Paris has gone Da Vinci Code crazy. Everywhere you turn, the city is plastered with posters advertising the highly anticipated May 17 opening of the movie based on the best-selling thriller by Dan Brown. The French press is filled with daily stories on everything from ecclesiastical debate over the book's religious themes to profiles of the two French movie stars, Jean Reno and Audrey Tautou, who will appear (speaking in English) in the film.
Then, of course, there's the merchandising. Bookstores and gift shops all over Paris are stocked to the rafters with copies of the novel in French and English -- hardback, paperback, special illustrated editions, you name it. And don't forget Da Vinci Code walking tours, playing cards, calligraphy sets, music CDs, video game, podcasts … the list goes on and on.
What's happening in Paris is a cultural event that's rapidly becoming an economic phenomenon. Despite its American origin, plot problems, and imperfect French translation, the novel has become by far the top-selling commercial book of all time in France, with more than five million copies already purchased. Add pass-along readership, and analysts estimate a quarter of the French reading age population has read The Da Vinci Code, higher even than in the U.S.
TOUT LE MONDE. It's not just French readers forking over cash in pursuit of the Da Vinci Code craze, either. Fascination with the settings in the book, especially the Louvre museum, where some of the most important scenes take place, has given a boost to French tourism in recent years. The timing couldn't have been better; Anti-French sentiment in the U.S., springing from the two countries' disagreement over the Iraq war, slashed the number of U.S. visitors to France by 30% from 2001 to 2003. But since then visitors have returned, in part due to "Da Vinci tourism," say travel experts. In 2004, the most recent year for which figures are available, the number of American tourists rose by 7%.
A cottage industry has sprung up to milk the opportunity. Dozens of outfits offer guided tours of the Louvre, St. Sulpice church, and other locales cited in the novel -- and business is booming. One such company, ParisMuse, started out giving intimate art tours of Paris museums in 2002. Two years ago, director Ellen McBreen added a Da Vinci Code tour for groups of up to four people at $140 a head, and since then has hosted more than 800 such outings. "We're seeing a noticeable peak right now," McBreen says. "We'll have to see after the movie comes out if there's an even larger effect."
Indeed, the arrival of the Sony Pictures (SNE) film, starring Tom Hanks and directed by Ron Howard, is spurring a new wave of commercialization. Editions JC Lattès, which published the original French hardcover edition of The Da Vinci Code, is issuing 200,000 copies of a special edition timed to the release. It carries a new dust-jacket with images taken from the movie.
Lattès also sells a popular companion guide to the novel, called Inquiry into the Da Vinci Code, by Marie-France Etchegoin and Frédéric Lenoir. The paperback edition of The Da Vinci Code, from France's second-largest paperback publisher, Presse-Pocket, amounted to 10% of the company's volume last year and is in constant reprints. Presse-Pocket is also going gangbusters selling the French version of Simon Cox's popular Cracking the Da Vinci Code.
CHANNELING THE SPIRIT. The frenzy extends well beyond books. Executives at Eurostar, the trans-Channel train service between London and Paris, started picking up Da Vinci Code clues about two years ago. Major parts of the book occur in the British capital, and Eurostar marketing director Greg Nugent says the company has seen a growing number of riders making Da Vinci Code pilgrimages between the two cities. "One thing we noticed was that the No. 1 lost-and-found item on the trains was Brown's book," Nugent says.
To tap into the movie buzz and reach what Nugent calls "Da Vinci travelers," the Eurostar unveiled two weeks ago its most lavish marketing promotion ever. Dubbed "Join the Quest," it's a contest involving Da Vinci-style codes and puzzles. More than a half-million people have already visited the promotional Web site, whose design echoes the movie's parchment-and-pentagrams aesthetic.
On June 14, five finalists who have solved their way through the quizzes will travel to London for a face-off. The grand prize? Complimentary Eurostar travel for life, annual free vacation weeks for the next five years split between the Ritz Hotel in Paris and Claridge's in London, $20,000 shopping sprees at both Harrods and Galeries Lafayette, and $258,000 in prize money.
LEVERAGING THE LOUVRE. Perhaps the biggest surprise is the degree to which the staid Louvre is getting into the act. For years after The Da Vinci Code came out, the museum distanced itself from the book and its avid following. Early reports suggested a cool reaction to the idea of filming movie scenes inside the Louvre, though eventually the museum relented in exchange for an undisclosed fee. But now the museum recognizes that it has a tiger by the tail. Last year, it admitted a record 7.5 million visitors, up nearly 20% from 2004, thanks in part to Da Vinci Code notoriety.
On May 18, the Louvre will unveil a new audio tour called "Step Inside the Da Vinci Code" that will be available for rental or purchase in the museum and via the Louvre Web site and Apple's (AAPL) iTunes store for $13. Developed by audio company Soundwalk (based in New York and Paris), it cost $500,000 to produce and features voiceover from actor Jean Reno and excerpts from the movie. It could be a cash cow for the Louvre, which already rents out more than 225,000 other audio tours annually.
All the tie-ins and gew-gaws may be crass, but they mean big money for the sluggish French economy. What's more, the wave of Da Vinci-related merchandise and services signifies a growing sophistication and opportunism in French marketing. "This is the first example of derivative-product marketing in French publishing ever," says Isabelle Laffont, president of JC Lattès. "It's totally new for us -- another product of globalization." Now everybody is praying the movie isn't a flop.