Will `Da Vinci' be a hit despite bad reviews?

May 19, 2006|By RACHEL ABRAMOWITZ AND ROBERT W. WELKOS | RACHEL ABRAMOWITZ AND ROBERT W. WELKOS,LOS ANGELES TIMES

CANNES, France -- Hoots of derision. Snickers at a key, climactic moment. And early negative reviews. None of it was a deterrent to Andres Steffens, who waited in line at 7 a.m. Wednesday outside the Grand Palais at the Cannes Film Festival to buy advance tickets for The Da Vinci Code.

"I care what critics say -- it's part of my decision-making," said the 49-year-old from Kiel, Germany, adding that there are extenuating circumstances in this case that require two tickets no matter what the arbiters of culture have to say about it: "My girlfriend read the book."

Sony, the film's distributor, is banking that there are a lot more people like Steffens eager to see the movie version of their favorite book. A hit would also inject some much-needed energy into the prime movie-going season. The first two big-budget movies out of the gate -- Poseidon and, to a lesser extent, Mission: Impossible III -- have stumbled. Now it's Sony's turn to try to crack the most eagerly sought code in the long-struggling movie business: How to make a blockbuster?

The studio has employed the industry's most time-tested tools: an award-winning director (Ron Howard), a proven movie star (Tom Hanks) and pre-existing material with sky-high consumer awareness: Dan Brown's potboiler about Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon, who stumbles upon a stunning secret being kept under wraps by the Catholic Church.

In the end, though, it will be up to audiences to decide whether the movie is the Holy Grail the movie industry has been waiting for when The Da Vinci Code opens in 3,735 theaters nationwide today.

With few exceptions, films that go on to become mega-mega blockbusters -- Titanic, Spider-Man 2 or Shrek 2, for example, which have all earned more than $750 million worldwide -- tend to earn decent notices from the critics, foreshadowing the waves of happy moviegoers. (Poor reviews, though, are not always a death knell: Howard's version of Dr. Seuss's How the Grinch Stole Christmas was largely lambasted but went on to earn $345 million worldwide.)

Within minutes of the film's first press screening, which took place Tuesday in Cannes -- for these few weeks in May, the epicenter of the movie business -- negative reaction ricocheted around the Web.

Up until then, Sony had shielded the film from the prying eyes of the press and the critics, forgoing the usual round of pre-release publicity. Instead they let the controversial concept of the book -- that Jesus sired a child with Mary Magdalene -- and worldwide opposition and protest gin up interest. Usually, studios reserve this hide-the-movie strategy for stinkers, but Sony and Howard and Brian Grazer's production company, Imagine Entertainment, claimed that they were merely trying to preserve what mystery was left for a film in which people worldwide already know the plot points.

Well, the secret is out, and the film has been tagged with the label most reviled by the makers of potboilers: It's boring.

"What they've jettisoned ... is the tension," cried the Associated Press, while A.O. Scott of The New York Times opined that Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman "handle the supposedly provocative material in Mr. Brown's book with kid gloves, settling on an utterly safe set of conclusions about faith and its history, presented with the usual dull sententiousness." Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times offered that "a proficient Ron Howard version of things is certainly competent if only occasionally thrilling."

Now the debate is raging in Hollywood over whether the film is essentially "review-proof" -- as they say in the industry -- or whether the critics' reaction will damage the box office. (Rival studio marketers were quick to point out that the older demographic most likely to turn out for the film is also the group most sensitive to reviews.)

Still, no one expects fans to abandon their favorite beach read. Lukewarm reviews would more likely hurt the film's longer-term prospects and turn it into a mere hit instead of a genuine blockbuster.

"I think it's like Harry Potter or one of those books with a huge, huge following," says Terrell Falk, vice president for marketing for Cinemark U.S.A., a film exhibitor. "There are enough people who are interested who will want to see it."

According to an executive at a competing studio, The Da Vinci Code is tracking to open up at $80 million, although Sony executives, perhaps to tamp down expectation, put that figure closer to the $70 million range.

Many industry observers on Wednesday pointed to the theory that there's no such thing as bad press.

"The reviews coming out of Cannes certainly have people talking about the movie," says analyst Paul Dergarabedian of Exhibitor Relations Co. "It's the most talked-about movie in the marketplace. To me, that's a good thing whether the talk is negative or positive. ... That can only portend a good opening weekend for the film."

Added Brandon Gray of boxofficemojo.com, which surveys movie box office: "People don't care what the critics say when they're making a choice in movies. Time and time again, the box office proves this, when critically reviled pictures do big business."

Valerie Van Galder, Sony's marketing chief, said she was pleased with the decision to bring the film to Cannes, no matter the cranky critics.

"We were looking for a worldwide spectacle to launch this movie on Friday and we absolutely accomplished that."

Rachel Abramowitz and Robert W. Welkos write for the Los Angeles Times.

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