Hiding Da Vinci

May 14, 2006
A thought by James Berardinelli

It has been said that even bad press is good publicity, and there's a certain amount of truth to that. There's certainly no lack of press (good and bad) surrouding the release of The Da Vinci Code, which opens on Friday. It's a curious thing to have something talked about so much when no one has actually seen the film. Sony has kept this movie under such tight wraps that no outside of the inner circle has viewed the finished product.

Of course, since the movie is based on a hugely popular novel, there are no secrets about its controversial subject matter, but we don't know how the movie handles this. Based on the comments of the filmmakers, some things have changed. The question is: how much? It's not unusual for screenplays to be almost indistinguishable from their source material, but I suspect that won't be the case for The Da Vinci Code. Too many people want to see a motion picture representation of what they read.

A huge number of religious leaders - Catholic, Protestant, Muslim - are urging their followers not to see the film. However, having learned from past experience, when boycotts and protests helped movies by increasing their visibility and making seeing them to appear daring and "sexy," these clerics using a low-key approach to condeming the movie sight-unseen. I wonder how many people are listening?

Most individuals, even those who consider themselves "religious," probably won't have a problem with The Da Vinci Code, since they'll be able to distinguish fantasy from reality. Ron Howard's movie, like Dan Brown's novel, is a fictional story. It sprinkles elements of fact throughout to create a realistic atmosphere, but that's all. Calling it heretical and blasphemous is over-the-top. (This statement will get me e-mails.)

It's true that a lot of fundamental Christians and Muslims (who consider Jesus to be a very important prophet), and maybe others, will avoid seeing the film on religious grounds. My guess is that these are the same people who do not participate in Halloween celebrations, who bemoan the secularization of Christmas, and who think ill of poor Harry Potter. They're probably more significant than a fringe element, but they're not in the mainstream, and their disapprobation will likely not hurt the film. After all, how many of them would have seen the film if it didn't have anything to do with Jesus?

Hollywood has a lot riding on The Da Vinci Code. The season's first two blockbusters, Mission: Impossible III and Poseidon have been disappointments. The industry needs a big hit - something around which the troops can rally. Yet even if The Da Vinci Code is a rousing success, cold water awaits. Experts like comparing weekend grosses to their counterparts from a year ago. So that means the box office receipts of The Da Vinci Code will be measured against those of Revenge of the Sith.

40 million copies of the hardback book were sold. If every person who bought a novel sees the movie, that's about $300 million. It's a given that this won't happen - a lot of readers will wait for the DVD. The film does not figure to be a huge draw for the high school crowd but it will capture the attention of some adults who never got around to reading the book (I'm in that category). The Da Vinci Code should be able to come close to or break the $200 million mark before it's all over, but it would take an act of God for it to be able to make $100 million this weekend and knock over Revenge of the Sith.

The world premiere of The Da Vinci Code is Wednesday in Cannes, and no no one - not even critics - is seeing it before then. In fact, a lot of critics won't be seeing it until it opens on Friday (or maybe late Thursday in some markets). Sony has made the decision to have a limited number of invite-only press screenings on Wednesday night. A-list critics only: major daily newspapers, major magazines, television, and big-time radio. Little fish like me don't get to see it until it opens. This is an indication of how carefully Sony wants to control the film's pre-release word-of-mouth. Until the movie opens, all they want out there is the hype and the controversy rather than an analysis of the film on its own merits. To me, that sounds a warning bell. If Sony has full confidence in The Da Vinci Code, why not put it out there for all critics? Studios usually don't hide movies, especially summer blockbusters, unless they're concerned about something. For the time being, I'll give Sony the benefit of the doubt. Maybe the nature of the picture is what's making them nervous. Whatever the case, it won't be many days before we know. Expect the review to be up within 8 hours of the first public showing.