“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.1
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.
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.”2
“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.3
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.4
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 non-believers.
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 insight.”3
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.
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 His.
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.”
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 it.
- Chris Jones, “When is bad publicity a bad career move?”Chicago Tribune, Feb. 8, 2004.
- John Lippman, “Da Vinci Damage Control,”The Wall Street Journal, Mar. 17, 2006.
- Taken from tapes 02446-0901 and 02446-0902 of the talk “Our Lady of Controversy: The Cyber Arte Exhibition at the Museum of International Folk Art,”recorded at the Association of American Museum’s Annual Meeting & Museum Expo 2002. Tapes were produced by Chesapeake Audio/Video Communications, Inc. Elkridge, Maryland, 2002.