Engaging Culture

The Benefit of Controversy

Bruce Orwall’s column in The Wall Street Journal reveals the sophistication that studios have when it comes to potentially controversial films. This is just another of the many reasons that boycotts and protests are such an ineffective way to deal with entertainment projects people of faith may object to or distain:

May 13 – The movie version of the best-selling book “The Da Vinci Code” arrives in theaters next Friday, chased by rumored boycotts and disapproving rumblings from some religious leaders. If the film does blockbuster business — as expected — it will serve as proof that Hollywood has become expert at harnessing and even benefiting from potential controversies that at first seem like a threat to box-office returns.

“The Da Vinci Code” seems ripe for the kind of off-putting public debate that can make what is supposed to be entertainment seem like work instead. Dan Brown’s novel turns in part on the idea that Jesus Christ married Mary Magdalene and fathered a child with her, and that the event was covered up by the Roman Catholic Church and a lay organization called Opus Dei. The condemnations and denials that the book attracted have been, if anything, amplified as Sony Corp.’s big-screen version nears.

But Hollywood now has so many weapons to combat controversy over the content of its movies that it can neutralize most threats. Sony’s approach to “The Da Vinci Code” is practically a catalogue of the tools available for such a task.

More than two years ago, the studio hired a crisis-management firm, Sitrick & Co., to begin preparing for religious storms. It also brought in a marketing company that specializes in wrangling Christian audiences, set up a Web site featuring essays about the topic and message boards for debate, and reached out directly to Catholic organizations and others that might be offended.

Meanwhile, the studio and the film’s talent — director Ron Howard and star Tom Hanks — have been preaching another message: It’s only a movie. “The story we tell is loaded with all sorts of hooey and fun kind of scavenger-hunt-type nonsense,” Mr. Hanks told the London Evening Standard recently. The same tactics, to varying degrees, have been used to protect and boost movies from “The Passion of the Christ” and “Fahrenheit 9/11” to “A Beautiful Mind.”

A Sony spokesman described the movie as a “thriller” that “does not represent an attack on any religious organization.”

To be sure, Steven Spielberg’s 2005 movie “Munich” — about the aftermath of terrorism at the 1972 Olympics — never took off after the studio took a somewhat more passive approach to questions about the film’s facts and politics. Other films have been bogged down by dust-ups revolving around the star, not the movie. Witness the disappointing opening weekend for “Mission: Impossible III,” which is widely believed to have paid the price for star Tom Cruise’s bizarre antics in the past year.

Of course, there is still one thing that could trip up “Da Vinci:” the movie itself. Sony has kept a tight lid on the film. Even theater owners weren’t scheduled to see it until Friday, while most press screenings are bottled up until after it debuts at the Cannes Film Festival Wednesday. That leaves room for one more controversy to bust out — a debate among the millions of fans of the book who may not be satisfied with what they see on-screen.

BY Bruce Orwall

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