Two major Hollywood movies that help kick-off the summer silliness are shaping up as referenda more than recreation. That’s because the opening box office numbers for Mission Impossible 3 will gauge Tom Cruise’s viability given all that bad press he’s getting (most of it his doing). Meanwhile, today, the Vatican continued its anti-Da Vinci Code vendetta when a crony of Pope Benedict XVI urged Catholics to boycott the film. There’s always been an imbecilic debate in Hollywood whether bad pre-release buzz can harm a movie’s financial prospects. But that focused on the content or cost or production of the movie. Now we have a dilemma where outside agitation may negatively impact what is widely touted as two pretty good films. Which begs the question: Can MI3 and Da Vinci Code withstand Cruise cooling or Vatican heat?

The latest Vatican kvetch came from Archbishop Angelo Amato, the No. 2 in the Vatican doctrinal office. Addressing a Catholic conference in Rome, he called the book “stridently anti-Christian .. full of calumnies, offences and historical and theological errors regarding Jesus, the Gospels and the Church” and added: “I hope that you all will boycott the film.” The movie, which premieres at the Cannes Film Festival next week and goes wide May 19th, is of course based on the megaseller which has blown out over 40 million copies. Despite the Vatican’s best efforts, Catholics clearly inhaled the book along with everybody else, so it stands to reason that they’ll take in the movie, too. Amato, according to Reuters, attributed the book’s popularity to ”the extreme cultural poverty on the part of a good number of the Christian faithful.” Ouch! But I say not even the Holy Father himself could drive people away from this film.

MI3 has going for it: a proven film franchise (where the sequel was better than the original), a writer/director known for commercial sensibility, and, of course, Oscar-winner Philip Seymour Hoffman as villain. It may not matter that the public is sick of Cruise’s antics. But there still may be people who’ll make a statement about Tom’s Scientology pronouncements and boyfriend/dad persona by waiting to see MI3 on DVD or cable just to avoid putting first-dollar theater gross in Cruise’s already obese wallet (since he’s not only the star but also the producer). Still, as much as Cruise’s career may be down around his ankles, I’m fairly confident the May 5th opening should follow the summer pattern: the earlier a film is released in May, the better the box office.

Previous: Da Vinci Code Tracks Huge, CBS Promotes Scientology for Paramount, Studios Throwing Money (Away) at Cannes

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