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‘Mission’ a German Hit Despite Boycott

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Despite the much-publicized boycott in Germany of “Mission: Impossible” because its star, Tom Cruise, is a Scientologist, the film grossed about $24 million, considered a huge success for the important German market by Hollywood studios, and ranked eighth in Germany for 1996.

The results could help assuage the Hollywood studios that are preparing for the German release of Cruise’s current hit film, “Jerry Maguire,” and of “Michael,” which stars another noted Scientologist, John Travolta. Hollywood considers Germany one of the top two movie markets in the world outside North America. Depending on the film, Germany can surpass even Japan, studio distribution executives polled said.

The boycotts, which accompanied last August’s release in Germany of “Mission,” were organized by state-level youth wings of the conservative Christian Democratic Union, known as the Junge Union, in five northern German states and city-states, including Hamburg and Berlin. The CDU is Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s party and the biggest in his coalition government.

Because of their continuing concern over the treatment of Scientologists in Germany, 33 Hollywood celebrities and executives, including Dustin Hoffman and Goldie Hawn, signed a full-page advertisement last week in the New York Times and the Paris-based International Herald-Tribune comparing the treatment of Scientologists in modern Germany to the persecution of Jews before World War II. The signatories noted that they are not Scientologists, but could not “look the other way while this appalling situation continues and grows.”

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The Christian Democrats, in general, oppose the Scientology movement in Germany because there is suspicion among some German authorities that it is a business masquerading as a church. Scientologists are said to open real estate offices, buy up apartments, use strong-arm tactics to pressure the residents out, then resell the apartments at a profit, especially in Hamburg and Berlin, two of the city-states where the Junge Union tried to boycott “Mission: Impossible.”

There were no such boycotts for previous Cruise films such as “Interview With the Vampire” and “The Firm,” or previous Travolta films like “Get Shorty” or “Pulp Fiction,” all of which were hugely popular in Germany.

“Phenomenon,” which stars Travolta, was the target of an anti-Scientology boycott last year as well, but Carsten Pfaff, statistical director of the Central Organization for Film Economics in Wiesbaden, said it wasn’t particularly an issue because the film was generally unsuccessful in Germany, grossing only about $3.5 million and selling only 450,000 tickets. He attributed the poor showing to the film’s story, not the attacks by anti-Scientologists.

Burkhard Remmers, state chairman of the CDU Junge Union for the large northern German state of Lower Saxony, said that his organization got interested in fighting Scientology even before the “Mission: Impossible” boycott because Scientology seemed to be becoming “more offensive” in Germany, sending direct mailings to households all over Lower Saxony. “We said to ourselves, ‘We have to do something.’ Then came ‘Mission: Impossible.’ There was a press conference, and when Tom Cruise was asked about Scientology, he answered, ‘This is a personal matter.’ I heard this original quote on the radio and I said, ‘That’s that.’ ”

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During the boycotts--which Christine Loerke, spokeswoman for Junge Union, referred to as an “information campaign” on Scientology--Junge Union activists set up tables in front of movie theaters in the affected states and offered brochures to patrons.

Remmers’ organization thinks it’s dangerous to brush Scientology off as “a personal matter” because they believe it’s a potent political force that is trying to infiltrate German society politically, economically and in the media. Both Remmers and fellow Junge Union official Stephan Lerch insisted that their boycott was successful.

“It was never our concern to keep visitors away from movie theaters,” Remmers said. “Our concern was to heat up the whole discussion. The fact that ‘Mission: Impossible’ got so many viewers meant success for us, too. These people learned more about Scientology” by walking by leaflet tables into the theaters.

Scientology President Heber C. Jentzsch, based in Los Angeles, said he believed the whole boycott was a well-timed publicity stunt. “Sommerloch. It literally means hole of the summer, a period when nothing is happening. ‘Mission: Impossible’ was released in Sommerloch. That’s why they chose a high-profile movie with a star that is a high-profile Scientologist.”

Meanwhile, on Thursday in Paris, film director Constantin Costa-Gavras released a statement saying he had erred in signing the open letter. He said he had not carefully read the letter before signing it, and that, “Only after a careful reading did I realize my error--not that I had defended the principle of civil liberties, which was my sole motive for signing, but that I may have led anyone to believe it was possible to make a comparison between the [situation] in modern Germany and the abominable laws of yesteryear which led to the Holocaust.”

When it comes to entertainment, Jentzsch and Los Angeles attorney Bertram Fields, who represents both Cruise and Travolta and who wrote the letter that appeared in the ad, said the backlash against Scientologists extends further than the movies. In fact, Jentzsch said the incidents actually started in May 1993 when the concerts of jazz pianist and Scientologist Chick Corea were canceled.

Up until a few years ago, Corea performed a regular schedule of concerts in Germany. But persistent difficulties with German officials--including the last-minute cancellation of concerts at the 1993 World Athletics Championship in the southern German state of Baden-Wurttemberg, and at Burghausen in Bavaria--led Corea to reduce his appearances to only two concerts last year.

Corea protested the cancellation to the general secretary of the Athletic Championships, but the government of Baden-Wurttemberg replied that contract negotiations for the event could not continue because Corea was a “known member of the Scientology cult.”

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In June 1996, Corea was again denied permission to appear at state-subsidized events in Bavaria.

“While movies aren’t the only areas of entertainment that have been impacted by this hatred, I think any backlash from this letter will be felt when ‘Michael’ and ‘Jerry Maguire’ are released there,” Fields noted.

TriStar’s “Jerry Maguire,” starring Cruise, will be released in Germany on Feb. 27. Although John Calley, president and chief operating officer of Sony Pictures, TriStar’s parent company, signed the letter, a spokesman for the company said Calley declined to comment further. He also said the company doesn’t anticipate any problems with the Germany release.

The same applies for Warner Bros., which is releasing New Line Cinema’s “Michael,” which stars Travolta, in Germany on March 20.

Munich-based Joe Fuhrmann, managing director for EDI in Germany, said German exhibitors saw “Michael” during a trade show screening in Munich this week. “They absolutely loved this picture. This whole Scientology issue was never brought up,” Fuhrmann said. “The people in the States need to know that the group causing this trouble is a small group who never had a headline before this and it is not the view of the German people overall. [And yet] people here are very upset about this letter, particularly the German Jewish community. They are outraged that a comparison has been drawn with the Holocaust.

“No one pays attention to those political boycotts. The box-office numbers from here are huge. These movies shouldn’t be affected.”

* Judy Brennan is a regular contributor to The Times; Mary Williams Walsh is The Times’ Berlin bureau chief. Freelance writer Don Heckman also contributed to this story.


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