‘Code’ courts the Croisette

Sony unleashes 'Da Vinci' hype

All Cannes opening nights are festive, but tonight’s bow of Sony’s “The Da Vinci Code” promises an unprecedented mix of Hollywood hoopla, fest glamour and worldwide hysteria.

This despite the fact that the notoriously hard-to-please Cannes press corps, which saw the film Tuesday night, was not overwhelmed by the thriller. Applause was at best lukewarm among the reviewers, and some even groaned at the apparently heavy-handed melodrama. As for the performances, Ian McKellen was tabbed by most reviewers as the sole standout.

Sony and Imagine’s big gamble on tight-lipped secrecy has defined the pic’s campaign, but it’s still unclear if the tactic will pay off in B.O. terms.

“(Our idea) really is to create a tremendous event and to have as little advance rumblings as possible,” Sony Pictures vice chairman Jeff Blake said. “We wanted the focus to be on Cannes and to create a pretty even playing field. It’s a movie that everyone is anticipating and talking about, and we wanted it to be seen by everyone at the same time.”

Opening-night films at Cannes are traditionally followed by a formal (and restrained) dinner party within the Palais. Sony and Imagine have added hundreds of guests for a post-soiree latenight bash by the Old Port. A specially built pyramid decorated with the film’s logo will send out laser beams into the sky.

On Tuesday, the filmmakers (including director Ron Howard and producer Brian Grazer), cast (Tom Hanks, Audrey Tautou, et al.), studio execs and members of the press took a 10-hour train ride from London to Cannes, an elaborate railway press junket.

Cannes is billed as the pic’s world premiere, though “Code” opens in France and a few other territories today in advance of the day-and-date global opening Friday.

Traditionally, Cannes offers a morning press screening before fest films’ evening bows. But partly due to anticipation, “Code” was given a Tuesday evening screening as well as one this morning. The world press, usually jaded, were clamoring to be among the first to see the film Tuesday.

While Cannes assures worldwide media attention, it’s a double-edged sword. The Tuesday-night screening for critics — who have just arrived and may be jetlagged and not in the best frame of mind to review a film — is both a service and a risk.

Sony worldwide marketing honcho Valerie Van Galder said the studio is trying to be sensitive by holding the extra screening.

“We’re making sure that everyone can do their jobs,” she said.

Blake added: “It all came about because of the worldwide appeal of the property, and timing. The movie opens May 19 and the film festival opens May 17. It seemed a natural.”

With 40 million copies of Dan Brown’s book sold in hardcover, it’s hard to imagine what secrets could be held in the film, and Sony’s under-wraps approach could have created a backlash from the press and exhibitors.

Instead, it seems to have fueled the fever. Everybody wants to get into the act. Visconti pens will have a yacht here to tout a luxury pen inspired by the film; the Ritz in London has created a package that includes a tour allowing guests “to trace the footsteps of the heroes of the beloved bestseller”; and Mona Lisa playing cards can be found in local shops.

Sony is banking on “Code” — which lacks the special effects and explosions of most summer popcorn fare — making its money over the long haul, not just on opening weekend.

“We’re really hoping that we’ve got something a little atypical,” Blake said. “It does have a real appeal to adults as well as to the young moviegoing audience.”

Adding press attention has been the controversy over the novel’s allegations that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and had a child.

Vatican officials have advised boycotting the film. The Greek Orthodox Church has called the book and film “wholly false.” Opus Dei and the Catholic League both urged Sony to include a disclaimer in the opening credits that states the film is based on a work of fiction. Sony did not comply.

Tuesday, a Seoul district court rejected an injunction that might have prevented the pic’s release in South Korea. The film remains skedded for release Thursday.

The Christian Council of Korea last month sought a provisional injunction against Sony Pictures, claiming the film damages many believers’ faith by giving a distorted view of Christ and the church. South Korea is one of the most predominantly Christian countries in Asia, with an estimated 16 million believers.

Cannes is a particularly apt platform for “Code,” considering the pic’s main action takes place in Paris and London and that much of its leading cast is European. French thesps Tautou and Jean Reno and Brits McKellen and Paul Bettany star alongside Hanks.

Studios have learned not to take the fest’s impact lightly.

Last year, Universal and Imagine declined the festival’s request to launch “Cinderella Man” at Cannes. Pic went on to do underwhelming overseas box office, while domestic B.O. was not much better.

Meanwhile, after Warner Bros. unspooled “Troy” on the Croisette, that film went on to $497 million in foreign grosses; it minted $133 million Stateside.

On the foreign front, Sony’s giving “Da Vinci Code” its widest foreign release ever, with 11,930 screens during the opening frame — about 300 more than it allocated for “Spider-Man 2” in 2004.

The only territories not going day-and-date for “Code” are India and the Middle East. Sony plans to launch in the UAE on May 31.

Sony’s opening in only three markets today — Belgium, France and French Switzerland — and then opening the next day in the usual territories that start their runs on Thursday, including Australia, Germany, Holland, Russia and South Korea. Most markets will open Friday, and Japan will adhere to its typical Saturday debut.

In L.A., the ArcLight Theater will begin showing the pic at 6 a.m. on Friday, offering patrons breakfast and T-shirts.

(Patrick Frater contributed to this report.)

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