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The greatest story ever told, but we won't tell

The greatest story ever told, but we won't tell

Stephen Hunt
The Calgary Herald

Friday, May 19, 2006

It's the world's bestselling book, give or take a Bible.

It's an explosive story that explains how Christianity is a conspiracy designed to keep God a guy. Every major Christian from the Pope down has denounced it.

Everyone knows there's no such thing as bad publicity -- except no publicity -- and yet, the signs are everywhere (hanging off bus shelters, on billboards, posted on websites) that the movie everyone can't wait to see is being sold with something less than the conviction of its most loyal followers -- and opponents.

One might almost be tempted to say The Da Vinci Code is the movie Sony would rather not talk about, other than to pitch it as another Tom Hanks-bad-hair-day action-suspense picture, minus the messy religious conspiracy stuff.

"I was standing at the bus shelter outside the Academy (of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences) with my wife last night," said Canadian expatriate movie critic Len Klady, who has written for the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post and now writes a popular blog at "There's a poster for The Da Vinci Code, and we both looked at it and said, 'you know, that's a terrible poster.' It doesn't tell you anything. It's two people. They've got a sombre expression on their face, so (you know) it's not a comedy. It's some sort of drama, and the tagline is ... what is the tagline? Sort of like, 'Tell the truth' or -- something wholly innocuous."

Audiences are highly aware of The Da Vinci Code, regardless of how vague the marketing is. But the question remains: has Hollywood lost its marketing nerve or, more accurately, did it ever have any?

"In my opinion, the studios, as divisions of enormous multinationals, avoid controversy instinctively," Daily Variety editor-in-chief Peter Bart said in an e-mailed reply to a reporter's question. Bart, a former studio executive, has written in the past that marketing is the most difficult and misunderstood part of movie production today, chewing up millions of a production's total cost in an overcrowded marketplace where movies are usually declared a hit or miss by execs by the conclusion of the first Friday's late show.

"Sometimes," Bart said, "this practice compromises a campaign by dumbing down the copy. On Da Vinci, Sony is ducking controversy and won't even show the film to critics prior to (its world premiere) at Cannes -- a highly unusual practice."

Sony has taken some innovative steps towards marketing the film. Teaming with Google, they launched an interactive puzzle game in which people try to solve a different puzzle every day, an interactive approach to marketing that is fresh, although not designed to attract new fans.

Da Vinci isn't the first studio movie to be marketed by steering clear of its controversial subject matter.

Others, such as The Day After Tomorrow (global warming), The Island (cloning) and Kingdom of Heaven (Christian-Muslim conflict) have all had their social controversies shoved off to the side, rather than being the heart of the marketing campaign itself.

"The interesting thing about The Island is the fact that it was distributed internationally by Warner Bros. where it did like $100 million," Klady said. "Warners decided to deal with what the film was about, and Dreamworks (who distributed it domestically) decided not to. The head of marketing at Dreamworks (Terry Press) said, 'I don't know how to sell this picture'. And proceeded to prove that."

On the other hand, some people believe that there's nothing better than controversy to help sell a film. One of the best is Lion's Gate, which released 2005's Best Picture, Crash, a controversial film about race relations, in Los Angeles, in addition to 2004's Fahrenheit 9/11, which is the top-grossing documentary of all time. (Lion's Gate recently promoted its horror hit Saw II by sending out severed plastic hands to the media, as a way to attract attention to the film. "We don't spend nearly as much as our competitors," CEO Tom Ortenberg told "We can be a bit outside of the box." )

Motive Marketing is the company behind the astonishing success of The Passion of the Christ, and also they did the marketing for The Chronicles of Narnia, both of which attracted huge faith-based audiences. Motive's approach to the faith-based market is to go strong at your core audience and don't worry about anyone who isn't your core audience.

The rule of thumb in all of these films is that they were made by small companies with limited marketing budgets. Controversy attracts coverage, which is just as good as a marketing campaign -- although if you're running a publicly traded movie studio, being on the 10 o'clock news because of your controversial new film is the sort of publicity that makes CEOs nervous.

Rather than following the lead of Motive Marketing or Lion's Gate, and creating a marketing campaign that makes all 40 million who bought the book want to take a friend to see it -- after all, what is The Da Vinci Code if not a faith-based film? -- Sony has concocted a marketing campaign that, if it recalls anything, might be Al Gore's run for U.S. president in 2000 -- taking what should be a slam dunk and leaving the door open for a backlash from true believers.

© The Ottawa Citizen 2006
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