies the Braley Building, originally constructed in 1906 for Edgar Braley's bicycle emporium.
"Meticulously restoring buildings of historical significance is another way we give back to the community," writes Pouw in an email.
There also are a number of anonymous-looking apartment buildings in the church's real estate portfolio; they house many of Scientology's newer recruits.
The church also owns two other production studios — Mad Hatter Studios in Silver Lake, and Golden Era Productions at the infamous Gold Base in Hemet, where, according to HBO's Going Clear, high-ranking members suspected of treason were kept in "the Hole" and psychologically tortured by Miscavige himself. Golden Era has long produced the church's promotional materials and training videos. It's unclear what that facility will be used for now.
The new studio is bigger, more attractive and advanced, and has the added advantage of being located in Los Angeles. Pouw, in a written statement, says the studio will be "a centralized global communications hub for the church's media activities, which include public service announcements, television programming, advertisements, magazines, brochures, internet and every other conceivable type of content."
Pouw says the studio also will produce films on drug and alcohol abuse education, and says the church has promised to share the studio with "various community and religious groups." The press release touts the studio as "a major gift for the community."
"Our facilities will be open for all manner of community events, telethons, religious programming of all faiths, you name it," Miscavige said at the opening of the studios.
But according to former high-ranking Scientology officials who have either left the church or were expelled, there is one simple reason the church built its new studio: money.
For decades, the Internal Revenue Service considered Scientology to be a commercial enterprise, and taxed it as such. But in 1993, after a 25-year legal and political battle, the IRS reversed itself and granted the church 501(c)(3) status. As a result, Scientology pays little in taxes.
But in order to maintain its tax-free status, the church can't make a profit and can't hoard money. Tom De Vocht, who oversaw the church's real estate division until 2001 (and who left the church in 2005), says he was briefed by none other than Miscavige himself on Scientology's strategy of buying land as a way to spend and effectively store its cash.
"They're not really advertising, not really reaching out," De Vocht says. "They don't pay anyone. The money's gotta go somewhere."
He adds: "We spent crazy money on renovations and purchases. Yearly, they took albums of photos of properties they purchased and renovated to IRS, to show what they were spending money on. That was a big driving factor."
The precise number of practicing Scientologists has been the subject of much speculation. In 2004, the church reported it had 8 million members, according to various media reports. Pouw now says there are "millions of Scientologists worldwide and approximately 425,000 in the Los Angeles area."
Other independent estimates are much lower. A 2001 report by the American Religious Identification Survey found there to be 55,000 self-identified Scientologists living in the United States. A 2008 report found only 25,000 — but professor Barry Kosmin, the survey's co-author, cautions that the figure has a margin of error of 150,000 — due, he says, "to a small number of responses."
Former Scientology spokesman Mike Rinder, who defected in 2007, has stated on his blog that there are no more than 20,000 active members in the entire world.
Pouw says these assertions are "ludicrous," and calls Rinder and other critics "uninformed liars."
"The church's growth is explosive and expanding more rapidly than at any point in history," Pouw says in a written statement.
As evidence, she points to the fact that the church has opened no fewer than 48 facilities in the last 10 years, everywhere from Tel Aviv to Taiwan to Inglewood.
Others say the church's aggressive real estate strategy is about keeping up appearances.
"They open facilities around the world they don't need," Ortega says. "And then they write press releases, 'Scientology expanding around the world!'?"
The church's finances are notoriously opaque, but according to various tax filings posted online by Jeffrey Augustine at the Scientology Money Project, the church has at least $1.5 billion in assets (that figure also is cited in the HBO documentary). Most of those assets are thought to be real estate.
Scientology's income, traditionally, came from four sources: "auditing," a sort of counseling session members go through, which, according to the church's website, "deletes life's painful experiences and addresses and improves one's ability to confront and handle the factors in his life"; sales of E-meters, a sort of crude lie detector used in auditing; training sessions; and book sales. All of these income streams rely on a high number of active members.
So, in recent years, according to former church officials like Rinder and De Vocht, the church has turned more and more to fundraising — mostly in the form of asking existing members for donations. That fundraising is, more often than not, connected to construction projects.
In 1998, Luis Garcia and his wife, Maria, both committed Scientologists living in Florida, were taken out to dinner by a church official, who told them about the "Super Power Expansion Project," the church's new "spiritual headquarters" in Clearwater, Fla. The Garcias were told that they could become "Cornerstone Members" of the new center (which would come with various benefits, such as their name on a plaque and a 40 percent discount on auditing sessions, which can cost thousands of dollars per session for advanced members) for a contribution of just $35,000, to which they agreed.
According to a lawsuit the Garcias would later file, the church continued to solicit a multitude of contributions from the couple for the next seven years, for a total of $340,000, including $65,000 they were told would purchase a large cross for the front of the Super Power building, which would come to also be known as the Flag building.
Though construction began in 1998, the building didn't open for 15 years, in which time, according to the Garcia lawsuit, the church managed to raise more than $200 million — twice the cost of construction. The building might have stood vacant for even longer were it not for $400,000 in fines levied by the city of Clearwater, which charged that the structure had become an eyesore. The building finally opened, to great fanfare, in 2013.
The Garcias filed their suit that same year, three years after they'd left the church. A federal judge ordered the couple to settle with the church in arbitration, which the Garcias are contesting.
The Garcias and other ex–Scientology leaders say that buildings like Flag and Scientology Media Productions are how the church maintains its impressive cash flow even while its membership is dwindling.
"Fundraising made more money for the Super Power building to be empty," says Karen De La Carriere, who left the church in 2010, and who was once married to Scientology International president Heber Jentzsch. The purpose of Scientology Media Productions, she says, was much the same. "This was a fundraising studio. Everyone was bombarded with fundraising emails. 'Give money! This will save the world!'?"
Pouw dismisses De La Carriere, Rinder, De Vocht and other vocal ex-Scientologists as "defrocked and expelled former church staffers."
"It is tiresome to continue to hear these stale, disproven allegations from the same sources," Pouw says in a written statement. "Still bitter at having been kicked out of the church for malfeasance a decade or more ago, these bigoted individuals have spread lies and hate for years."
Yet the church is still raising money for its production studio — months after the ribbon-cutting.
Last week, Rinder posted on his blog an email sent out to Scientology members asking for donations to fund the operations of Scientology Media Productions — or SMP, as they call it, part of the "planetary dissemination unit," i.e., public relations arm of the church.
"Now that SMP is open, it's the next phase, and that requires funding the programs that put global clearing within reach," reads the email ("clearing" refers to the goal of Scientologists to "go clear," i.e., to be free of "engrams," or past traumas).
"Every major advancement we make requires the energy to do so and this is where your donations count and on which we depend to make this next forward thrust. Your donations to the planetary dissemination unit result in order being put into a disordered and troubled world.
"Your contributions are greatly valued and needed.
"We are counting on you to do so."
Los Angeles, and more specifically Hollywood, has always been something of a holy place for Scientology. Its founder, the incredibly prolific science fiction author L. Ron Hubbard, lived in Hollywood for decades. And Scientology deliberately courts celebrities to help spread the gospel.
Though the church's headquarters is now in Clearwater, there are still more Scientologists living in L.A. than anywhere in the world. The city even has an L. Ron Hubbard Way, a small street dominated by low-ranking, uniformed Scientologists who live and work nearby.
The street's renaming, in 1996, was not without controversy. According to the Los Angeles Times, City Councilmember Ruth Galanter objected to the move, calling Hubbard "manipulative" and "dishonest," adding: "He's a cult leader. We don't name streets after cult leaders."
But Councilman Richard Alatorre defended the new name: "The fact of the matter is, this is the leader of this church that has been a long-standing member of the community. They are involved in positive work — they have a lot of members."
Councilman Richard Alarcon, meanwhile, projected bemused disinterest, explaining his yes vote by saying: "We have, literally, thousands and thousands of streets named for people, most of whom I have no idea who they are."
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The debate crystallized to a certain extent L.A.'s awkward relationship with Scientology. The church has drawn so much criticism worldwide yet has a more or less harmonious relationship with the city establishment. Kevin James, the president of the Board of Public Works, who ran for mayor in 2013 and who says he plans to run for public office again, says the city's and the church's interests sometimes overlap. "They're one of the largest property owners in Hollywood, if not the largest property owner. By necessity, we work with them regularly, whether for special events, development or public safety."
When the church wanted to put up its logo — the glowing S and two triangles — on the radio tower of its new studio, the city approved it but advised the church to pay a courtesy call on the Los Feliz Neighborhood Council. So the church made a presentation in front of the neighborhood council's planning committee. After hearing about a dozen community members object to the proposal, the committee voted to recommend that the full council object to the sign — a purely symbolic move.
The issue was set for a hearing before the full neighborhood council, but the item was withdrawn from the agenda at the church's request. There was no subsequent outreach. The S went up, and has stayed lit at night ever since.
"The reality is, it's a very visible presence, and it's for a very specific organization," says Los Feliz Neighborhood Council president Luke Klipp, who lives 500 feet from the studio and can see the sign from both his front and back yards. "If McDonald's put a sign 150 feet in the air, lots of people would be screaming. And I'd be one of them."