I left my home planet -- a land where intelligence leaks, wire taps, and whether your neighbors can marry matters as much as 2500 lost lives and a half-trillion dollar deficit -- and I alit in a foreign world where what counts is a story about an albino monk killer.
I visited only briefly, just long enough to read this piece on the latest battle between Hollywood and Holy See manifested in today's release of The Da Vinci Code movie. I did not care who won this war, but reflections of my own struggles glimmered through it and were focused more sharply by my distance -- a very long distance, considering I would not care if Jesus had three boys of his own and Mary Magdalene was bringing up three very lovely girls with hair of gold (the youngest one in curls). But some people do care, rabidly, and they are professional publicists and long-time mind-manipulators. My seeing how they attack the problem was, in their words, "a teaching moment."
Lesson #1: Pick fights you can win
The New Yorker piece quotes Bill Donohue, the president of the Catholic League, explaining why he did not call for a boycott of the film:
"First of all, it's a useless exercise," he says. "The movie's going to be a box-office extravaganza the first weekend or two. After that, if it's a good movie it'll continue; if not, it'll fail." [...] "I have to be prudent. I want to win. This book has sold forty million copies. It's got Tom Hanks, Sony behind it, Ron Howard. To the extent that we can get the word out -— 'Look, go and be entertained, this is good fun, but this movie is a fable' -— to that extent, that's about as good as I can get."
Lesson #2: Control the controversy
Sony could have tried to ignore the coming criticism and protests from religious groups, on the theory that by depriving them of a debate partner it would deprive them of the spotlight. Instead, Sony did the exact opposite.
Sony decided not to take any chances. As it began to devise its marketing strategy for "Da Vinci," it hired the services of Sitrick & Company, a public-relations firm that specializes in reputation salvaging. The firm, whose unofficial slogan is "If you don't tell your story, someone else is going to tell it for you," worked with Rush Limbaugh after his revelation of prescription-drug addiction, and with the comedian Paula Poundstone when she was charged with child endangerment. Sony wanted Sitrick to manage any potential "Da Vinci" fallout. "It's not that big studios don't like controversy," Allan Mayer, Sitrick’s managing director, told Variety. "What they fear is a controversy that gets out of control. And controversy gets out of control when people start using a movie as a tennis ball in their own match."
Lesson #3, part "A": Buy out your opponents with a "seat at the table"
By actively giving a platform to some of their high-profile critics, Sony installed a safety valve to let those critics vent their steam before it built up into an explosion of boycotts or major protests -- a safety valve Sony owned, and could control.
Prospective moviegoers who have spent time at a Web site called The Da Vinci Dialogue, the most polished of these efforts, have been informed that the story is deeply anti-Christian, a pseudo history "fraught with inaccuracies" and "spiritual tripe." They have been offered the opinion that, of its type, the book was only "moderately engaging," attracting fans who were easily gulled and perhaps just a bit dim. What is striking about these assertions is that they are part of a marketing project paid for by Sony Pictures Entertainment...
In February, [Sony representative Jonathan] Bock launched The Da Vinci Dialogue, which contains some forty-five essays by religious leaders and Christian scholars questioning and correcting, in civil tones, various of [Da Vinci Code author] Dan Brown's assertions. Opus Dei declined to participate in the site, but evangelicals have been eager to be heard. Darrell Bock [not related to Jonathan], perhaps preëminent among the "Da Vinci" debunkers, contributed two essays to the site, and says that the Christian participation in the project reflects the community's growing sophistication in dealing with popular culture. "The Christian response this time around has been different," Bock says. "Rather than simply whining and complaining, although there are still elements that do that, there is a substantial group that says, No, on this one we're going to engage. So we're not going to talk boycott. We're not going to protest, we're simply going to take the facts that were presented in this novel and we're going to engage them, and we're going to try to show people that there's a good, substantive reply to what's going on here."
Lesson #3, part "B": Beware letting your side be divided by the "sell-outs"
By giving them a platform, Sony not only controlled a handful of their loudest critics. It also took them out of the critical mass that was building against the movie. Next the anti-Code side began factionalizing into those who were critical of people who went to work for Sony and those who thought it was wise to engage. I don't care who is right. What I care about is how a side loses power by in-fighting, and seeing clearly what brings that in-fighting about.
[Barbara] Nicolosi felt that Christians had been sold out, as she proceeded to make clear on her blog. "Christians being coaxed into writing anti-DVC pieces on a stupid web site... are meekly accepting that they are being given 'a seat at the table' in some grand cultural discussion," she wrote. "Duped! There is no seat, folks. There is no discussion. What there is, is a few P.R. folks in Hollywood taking mondo big bucks from Sony Pictures, to deliver legions of well-meaning Christians into subsidizing a movie that makes their own Savior out to be a sham."
Nicolosi says that those participating in the Sony project are debating "on Hell's terms," and she refers to the Web site's contributors, some of whom are her friends, as "useful Christian idiots."
I wrote these lessons in my field book, and said good-bye to the natives to return home to a planet where events in the Middle East today matter more than what happened there two millenia ago. I realized that the three lessons I learned on my journey would not be news to most readers of TNH. They have been discussed here many times, in the context of stem cells, filibusters, impeachment, intelligent design, primary campaigns, and more.
But for me, playing alien anthropologist, an outsider who does not care which side was right or who won, I found it easier to appreciate the political tactics without getting clouded by the policy. Without idealism we would all give up, and sometimes it makes me romantic, makes me tilt at windmills. Sony and elements of the church have moved beyond that. They know that on their planet it's ultimately about the same thing it is on ours: making your product sell.