Why Does Sony Fear Free Publicity?
“Don’t protest, you’re just giving them free publicity!”
That is the advice that the anti-blasphemy protester must often endure when
organizing protests in front of theaters.
The conventional wisdom is that controversy generates interest. And interest
will in turn only fuel ticket sales. The best thing a Catholic can do in face
of a blasphemous movie is to ignore it. Don’t go. Do nothing.
Thus, the TFP massive protests in front of theaters and especially its
current efforts to organize 1,000 protests against The Da Vinci Code
movie are at best well-intentioned but counter-productive. (visit www.tfp.org/davincicode to find a
protest near you or to become a protest organizer)
Indeed if the free publicity mantra were true, then film producers should be
fanning the controversy, welcoming the protests and laughing all the way from
the box office to the bank.
However, as the release date for The Da Vinci Code nears, no one
seems to be laughing.
The web site of Sitrick & Co. is crisp and professional. As one of the
nation’s leading public relations firms, it is best known for its
communications work in “sensitive situations” and for “reputation management.”
“The old saw of no publicity is bad publicity no longer applies,” warns
Allan Mayer of Sitrick and Company, one of the leading Hollywood
damage-control experts. He should know. As head of the firm’s entertainment
division, he has seen plenty of cases where controversy has ruined the careers
of many a star.1
Described by Variety as “Hollywood’s
most prominent crisis specialists,” it is no coincidence that Sony pictures has
hired Sitrick & Co. to handle the sensitive controversy surrounding The
Da Vinci Code movie. Films perceived as blasphemous are serious business.
As the Wall Street Journal article “Da Vinci Damage Control” notes,
Sony is doing everything possible to avert backlash from religious groups.
“Sony is particularly concerned about appearing insensitive to religious
beliefs,” the Journal’s Hollywood Report observed.2
As the May 19 release date approaches, Sony is pulling out the stops in its
public relations offensive, hoping to deflect critics who protest the film’s
central premise that Christ married to Mary Magdalene, its rewriting of early
Church history and its Machiavellian depiction of the Catholic Church. In this
case, “free publicity” generated by potential protesters is a crisis, not an
opportunity. Hired specialists are on the scene to avoid a false move that
could jeopardize the filmmaker’s reputation.
Trying to Dialogue
Not only has Sony contracted Hollywood’s most able spinmeisters, but it has
also hired a second firm, Grace Hill Media, a media firm which specializes in
courting Christian audiences.
Grace Hill Media, a Hollywood firm headed by Jonathan Bock has been given
the unenviable task of dealing with those Christians who oppose the book’s
thesis. The firm will employ methods which some opponents believe will try to
blunt protesters’ opposition.
Dialogue is the key word. In fact, Grace Hill has even gone to the point of
having Sony set up its own opposition web site where protesters can vent their
opinions. The site, thedavincidialogue.com,
is hardly convincing, although its developers certainly spent a lot of time and
resources to find a panel of religious “experts” to discuss The Da Vinci
Code. However, with essay titles like “Why Christians Ought to See the
Movie,” it is not difficult to perceive a not-so-hidden agenda — especially since
none of the “experts” have been allowed to see the movie yet.
For a site that offers to “dialogue” with Christians, it curiously offers no
mechanisms whereby offended Christians can send their concerns directly to Sony
Pictures. Instead, there is a discussion forum that takes one to a
distastefully named HollywoodJesus.com
site where a few Christians have taken up the challenge to fence with
In a patronizing tone, protesters are also invited to put down their signs
and pray to gain new insights into the film. “Praying about The Da Vinci
Code is less about the book’s brouhaha and the film’s frenzy,” the site’s
“Hollywood Prayer Network” section claims, “and more about those doing the
praying. It’s about us. Through prayer, we gain wisdom, grace, strength and
Avoiding the B-word
Throughout the controversy, Sony has steered clear of the term “blasphemy,”
preferring to turn the matter into a kind of cultural event, a fictional
thriller or an historic commentary.
Catholic screenwriter Barbara Nicolosi believes Sony’s “discussion” of the
film is actually steering the debate away from the content of the movie. She
heads a company called Act One which trains Christian artists for film-industry
work, because she believes that Christians are fair game in Hollywood.
“ We’re all arguing now about what cultural engagement means,” she said, “and
no one’s talking about the movie. That’s brilliant strategy from Sony’s
perspective. They’ve got us off their tail, because now we’re all fighting each
other. Genius — I wish I’d thought of it.”4
Indeed it is becoming increasingly difficult to determine what the film is
all about. At the same time Sony downplays the movie as a fictional thriller,
it has put up a web site to “educate people” about theological and historical
issues connected to the film.
In a case of having your cake and eating it, film promoters proclaim it is
all just fiction, while its author, Dan Brown, insists all the louder that the
novel has historical sources. On an opening page of the bestseller, Mr. Brown
unabashedly writes, “all descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents and
secret rituals in this novel are accurate.”
In a confusing atmosphere of “dialogue” and pseudo-scholarly opinions, the
debate is being sidetracked. Promoters are staying away from the very serious
charge of blasphemy and asking protesters to do likewise.
This is a strange dialogue where one side is being asked to give in on
everything and the other gives up nothing at all.
Blasphemy! That is the word that the filmmakers fear. It is the only word
that sufficiently describes the offense given to Christians in what they
perceive as a brutal “insensitivity to religious beliefs.” It is the only word
that addresses the central issue of how the massive promotion of a work can be
seen as both insulting and offending to God, Himself.
Blasphemy is by its nature the gravest sin that may be committed against
religion. In the contempt expressed in blasphemy is the implication that God is
contemptible. In publicly portraying God falsely there is the implication of
attributing to God that which does not belong to Him or deny Him that which is
In a work that so blatantly denies to Christ His very Divinity, it is no
wonder there are protests against The DaVinci Code.
And that is why anti-blasphemy protests are so effective. It returns the
debate to where it belongs. It reveals before the public just how onerous the
offense being committed is.
And that is why promoters must have recourse to “reputation management” and
damage control specialists to shift the terms of the debate. Indeed, when art
attaches itself to blasphemy, no amount of publicity, free or otherwise, can
remove the stigma of the offense.
Making a Moral Decision
Those who claim protests are free publicity cannot point to any case where
blasphemy protests have helped a film, play or exhibit. Such protests turn what
would normally be for moviegoers a night of entertainment into a moral
decision. More often than not, blasphemous works experience an initial
notoriety and die ignominiously.
At the 96th Annual Meeting of the American Association of Museums (AAM) in Dallas, museum
professionals held a special workshop about dealing with protests.
Journalist and panel member Hollis Walker bluntly told the audience to
consider blasphemy protests “no-win situations.” Their best policy is defense
and damage control.
“At the very beginning, if you see something like this erupting, my best
advice to you is to go hire the best public relations crisis consultant you can
find,” she stressed, “because the internal public relations and marketing
people at museums are not equipped to deal with this kind of issue.”5
It appears Sony is following such advice. It remains to be seen if they can
brave the storm.
Meanwhile, anti-blasphemy protests will be held at theaters all over the
country. Protesters will be proclaiming that blasphemy is not entertainment and
they will be asking each moviegoer to make a moral decision.
If protesting is free publicity, Sony will certainly be paying dearly for
This release was published with the permission of The American Society For The Defense of
Tradition, Family & Property