Grappling with the ‘Mel factor’

Times Staff Writer

Even before Mel Gibson’s drunken, anti-Semitic tirade this summer, his upcoming film “Apocalypto” was a tough sell.

Graphically violent, subtitled and cast with relatively unknown actors who speak their lines in an obscure dialect, Gibson’s tale of a collapsing Mayan civilization was already outside Hollywood’s mainstream fare. Then came Gibson’s humiliating drunken driving arrest on a Malibu highway in July, which overnight threatened to turn the Oscar-winning director from the film’s biggest asset into its biggest liability.

Starting Thanksgiving night, distributor Walt Disney Studios kicks off a campaign aimed at shifting attention from Gibson’s foibles and onto his movie. Up against what the industry is calling “the Mel factor,” the director will appear on a prime-time special on Disney’s ABC network, hoping to blunt any damage that he may have caused “Apocalypto.”


Hosted by Diane Sawyer, who snared Gibson’s first post-arrest interview last month, ABC is devoting an hour to the Dec. 8 release. The program was arranged before Gibson’s arrest, and includes footage the network shot on location while he was filming in Mexico. ABC has been heavily promoting the program, advertising it on such hit shows as “Desperate Housewives.”

Gibson, who co-wrote and produced the movie but does not appear in it, also agreed to a similar prime-time special on Univision’s weekly news magazine show “Aqui y Ahora” (“Here and Now”) on Nov. 30 with co-host Teresa Rodriguez as part of a promotional blitz aimed at Latinos. One night before “Apocalypto” debuts in theaters, Gibson is scheduled as a guest on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.”

Disney Studios Chairman Dick Cook believes that moviegoers can separate Gibson’s off-screen behavior from his work behind the camera. He noted that the filmmaker once before defied dismal predictions by turning “The Passion of the Christ” into a global blockbuster.

“The public is smart enough to differentiate what happens in someone’s personal life and their professional life,” Cook said. “And, while we knew the marketing mountains we’d have to go up, you realize the movie is in the hands of someone who has conquered all these obstacles before and succeeded in an extraordinary way.”

Nonetheless, it’s uncertain whether Gibson’s fans are ready to forgive him, let alone embrace an R-rated movie that he has made on a topic unfamiliar to most audiences.

“I don’t envy Disney -- they have an uphill battle,” “Spider-Man” producer Laura Ziskin said. “It looks like a hard sell to begin with. He’s the tool with which to market it, and he has a black mark against him.”

Disney plans to position “Apocalypto” as a riveting action adventure, opening the movie on more than 2,000 screens. Its publicity materials, trailer and TV spots play up the film as a visceral, “heart-stopping” story of a man who makes a daring escape from a world on the brink of destruction to save himself, his pregnant wife and their child.

Despite Gibson’s DUI arrest, Disney still is treating him as an important selling point: Gibson narrated many of the TV and radio spots, which started airing this week as part of an aggressive ad buy, and is seen on camera talking about the movie.

Gibson, 50, was arrested July 28. He was reported to have made a number of profane and anti-Semitic remarks to officers, including the statement “Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world.” As part of a plea agreement, Gibson agreed to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, appear in public service announcements and pay $1,300 in fines.

In the days after Gibson’s arrest, Cook called Gibson and his publicist, Alan Nierob, to assure them that Disney still supported the film and would release it as planned. The studio, however, was concerned whether Gibson’s alcohol rehabilitation would interfere with his ability to deliver a finished print on time.

Last month, Nierob launched Gibson’s public comeback by arranging a two-part taped interview with Sawyer on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” Gibson apologized for his anti-Semitic remarks, said he was ashamed and acknowledged his long struggle with alcohol.

Nierob and Disney are hoping Gibson’s public mea culpa will blunt any new media frenzy that could be reignited by the attention Gibson will undoubtedly get with the release of the movie.

“We’re not running from anything,” Nierob said. “We’ve already addressed his DUI arrest publicly.”

Nierob has kept a tight hold on his client’s promotional activities and has been working closely with Cook and his team to carefully craft a publicity and marketing strategy to focus media attention on the film. Outside of the Sawyer interview, Nierob said, nothing about the campaign has changed as a result of the DUI.

“We’re marketing it in a straight-ahead manner and focusing 100% on the movie itself,” Cook said. “Obviously, it’s an unbelievable cinematic achievement and we’re dealing with the talent of Mel Gibson the filmmaker.”

Cook said that the studio had no choice but to gloss over Gibson’s personal problems.

“You ignore it -- there’s no other way,” he said.

As part of its effort, Disney will begin aggressively showing the film to exhibitors, college students, critics and other opinion makers as soon as Gibson delivers his final print early next week.

Disney’s financial risk is limited because Gibson financed the $50-million movie through his film company Icon Productions.

The studio is on the hook for at least $25 million in marketing expenses, which it is able to recoup before Gibson’s company receives any box-office dollars. Icon will pay the studio a distribution fee based on a percentage of the film’s ticket sales in the United States and Canada.

The Burbank entertainment giant made the deal to market and distribute “Apocalypto” in July 2005. Cook was among a group of top studio executives invited by Gibson and his producing partner, Bruce Davey, to their Santa Monica office to read the translated script. Gibson, a superstar actor from such films as “Lethal Weapon” as well as Disney’s “Signs” and “Ransom,” by then had proved himself an accomplished director with “The Passion” and the Oscar-winning “Braveheart.”

“Apocalypto” will face steep competition on the Dec. 8 weekend, opening against two other adult-oriented movies, Warner Bros. drama “Blood Diamond,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio, and Sony Pictures’ romantic comedy “The Holiday” featuring Cameron Diaz, Kate Winslet, Jude Law and Jack Black.

“Adult audiences will be torn in different directions,” said Paul Dergarabedian, president of the box-office tracking firm Exhibitor Relations Co. “And people are going to have to decide if they can separate the movie from the man. If the buzz is strong enough, they’ll go. Disney is going to have to rely on great reviews and great word of mouth.”

Also unclear is whether the film has any shot with voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for Oscar consideration. Disney is planning numerous academy screenings in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and London soon after the movie opens.

Gibson’s remarks still resonate with many Jewish groups as well as figures in Hollywood. At the time he was arrested, a handful of prominent players spoke out, including producer Ziskin, Sony Pictures movie chief Amy Pascal and former MCA Inc. President Sidney J. Sheinberg, who called Gibson a “putz.”

But after recently seeing the “Apocalypto” trailer, Sheinberg said he was interested in seeing the movie.

“I guess it’s possible to be a putz and an interesting filmmaker,” Sheinberg said.