London (Reuters): Forthcoming blockbuster The Da Vinci Code has received the kind of publicity money can't buy thanks to a real-life cast including a cardinal, an archbishop, a judge, and countless art historians and religious scholars. Pre-release hype is normal for a big Hollywood production. But in the case of Dan Brown's fictional hunt for the Holy Grail the headlines have been dominated by events apparently beyond the control of studio Sony Pictures.
Stars like Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou have been largely hidden from the media spotlight in the runup to the film's premiere at the Cannes Film Festival on May 17. Instead, the Vatican has protested loudly against the novel and now the film, culminating in a cardinal calling for legal action against a story that says Jesus married Mary Magdalene and had a child by her whose descendants are alive today.
Opus Dei, the Catholic group portrayed as a secretive sect behind a murderous conspiracy to hide the truth about Jesus and his bloodline, has demanded a disclaimer on the film making clear it is fiction, not fact. This week a senior official in the mainly Catholic Philippines has called on the government to ban the film. Commentators say such pronouncements, and the stories they generate, are bound to backfire by generating extra interest in the film and lending weight to the argument that the church has something to hide.
After the uproar over Mel Gibson's ''The Passion of the Christ'' in 2004, seen by some as potentially anti-Semitic, the film went on to gross $612 million worldwide. ''At one end of the spectrum you have Mel Gibson and 'The Passion of the Christ' saying: 'We know what happened 2000 years ago and we are going to compel you to believe it','' said Dan Burstein, editor of Da Vinci Code guide ''Secrets of the Code''. ''At the other extreme you have Dan Brown saying: 'Guess what? Everything you were told about what happened 2000 years ago is probably wrong.'' People seem to be looking for alternatives to organised religion at a time when fundamentalist Christianity and Islam have gained ground, he added.
Predictably, the controversy surrounding The Da Vinci Code has the cash tills ringing. Already a billion-dollar industry, ''Da Vinci Inc'' is set to expand further with the release of the film. More than 40 million copies of the novel have been sold and Brown's earlier works have also become bestsellers. Dozens of ''Da Vinci Clones'' have hit the bookshelves, some setting out to debunk theories in the book and others seeking to repeat the winning combination of page turner and holy mystery. The Da Vinci Code has spawned its own publishing genre in a way no other book has,'' said Katherine Rushton of the Bookseller publication. ''There are just so many. The public recognises that this is bandwagon publishing, but it is still selling.'' Burstein's bestselling series includes a book based on a Brown novel that has yet to be written.
The only comparable phenomenon in publishing is J K Rowling and the Harry Potter series. The first six books have sold more than 280 million copies and the first four films in the movie franchise have amassed 3.5 billion dollars. There are Da Vinci Code board and video games and sites featuring in the plot have seen visitor numbers rise.
Even lawyers have got in on the act. The bill for this year's plagiarism case in London's High Court between two historians and Brown's British publisher was estimated at 1.5 million pounds (2.8 million dollars). The courtroom battle, in which Brown gave testimony and emerged victorious, put his book back in the headlines. Just for good measure, the judge ensured another blitz of publicity when he buried his own Brown-style code in his judgment.