Leonardo Couldn't Dream Up Better Publicity

The Da Vinci Code goes from best-selling book to big-screen blockbuster amid the sort of ticket-selling controversy that studios pray for

Its author spent three days in the witness box in a London court, defending his work against allegations of plagiarism. Religious leaders have argued that the film should be changed so as not to offend Catholics. Is this the kind of publicity that Sony's upcoming film, The Da Vinci Code, needs right now, just weeks before its May 19 release?

You betcha. In fact, if you're in the movie business, it's hard to buy this kind of publicity -- the kind of round-the-dial blitz that starts with Matt Lauer chatting up religious leaders on whether a prologue should be added to the flick, and might end with late-night comedians guffawing over whether Jesus ascended to heaven stag.

So if you're the studio execs at Sony (SNE) you should be as happy as a starlet in champagne, right? Maybe. But the folks at Sony have been known to steal defeat from the jaws of victory in the past. (Anyone remember the lofty expectations for Memoirs of a Geisha or for the nose-twitching stinker Bewitched?)


  For that reason, Sony is launching a marketing campaign designed to both stoke monster anticipation for the film while catering to the religious groups who have a nasty habit of taking the vengeance out on films that displease them.

The problem with a film with the anticipation of a monster hit like The Da Vinci Code is that the huge publicity can backfire. There are still execs at Universal who remember the whacking they took in 1988 with Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, which infuriated religious groups and flopped at the box office. And with book sales of more than 35 million worldwide, Dan Brown's thriller, based on the controversial notion that Jesus married Mary Magdelene, is considered the film to beat this year.

Indeed, since it was published in 2003, The Da Vinci Code has become something of a cottage industry, spawning everything from package tours to the Holy Land to critical documentaries. The film, directed by Oscar-winner Ron Howard and starring two-time winner Tom Hanks as the Harvard symbology professor-turned-hero Robert Langdon, "will be huge," says Paul Dergaradebian, who runs the box office tracking company Exhibitor Relations Co.


  That means the only thing Sony has to fear is the huge expectations. What's a film with a $125 million budget supposed to gross at the U.S. box office? If it does less than the $217 million generated by Peter Jackson's special effects-swollen King Kong it will be considered a disaster, according to Hollywood insiders. One thing Sony doesn't need is more disappointing news. It's already shell-shocked from its Mar. 15 announcement of a six-month delay in the introduction of its eagerly-awaited PlayStation 3 video game player.

So how do you ensure that one of your hottest flicks gets the right send-off? For starters, you hire a hot-shot director like Howard, who no doubt got a hefty piece of the action (he usually does) and Hanks, a big box office draw, who is known to get a pretty fair deal himself. Howard and producer Brian Grazer wrangled permission from French President Jacques Chirac to film at the Louvre.

But during filming there were signs of the troubles ahead. Britain's Westminster Abbey refused to allow Howard to film there because churchmen found the book "theologically unsound." In the U.S., the Catholic League sent a letter to Sony studio chief Amy Pascal demanding that the film contain a disclaimer saying that the film is based on a work of fiction.


  But a few months later, when the film was nearly completed, Sony was in a full marketing build-up. To stoke the core audience of action and thriller fans, it played an early version of a trailer before George Lucas's Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. Hanks, Howard, and Grazer showed up at the Consumer Electronics Trade show in Las Vegas earlier to plug the film during Sony CEO Howard Stringer's presentation.

Hanks joked about the quality of the Sony-made teleprompters from which he said he was reading and said he working on a flick "that few people have every heard of." The studio successfully pitched the Today Show on doing a piece on Leonardo Da Vinci while Katie Couric was in Italy covering the winter Olympics. They allowed Newsweek an inside look at the movie in January, and were repaid with a cover story that labeled it the year's hot film.

At the same time, Sony was doing its best to placate religious leaders. It hired crisis public relations firm Sitrick & Company to help it devise a strategy that gave Catholics the ability to vent while pitching their film as fiction, not a dramatization of real events. Sitrick folks interviewed religious leaders to take their temperature, and the company hired one-time Warner Brothers publicist Jonathan Bock, whose company Grace Hill Media has promoted films like The Chronicles of Narnia and The Exorcism of Emily Rose to religious groups.


  He built a Web site, thedavincichallenge.com, and invited a cross-section of Christian writers, scholars, and evangelical leaders to discuss the book in a series of essays. Sitrick & Company and Imagine Entertainment, Ron Howard's production company, did not return phone calls. A Sony spokesman says: "We view The Da Vinci Code as a work of fiction that is not meant to harm any organization. And at its heart, it's a thriller, not a religious tract."

The aim, it seems, was to do little more than make sure the waves being stirred by the film's critics didn't slosh too high. And by and large it seems to have worked. The conservative Catholic group Opus Dei, which had called for the filmmaker to change the ending of the film, has so far refrained from calling for a boycott of the movie -- despite being portrayed in the film as a secretive cult that covers up Jesus' marriage and daughter.

Meanwhile, Dan Brown, the book's press-shy author, has been defending himself in a London court against charges that he cribbed portions of the 1982 nonfiction book Holy Blood, Holy Grail. Brown has strenuously denied the charges. Still, there is a silver lining to Brown's legal plight. Unless there is a bombshell still to go off, even the negative attention from religious groups and Dan Brown's legal fight will likely only boost awareness of the flick, say Hollywood insiders.


  "It may bring into theaters the five or six people out there who haven't heard of the book," says Peter Graves, a leading movie marketing consultant. "But this is a juggernaut and there isn't much out there that can stop it."

Probably not. Still, Sony intends to make sure. It's gearing up one of those massive marketing extravaganzas that will no doubt plaster the film's name everywhere. The film's premier is at the Cannes Film Festival on May 17, with a hefty benefit event planned two days later at the Louvre.

"The only thing that can derail this is if Tom Hanks says he hates the movie, and you know that won't happen," says Graves. Nope, it won't. And Sony is no doubt praying that the gods of filmmaking don't say it either.

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