Furor feeds ‘Da Vinci’

Pic bucks controversy to attract huge public interest

Vatican officials have denounced “The Da Vinci Code” and urged a boycott. The Greek Orthodox Church has said “Code” is “wholly false.” Opus Dei and the Catholic League have demanded that Sony add a disclaimer in the film’s opening credits noting the pic is based on fiction. (Sony has not complied.)

To a large extent, all this fuss has just contributed to the pic’s already spectacular, self-generated publicity. Sony marketers have probably never had it easier in terms of awareness-building for a film.

But it’s also a minefield that’s led Sony to seek out marketing input from numerous consultants. The result, Sony hopes, will be closer to the hit “The Passion of the Christ” than “The Last Temptation of Christ,” a box office bomb.

The “Code” controversy has been fanned by the release on March 28 of the novel’s paperback edition. It has already sold a few million copies, with 7 million in print.

Barnes & Noble has virtual shrines to the book and the numerous publications it has inspired, from editorials to detractions, in most of its retail outlets.

Author Dan Brown himself was in the spotlight recently when he emerged from seclusion to attend a London High Court copyright infringement case brought against him by Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh.

The disgruntled authors of “Holy Blood, Holy Grail” claimed Brown stole “the whole architecture” of their research for “Code.” Brown acknowledged his debt to the scribes, but the plagiarism claim was rejected.

Even evangelical groups uncomfortable with the pic are contributing to the film’s marketing by distributing “Code” materials, such as iPods loaded with commentary on the book, and discussing the bestseller in sermons attended by thousands.

In the annals of controversial films about religion, two examples loom large in Hollywood.

Martin Scorsese’s 1988 “The Last Temptation of Christ” was made before studios felt the need to hire religious or any other kind of consultants to work on their prickly movies, and the film became a very public flashpoint, with religious groups picketing and threatening boycotts.

Despite its high awareness, “Temptation” grossed just $8 million domestically. Arguably, the film would have made less money without the media fanfare, as it put the movie on the radar of filmgoers beyond just Scorsese fans. However, the film sent Hollywood the message that religious pics don’t sell.

Sixteen years later came Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” Gibson’s crucifixion pic was able to exploit its thorny religious assertions, establishing itself in the zeitgeist as something of a must-see pic. It grossed $370 million domestically.

Both titles proved that films dealing with religion cannot be taken lightly, and that studios must appease or at least aggressively appeal to religious groups. Another recent example: “Munich,” which failed to ignite after a handful of critics and Jewish groups came out against it.

Sony has taken note. In order to help navigate a potential P.R. tempest, the studio hired a gaggle of consultants, including Allan Mayer of the damage-control PR firm Sitrick & Co., which also handled the “Munich” campaign; Grace Hill Media, which specializes in marketing to Christian auds; and theology professors at Notre Dame, Princeton and Harvard Divinity School.

Extensive outreach was conducted with religious groups and a Web site was set up, TheDaVinciDialogue.com, where religious leaders and anyone else who might have a bone to pick with the movie could vent.

Sony senior VP of corporate communications Jim Kennedy, a former aide to President Clinton, was enlisted as the studio’s spokesman for “Code,” discussing the pic in his soft-spoken — indeed, almost priestly — manner.

Sony’s official line on the film is: “We believe ‘The Da Vinci Code’ is an exciting, entertaining work of fiction that does not represent an attack on any religious organization. Obviously, the novel on which our film is based has inspired many conversations about history and religion, but the movie is a thriller, not a religious tract or historical documentary.”

At this stage, Sony’s effort seems to have paid off.

Despite the protests, there has been no widespread boycott or ban of the film. In fact, many Christian orgs in the U.S. learned from “Last Temptation” that picketing and making a fuss only raises awareness for a film. Some groups even advise seeing the film as a means of addressing the issues it presents.

“I think when anybody makes a big deal, that bad publicity is better than no publicity,” says Karen Covell, director of the Hollywood Prayer Network, a grassroots prayer org for Christians working in Hollywood. “We are totally against picketing and boycotting.”

In a sign of how religious groups are learning to beat Hollywood at its own game, Covell advises making a statement by buying a ticket to another movie. In the case of “Code,” she says offended parties should opt for “Over the Hedge,” DreamWorks’ family toon that opens the same weekend.

“That’s what tells the studio what you’re excited about,” Covell says. Spoken just like a Hollywood marketer.

Archie Thomas in London contributed to this report.

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