Sony's Secretive 'Da Vinci Code' Marketing Plan

The religious thriller The Da Vinci Code has sold more than 40 million copies worldwide. The film — which begins screening next Friday — features mega-star Tom Hanks, and it should be a box office bonanza. So why is Sony studios so secretive about the movie, and its multi-million marketing campaign?

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

NOAH ADAMS, host:

And I'm Noah Adams. Coming up, the unvarnished truth about motherhood.

BRAND: First, here's Tom Hanks last week on Saturday Night Live being coy.

(Soundbite of Saturday Night Live)

Mr. TOM HANKS (Actor): You know, I know probably a lot of you know that I'm in a new movie that's coming out called The Da Vinci Code. It's coming out soon. Thank you. But what you may not know, you may not know this because I didn't know this until recently, it's actually based on a book.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HANKS: Of the same name.

BRAND: Maybe you've heard. The Da Vinci Code hits theaters next week. You'd think marketing this movie would be easy. There is a built in audience. The book has sold some 40 million copies. There was a highly publicized plagiarism lawsuit in Britain. And there's a religious controversy to stir up even more interest. But here's the problem. In a word, overexposure.

Professor PETER SEALEY (Marketing, U.C. Berkeley): Movies are like wineries or restaurants, they need to be discovered.

BRAND: That's Pete Sealey. He teaches marketing at U.C. Berkeley and many years ago was head of marketing for Columbia Pictures.

Prof. SEALEY: When I was at Columbia I actually did an advertising level test, where I, in selected markets, doubled and then tripled the advertising level of a typical release, day and date. And actually drove down the opening grosses when I tripled the advertising level. You can actually turn people off with advertising. I proved it.

BRAND: So no Da Vinci Code happy meals?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. SEALEY: No tie-ins with McDonald's on this one.

BRAND: No. Sony is doing the opposite. It's trying to make the movie as mysterious as the subject matter. Sony PR people must be taking really long lunches, because they're not giving any interviews about the movie. They're not pressing journalists to interview their stars. And they're not releasing any advance screeners of the movie to generate buzz.

Which makes me wonder, what is the real reason Sony is being so quiet? Is there a conspiracy brewing at studio headquarters in Culver City to keep the religious controversy quiet? Maybe not. In the book, the very foundations of Christianity are called into question. Jesus was human, married to Mary Magdalene, they had children who had children who had children, etcetera, and the church, intent on never letting that secret out, murders and lies its way through the centuries.

It is fiction. But so was The Last Temptation of Christ. Sid Sheinberg green-lighted that picture when he ran MCA in the late 1980s.

Mr. SID SHEINBERG (Producer): We received, for example, a bloodied, slaughtered little pig through the mail. I have a home on Broad Beach and we received photographs taken from the hill on the Pacific Coast Highway saying, Don't think we don't know where you are.

BRAND: As far as we know, there have been no bloody piglets sent to Sony CEO Howard Stringer. In fact, Sony decided to meet the religious outrage head on, dampening it before it could get out of control. And one way to do that was to win over people like Richard Mao, President of the Fuller Religious Seminary in Pasadena.

Mr. RICHARD MAO (President, Fuller Religious Seminary): My first response when I heard that Hollywood was going to do something with it was, Oh my gosh, what a horrible thing. We thought maybe we were finally done with the book and now it's going to start all over again with a film. I wish they were not doing it.

BRAND: Mao calls the movie dangerous, but he still wants to see it, and he even says other Christians should too. He wrote that in an article posted on a website. That website was set up by Sony for religious leaders and scholars to participate in a so-called dialogue about the movie.

Mr. MAO: I don't really care to defend their reasons as noble ones, but they knew there'd be a lot of flack. Since they have -- their paying for it, but they have no control over the content. I think we take this opportunity to use their money for our purposes and that is to do some educating, theological education.

BRAND: Well, that's like urging people to watch porn in order to educate them about sex, says Barbara Nicolosi, who despises The Da Vinci Code. She writes a column for the National Catholic Register and she's a Hollywood screenwriter.

Ms. BARBARA NICOLOSI (National Catholic Register): Sony Pictures suggested early on that this movie was a quote "opportunity for dialogue." And so saying, you know, you guys all need to, you know, chill out and go buy the ticket so that then you can kind of, I don't know, what are we supposed to do, stand in theater lobbies with t-shirts saying please talk to me? You know, I'm a Christian? It's absurd.

BRAND: Nicolosi is pretty much a lone voice calling for people to see other movies next weekend, what she calls an other-cott. The official position of the American Catholic Church is not to urge a boycott. Perhaps it senses the futility of it. Perhaps it realizes, like Sony, the less said, the better.

(Soundbite of music)

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