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Gibson dives in

Times Staff Writer

JHANE Myers certainly wasn’t expecting a personal phone call from Mel Gibson.

“He said, ‘Hello, Jhane, I know you don’t know me. This is Mel Gibson, and I really would like to have you call me back,’ ” Myers recalled. When she did, the Oklahoma City public relations executive found herself enlisted in Gibson’s grass-roots marketing campaign for his new film, “Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto,” due in theaters Dec. 8.

Two years ago, Gibson reached out to Christians with a carefully orchestrated campaign that helped his film “The Passion of the Christ” become one of the most successful movies of all time, grossing $611 million worldwide. With “Apocalypto” -- his visually sumptuous retelling of the fall of the Maya civilization -- Gibson is hoping to strike box-office gold once again by wooing Latinos and Native Americans such as Myers, hoping they will identify with his tale of an indigenous culture.

This latest effort isn’t just a return to the playbook for promoting another hyper-violent movie made in an obscure language. It also marks an attempt by Gibson to move past his anti-Semitic outburst after a drunk-driving arrest in Malibu in July. Although Gibson publicly apologized and immediately sought treatment for alcohol abuse, some in Hollywood have said they can’t bring themselves to forgive him.

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Myers, a member of the Comanche nation, put aside any feelings she had on the topic and arranged to screen “Apocalypto” five times over a three-day period in late September for Native Americans and Latinos in Oklahoma City and Lawton, Okla., as well as Austin, Texas. Guests were treated to surprise Q&A; sessions with the Academy Award-winning director of “Braveheart” and star of dozens of Hollywood films, and Gibson was able to gauge audience reaction first-hand to an early cut of the film.

While Gibson has been toiling in the editing room, putting the final touches on the film, he and Disney have also been aggressively screening the movie before select audiences in the Latino community, including L.A. politicians and businessmen. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has been among those invited to an advance screening, but he has yet to see the film, a Disney spokesman confirmed.

Sources say Gibson is taking an unusual risk by showing an unfinished version of the film to audiences that aren’t normally used to seeing movies without final tweaking of color, sound, music and the like but noted that Gibson felt it was important to receive their input before the film was complete.

As with “Passion,” which contained brutal scenes of Christ’s torture at the hands of Roman soldiers, there are scenes of bloody violence in “Apocalypto” -- in this case, human sacrifices in which heads roll -- that are sure to make audiences squirm in their seats.

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Disney spokesman Dennis Rice said the violence is “no more so than in any R-rated picture. For some, they will be fine with it. For others, it may not be exactly their cup of tea. But there hasn’t been one person who has said this isn’t a powerful movie and that once again, ‘Mel has done it.’ ”

As an Anglo telling a Maya story with a largely non-Anglo cast and crew, Gibson will be under pressure to deliver a film that doesn’t insult Maya culture or divert too drastically from historical facts.

At the same time, Disney and Gibson’s company, Icon Productions, know that the marketing task ahead for them is difficult. After all, the film features a cast of unknowns, depicting a period of Latin American history of which U.S. citizens may have only passing knowledge, and characters speaking in an ancient Mayan dialect with English subtitles.

And, of course, threatening to overshadow the film and its marketing effort is Gibson himself.

No one yet knows how much impact that headline-grabbing arrest could have on his movie. Some people, particularly those in the Jewish community, can’t help recalling the controversy that surrounded “Passion,” which some critics said was infused with anti-Semitism. But there are others, including a few who have seen “Apocalypto,” who say the film should not suffer just because of the director’s personal mistakes.

One of those is actor Edward James Olmos, a leading voice in Latino cultural affairs, who said he was invited by Gibson to an early screening. Olmos, who brought along his grown son, Bodie, said he was unprepared for what he saw.

“I was totally caught off guard,” Olmos said in a recent phone interview from the set of “Battlestar Galactica” in Vancouver, Canada. “It’s arguably the best movie I’ve seen in years. I was blown away.”

Olmos said he was not briefed beforehand by Gibson on the film. “I just kind of sat down and bingo! It wasn’t even in a screening room. It was like an office.... The screen drops down from the ceiling. I was sitting at an oval table.”

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Olmos noted that the film tells the story of “first-nation” people -- those who were here long before Europeans landed on their shores. Olmos said the story is “just breathtaking.”

As for Gibson’s outburst and arrest, Olmos said that what director Elia Kazan did in the days of the Hollywood blacklist never made him avoid Kazan’s brilliant films.

“Basically, if you watch Elia Kazan’s movies, I could surely watch Mel Gibson’s movie,” Olmos said. “I think more damage was done understanding what Elia Kazan did [during the McCarthy era] than what Mel Gibson did. That’s his problem and he has to live with it.”

When the arrest occurred, some wondered if Disney would abandon “Apocalypto,” but the studio decided to stick with Gibson.

To cultivate awareness for the film in the Latino community, Disney has relied on the Arenas Group, headed by Santiago Pozo. The Beverly Hills-based company is one of the oldest Latino marketing agencies in entertainment; clients have included Disney and ABC Entertainment, Universal, PBS and DreamWorks.

Arenas has had a long-standing relationship with Disney, working on some 10 pictures a year, many of them family films. Disney, like all major studios, has come to recognize the moviegoing habits of Latino audiences and fully integrates them into their marketing efforts. On some films, Latinos represent as much as 40% of the moviegoing public, industry sources say.

It was Arenas, sources say, that reached out to Los Angeles’ Latin Business Assn., whose chairman, Rick Sarmiento, came away so impressed after seeing “Apocalypto” that he persuaded his board to confer the Chairman’s Visionary Award on Gibson at the group’s Latino Global Business Conference and Digital Expo at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills. Gibson appeared at the Nov. 2 luncheon to accept the award and, after a Q&A; session with Sarmiento before the luncheon crowd, screened about 10 minutes of his film to resounding applause.

Don Martinez, a founder and board member of the LBA and a senior marketing partner at the Domar Group, an executive-search firm focusing on bilingual and multicultural hiring, was among those in the audience who came away impressed and believing that the Latino community would embrace it.

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“Just looking at brief parts of the film, I will tell you, it gave me goosebumps,” he said. As for Gibson’s anti-Semitic tirade, he added: “I look at it this way. He’s a human being just like you and me. Regardless of what happened, we need to move on.... People do make mistakes. He screwed up. So what? Move on. This is an opportunity to move forward.”

Jorge Corralejo, a fellow LBA board member, has not seen the film but noted that despite Gibson’s efforts most in the Latino community are unaware of it."I can’t tell you anybody who knows anything about it,” he said. “It’s going to be a tough sell. It takes money to spread the word.”

Ernie Gomez, development director at the Latino Community Development Agency in Oklahoma City, said he attended an early screening and although he thought the scenes of human sacrifice may be off-putting for some, they accurately reflect what he knows about Maya culture. “It’s pretty graphic in terms of the killings,” Gomez said, “but you know that is part of our culture.”

As for Sarmiento, he said that it was both “critical and honorable” that Gibson had reached out to the Latino community. “Rather than going to the masses, he’s gone to the Latino community to see what they think.... It’s a no-brainer. I think he’s a smart businessman.” He added that he is “amazed” that Hollywood doesn’t do more of this kind of marketing.

Myers, who set up the Oklahoma and Texas screenings, said “easily 500" people attended, including officials of the Comanche tribal council and the Chickasaw Nation.

Why Gibson chose Oklahoma, she said, was twofold: First, there is a large Native American population in Oklahoma, and second, Rudy Youngblood, a Comanche, stars in the movie as a central character named Jaguar Paw. She said the appearances of Gibson and Youngblood were kept secret from the audience prior to the screenings.

Myers said the governor of the Chickasaws hosted a reception for Gibson that was attended by tribal legislators, and Comanche tribal council members had lunch with Gibson and Youngblood. Also invited to screenings, she said, were groups such as the Oklahoma City Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and a group called United National Indian Tribal Youth, which is made up of high school and college-age youths.

“What a great thing it was for them,” she said. “They might never have had an opportunity to see the movie, let alone meet Mel Gibson or Rudy Youngblood.”

Disney’s Rice said the early screenings for Latino and Native American audiences do not mean that the studio is relying on that segment of the population to market the movie.

“First of all, this is a movie made with an all-indigenous cast, which is pretty unique in Hollywood,” he said. “The movie is about the Mayan culture and anyone who has a connection to that, particularly Mexican Americans, hopefully it will be well-received by them.

“On the other hand, it’s a flat-out action picture. College kids will want to see it.”

robert.welkos@latimes.com


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