Mel Gibson is rich enough to finance his own movies, including the 2004 blockbuster “The Passion of the Christ” and the upcoming release “Apocalypto.” But although riches can buy a certain freedom from creative interference, no man is an island in the movie business.
Gibson, who apologized Saturday for making “despicable” remarks in what was described as an anti-Semitic tirade after a drunk driving arrest, in some ways now finds himself at the mercy of a Hollywood establishment that may or may not be inclined to extend forgiveness.
His most immediate issue is with Walt Disney Co., which is distributing “Apocalypto” and which also, through its ABC television network, has a development deal with his company to make a miniseries about the Holocaust.
Several prominent critics of “The Passion” have stepped forward to suggest that Gibson, who denied there was an anti-Semitic undercurrent in his movie about the last hours of Christ’s life, has now shown his true colors.
“Mel Gibson’s apology is unremorseful and insufficient,” said Abraham H. Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who added: “His tirade finally reveals his true self and shows that his protestations during the debate over his film ‘The Passion of the Christ,’ that he is such a tolerant, loving person, were a sham.”
Foxman called on Hollywood executives to “realize the bigot in their midst” and “distance themselves from this anti-Semite.”
Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, urged Gibson to drop the Holocaust project, saying it would be “inappropriate.”
Gibson’s spokesman declined to respond.
Disney executives would not comment Sunday about the future of either project, but the company has shied from controversy before, most notably when then-Chairman Michael Eisner declined to release Michael Moore’s anti-President Bush documentary “Fahrenheit 9/11.” That ultimately found another distributor, but Hollywood’s shrinking landscape of such unaffiliated companies makes it increasingly difficult for filmmakers to go the non-corporate route.
Ordinarily, Hollywood distribution deals call for the studio to handle marketing for the movie -- a potentially difficult proposition given Gibson’s arrest in Malibu and the ensuing controversy about remarks he allegedly made, including: “The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world.”
Even without that complication, “Apocalypto,” set for a Dec. 8 release, appears to pose unique marketing challenges. Set against a backdrop of the ancient Maya empire, which mysteriously collapsed centuries before the Spanish conquistadors arrived, the film is acted in Maya dialect and has a cast of relative unknowns. This year, Gibson described “Apocalypto” as “an action-adventure of mythic proportions.” He deflected further queries about the plot, although he did say that “Apocalypto” -- a Greek word that translates as “new beginning” -- centers on an Indian family man who “has to overcome tremendous odds to preserve what he values the most.”
Principal photography on the film was recently completed. A person who saw Gibson on the set in Veracruz, Mexico, said he appeared healthy and in control and did not display any hint of a drinking problem. It is unclear how his arrest might affect his participation in the film’s post-production.
Meanwhile, the Holocaust project, to be adapted from a little-known 1998 memoir called “Flory: Survival in the Valley of Death,” which recounts the experiences of a young Dutch Jew during World War II, is in the early stages. An ABC spokeswoman Sunday would confirm only that the project was in development and that executives would wait to see a finished script before deciding whether to go into production on the proposed miniseries. Gibson and his spokesman, Alan Nierob, have said little about the project, which is backed by Gibson’s Con Artists Productions, the TV division of his Icon Productions.
“It’s in development, but not very far in,” an ABC spokeswoman said. “It is not at the point where you would make those determinations. There is no script.”
Although many of the town’s senior executives are Jewish and Hollywood has a long history of supporting Israel and Jewish causes, there was no widespread public condemnation of Gibson’s comments over the weekend. Although some high-level executives privately expressed dismay at the statements attributed to Gibson after his arrest, none of those contacted would speak on the record.
As for Gibson, he was said to be huddling with his medical, legal and spiritual advisors over the weekend. Some of his friends, who asked not to be identified, said they hoped he would seek counseling for his admitted drinking problem. One source said the star had already begun rehabilitation, noting that Gibson had long been a member of Alcoholics Anonymous.
At this point, the incident’s long-term effect on Gibson’s career is a matter of speculation.
Filmmakers can be accused -- and convicted -- of serious moral and legal transgressions and never suffer for lack of work. Roman Polanski fled the country to avoid jail time for having sex with a minor and, many years later, won an Academy Award for directing “The Pianist.”
Director Victor Salva was convicted and went to prison for molesting a child. But he now works steadily; his last film was “Peaceful Warrior.” Woody Allen, who had an affair with (and eventually married) the daughter of then-girlfriend Mia Farrow, makes a movie a year. The late Columbia chief David Begelman embezzled about $50,000, but it was his accuser -- actor Cliff Robertson -- whose career suffered. Any number of actors have continued working after drunk driving arrests.
Gibson, who is expected to appear in court Sept. 28 on his misdemeanor DUI charge, clearly needs allies in the industry.
Like many wealthy producers, Gibson lacks the experience, infrastructure and clout to distribute films himself. He relied on the independent distributor Newmarket Films to help release “The Passion of the Christ” and will use Disney’s distribution apparatus for “Apocalypto.”
Producers who try to release their own films face issues the major studios do not. First, distribution requires a separate staff to market and disseminate a new release, select and book theaters, duplicate and ship prints, and collect film rentals. Without an annual slate of a dozen or so films, that staff would be idle most of the time. Second, a slate of films gives distributors the clout to get their films’ trailers shown in theaters and, as Gibson can attest, the power to collect their share of ticket sales.
Warner Bros., for example, had no trouble getting theaters to show the preview for “Lady in the Water,” because even if that film was doomed to failure, theater owners know the studio also has the next “Harry Potter” and “Batman” films coming. An independent producer doesn’t have that leverage, which is crucial when accounts become past due.
Even though “The Passion of the Christ” grossed more than $370 million in U.S. and Canadian theaters, Gibson had to sue Regal Entertainment Group, operator of the nation’s largest theater chain with nearly 6,400 screens, to collect $40 million, his claimed proportion of the chain’s receipts for “The Passion.” The lawsuit was eventually settled.
If Disney were to bow out of distributing “Apocalypto,” there are few other easy ways for Gibson to get his movie into theaters. Newmarket is now a part of Time Warner Inc., and therefore is subject to the same potential boycott pressures that could be directed at Disney.
The only truly independent distributor with substantial pull is Lions Gate Films, which has a history of distributing movies Disney wants no part of. Lions Gate released two films, “Dogma” and “Fahrenheit 9/11,” that were originally to be distributed by Disney’s Miramax Film Corp.
Times staff writer Teresa Watanabe contributed to this report.