Director Paul Thomas Anderson has always insisted that his highly anticipated new film “The Master”, which stars Philip Seymour Hoffman as a low-rent sci-fi author and war veteran who decides to go whole hog and invent his own bizarre religion, has nothing to do with the Church of Scientology. Yet most people seem to think that’s exactly what it’s about for some reason!
We all know that the church doesn’t take too kindly to criticism, and we guess the film counts as a critique, because the church’s representatives have now apparently intensified their anti-“Master” PR campaign in anticipation of the movie’s Friday opening.
Despite all this noise, Anderson has never publicly criticized the church, and he has even indicated that the experience of making and promoting his latest opus actually led him to become more sympathetic toward Scientology in general. On a recent stop in Venice he said: “I don’t know a hell of a lot about Scientology today but I know about the beginnings of that movement and it inspired me to use it as a backdrop for these characters. I can’t be any more unambiguous than that.”
OK, so Anderson admits that the character of charismatic cult leader Lancaster Dodd is indeed “partly based on” church founder/ “Dianetics” author/ heavenly body L. Ron Hubbard. Most importantly, the public will always know “The Master” as “that Scientology movie,” so of course the church feels the need to respond.
What, exactly, has the church done? Well, sources say that its representatives have been placing a lot of “strange calls” to distributor The Weinstein Co. to complain about the film and that they are “concocting plans to combat it.” Sounds ominous…and vague. The only specifics we get in a report by The New York Post’s always-reliable Page Sixconcern the church’s plans to run its own promo spots “in places where ads and stories about ‘The Master’ appear”—and, we assume, to continue talking smack about the movie online.
So will this “campaign” actually hurt the film? We doubt it.
Let’s put it this way: PT Anderson is the most acclaimed young director working today, and “The Master” all but swept the Venice Film Festival, so no PR project, however aggressive, will stop people from seeing it. If anything, we’d say that this story leaves us even more excited to watch the flick. We also happen to love both P.T. Anderson and Philip Seymour Hoffman, so there’s that.
Question for PR pros: We’ve never really felt like insulting one’s critics is a very good PR strategy, but the kind folks at the Church of Scientology seem to enjoy doing it for some reason. We’d like to suggest some alternative strategies. What advice might you have for church representatives looking to soften their organization’s public image?