On the heels of a public relations juggernaut with the inspiring message that it’s “not as anti-Catholic as The Da Vinci Code!”, the cinematic conspiracy thriller Angels and Demons finished first at the U.S. box office during the past weekend, providing some useful evidence about the effects of church boycotts. S. T. Karnick examines the facts.

Based on a novel by Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code, and featuring the same director-star team as the lucrative 2006 film adaptation of that novel (Ron Howard and Tom Hanks), Angels and Demons brought in approximately $48 million during its first weekend. While enough to edge out Star Trek‘s second-weekend take of $43 million, it’s a good deal less than Da Vinci, which snagged a gaudy $77 million during its first three days.

Simple Hollywood film economics explains the matter quite well without reference to church boycotts.

It seems likely that some of the difference between the fwo films’ initial performance is attributable to the greater popularity of the novel on which the first one was based, and the novelty value of its concept. The Da Vinci Code didn’t need any PR boost from the church–it was based on a huge international bestseller, and its concept was extremely well-known. Angels and Demons, while also a bestseller, was not nearly as big a phenomenon. Most people likely don’t know what it’s actually about.

Bad press from professional film critics is also a factor in audiences’ less enthusiastic response to Angels and Demons–but as an indicator, not a cause. The film adaptation of Angels and Demons received relatively poor reviews, but many big hit films get bad notices from the professional critics, and The Da Vinci Code actually got even worse reviews than the sequel has garnered. So that’s not a cause of the lower box office, but it identifies another factor probably holding down initial audience enthusiasm for Angels and Demons: in addition to the obvious fact that sequels tend not to do as well as the originals because the novelty value is greatly diminished, that effect is especially powerful for sequels to films that drew big audiences but weren’t as entertaining as audiences expected.

Also, while the premise of Angels and Demons is indeed less controversial than that of The Da Vinci Code, that very factor works against the new film by further diminishing the sense of originality behind it, and therefore audiences’ expectations of how interesting it will be, regardless of whether they agree or disagree with the premise.

Thus the diminished novelty value and expected quality level of Angels and Demons vis a vis The Da Vinci Code are probably sufficient to explain the new film’s strong but unspectactular start.

While it’s true that the Catholic Church muted its complaints about Angels and Demons so as not to provide any more free publicity to the film than necessary–in contrast to its full-court press against the openly anti-Christian and anti-Catholic Da Vinci Code–to suggest that the Church’s less intense response accounts for the difference in audience size undoubtedly attributes too much influence to the church over the moviegoing habits of an audience that is, after all, largely non-Catholic.

While The Da Vinci Code did better in post-Christian Europe and other non-U.S. countries than in the United States, which remains largely Christian in religious identification and attendance, the Da Vinci Code film and novel made heaps of money in the United States–$217.5 million domestically for the film version, plus DVDs, pay per view, etc.. Unless every atheist in the nation saw it several times, the film and book cannot have offended the U.S. laity nearly as much as they did the Church hierarchy.

Clearly, U.S. Christians were interested in seeing the film and judging what it had to say. Having been there and done that, however, they seem disinclined to rush right out and repeat the experience. That’s simple common sense, and sufficiently explains the less-passionate initial audience response to Angels and Demons.

S. T. Karnick