World enters ‘Da Vinci’ mode

Controversy's fueling 'Code'

From Rome to Tokyo, Stuttgart to Seoul, “The Da Vinci Code” seems set to capitalize on the controversy surrounding its take on Christianity.

Across Europe, local exhibs insist they’re confident the Sony pic will become one of the bigger blockbusters in their countries when it opens next week.

And despite a lack of familiarity with Christian values and symbolism in the Far East, awareness of the movie and the hoopla surrounding it is piquing moviegoers’ interest there, too.

Still, opening in the summer is not the same thing abroad as it is Stateside. Europeans love to take advantage of the warm weather to be outdoors, and in Japan, the big moviegoing season gets rolling only in mid-July.

Cannes

For its part, Sony is doing everything it can to prime the pump, with tailormade promotional gimmicks in most territories and an opening-night premiere at the Cannes Film Festival Wednesday. The first worldwide press screening isn’t until 8:30 p.m. Tuesday in Cannes, which means “Da Vinci” is opening in several key territories in Europe, including France, without a single bona fide review having been published.

Apparently, they’re not needed.

“The film is generating widespread interest among folks who haven’t even read the novel. The Grail, the Knights Templar, the secrets of the Catholic Church — it’s great fun and lets the imagination run wild,” enthused one Teutonic exhib.

The thriller, starring Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou, appears to have struck a particular chord with Europeans by turning a thousand years of their history into pop culture and giving them the chance to look with newfound interest at their own heritage.

What’s more, local Euro interest in the Catholic Church, its pageantry and inner workings has soared since the election last year of German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI.

Vatican

Not that the Vatican itself is pleased about the pic. Some in the Church hierarchy are seeing red, and conservative pols profess outrage.

“Cartoons about Islam caused controversy, but what about the Catholic Church and Christianity being heavily offended? This is unacceptable,” carped politico Gianni Plinio of Italy’s right-wing National Alliance. He has spearheaded a “Da Vinci Code: No Grazie” boycott committee.

Italy

Still, Sony and local exhibs are bracing for a killing in Italy. Expectations for “Da Vinci” in this nominally Catholic country are on a par with the boffo B.O. of “The Passion of the Christ” — meaning a gross of approximately E25 million ($32 million).

“We’re hopeful for obvious reasons: There has simply been more buzz here than other places,” said Sony’s local marketing director, Aldo Lemme.

Pic will be going out on a massive 850 screens — almost half the country’s capacity.

Consensus is that even if the Vatican were to mobilize priests to sermonize Sunday against “Da Vinci,” it would not make much difference, since less than one-third of Italy’s population are practicing Catholics. That segment is in large part over 65 — not the prime demo for the pic.

Germany

In Germany, the top market for American pics abroad, exhibs are forecasting grosses as high as $44 million, depending on the weather. (“MI3” disappointed there two weeks ago in part because of too much sunshine.)

Such a tally would put “Da Vinci” on a par with the Teutonic take of “Madagascar” ($45 million) but below that of “Ice Age 2” ($54 million).

Due to Germany’s notoriously poor B.O. during the spring and summer months, local exhibs are not fans of day-and-date releases.

“The film would be considerably more successful if it opened in the fall,” one exhib opined.

United Kingdom

Nevertheless, pic is getting plenty of coverage in the local press, just as the plagiarism trial involving author Dan Brown has fanned the flames of interest in the movie in Britain.

“Christianity, Christian ideas and ideals have for good reason withstood so many challenges that a ‘Da Vinci Code’ whodunit in no way presents a threat,” director Ron Howard recently reassured the German press.

France

In France, where locals particularly relish intellectual controversy, the “Da Vinci” debat is in full swing as church leaders, media pundits, mags and chat sites all chime in on the pic’s premise.

And if that weren’t enough, the setting in the Louvre and the roles played by French faves Tautou and Jean Reno mean not one filmgoer in Gaul is unaware of the pic.

Even the Eurostar, the train that runs from Paris to London, has gotten in on the act with a cross-marketing scheme called “The Da Vinci Adventure.” Train is selling a reduced ticket-hotel combo for travelers, with a treasure hunt offering a first prize of e200,000 ($250,000).

Practically the entire local press have the pic plastered on their covers, with “hard-hitting” questions for Howard, Hanks and Tautou concerning their own religious beliefs and whether they believe “Da Vinci’s” contention that Mary Magdalene and Jesus Christ had a child together.

French clergy have objected with varying degrees of energy, with one irate Dominican friar accusing the “Da Vinci” moviemakers of trying to destroy the Christian tradition.

(Similar discord dogged Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” but in the end it did nothing but pump that pic’s Gallic grosses.)

Spain

In Spain, the arty whodunit could follow the fortunes of “Ice Age 2” and help turn the exhibition scene around.

“If ‘Da Vinci’ goes big, it’s very unlikely Spain will be down this year from 2005,” said Jose Manuel Pimienta, Nielsen EDI’s local managing director.

Thanks largely to a boffo $23 million gross from “Ice Age 2,” Spanish B.O. through April was $265 million, up 8% vs. the first four months of 2005, according to Nielsen EDI Spain stats.

“It should be the film of the year in Spain,” cinema booker Roberto Bayon opined.

Another booker said companies have bought out entire sessions in advance as a gift to employees.

Sony’s marketing campaign for Spain involves fitting out bus stops with interactive gizmos that download the “Da Vinci” trailer.

The Opus Dei theme should have particular resonance in Spain, where the secretive religious order is headquartered. Org still draws suspicion from Spain’s left for its closeness to dictator Francisco Franco’s regime.

“You could call the controversy part of the film’s marketing campaign, as it does nothing but benefit the movie,” one Spanish exhib said.

China

In the Far East, Sony has other issues to deal with — not only the potential for piracy of its prints and the scissors of censors, but also the challenge of tilting the promotion to entice a non-Christian audience.

China is thus receiving particular attention from Sony marketers.

A whopping 400 prints are going out in the world’s most populous country for the May 18 opening, and moves to thwart would-be pirates are unprecedented.

Li Chow, Sony Pictures’ general manager in China, told Daily Variety that workers would hand-carry reels to the moviehouses and guards would be dispatched to monitor folks entering theaters.

The promos in China astutely de-emphasize religious imagery (which many wouldn’t understand anyway) and play upon the cultural themes. That approach helps explain why the censors passed the movie so easily.

It’s the first day-and-date release this year in China, and 400 prints are a lot for a foreign movie; Sony’s “King Kong” went out on 380.

There are varying reports on how many people have actually read the novel in China, but the number is estimated at 10 million out of a population of 1.25 billion.

A problem for Chinese auds even with the book was translating Christian concepts to a largely materialist China: The Holy Grail, for example, doesn’t mean anything to Chinese auds and required specialist translation.

Japan

Meanwhile, in Japan, pic is being released on 866 screens — the max for that territory — according to Sony marketing VP Megumi Fukasawa.

Distrib is hoping for a gross of ¥10 billion ($90 million), which is as high as a foreign pic can expect to go.

Sales of the book have passed the 8.8 million mark, which makes it a megaseller here.

The lack of familiarity with the Christian history and symbolism won’t be a problem, Sony’s Fukasawa contended: “The film is entertainment: It won’t be difficult to understand.”

The timing of the release in Japan, however, could be better, as the summer season doesn’t really get going until mid-July. But Sony plans to keep the film in the theaters long enough to catch the summer crowd when it eventually materializes.

Korea

The dynamics are somewhat different in South Korea.

In a country where Christian fundamentalism is an influential force, the religious issues have been widely discussed in the press and on the Internet.

South Korea’s largest Christian group, the Christian Council of Korea, filed a provisional injunction to the Seoul District Court in early April to block the film’s release.

Although the court is not expected to block the release, the CCK also has pressured distributor Sony to publicly acknowledge fictional elements in the plot. (Sony hasn’t complied.)

A general meeting of Korean Christian orgs is expected to be held Tuesday in order to issue a joint statement on the film.

Meanwhile, a poll of Korean audiences conducted by online reservations site Maxmovie.com has “Da Vinci” in the top spot among the most highly anticipated Hollywood releases of the summer.

(Clifford Coonan in Beijing, Patrick Frater in Hong Kong, John Hopewell in Madrid, Liza Klaussmann in Paris, Ed Meza in Berlin, Darcy Paquet in Seoul, Mark Schilling in Tokyo and Nick Vivarelli in Rome contributed to this report.)

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