Disney Prepares Major Promotional Push for Mel Gibson Movie

Other Hollywood Titans Distance Themselves From Controversial Star

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LOS ANGELES (AdAge.com) -- At a time when some titans in Hollywood have been publicly distancing themselves from Mel Gibson, the Walt Disney Co.'s film marketers are embracing the maverick filmmaker as a cut-through-the-clutter way to hype the upcoming release of his latest passion project, "Apocalypto."
Mel Gibson's new movie, 'Apocalypto,' is a a period epic with dialogue in ancient Mayan -- no English is spoken. Top: Mr. Gibson on the set in Mexico. Click to see larger photo.

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Mea culpas
Despite Mr. Gibson's anti-Semitic rant during a drunken-driving arrest in Malibu this summer, Disney executives are closely associating the movie promotion with the Academy Award-winning actor/writer/director. Mr. Gibson has done the requisite mea culpas, most recently in a two-part interview with Diane Sawyer on Disney-owned ABC's "Good Morning America."

"It's critical that he be the voice and face of this film," said Jim Gallagher, president of Buena Vista Pictures Marketing, which is distributing "Apocalypto" but did not finance it. "When you look at what's the best approach to market this film during a very crowded and competitive time of year, he's a vital part of that equation."

No English
The movie itself has challenges that would make any entertainment marketer wince, including a cast with no recognizable stars to go on the talk-show circuit. On top of that, it's a period piece with dialogue in ancient Mayan -- no English is spoken.

Mr. Gibson, who spent a reported $50 million of his own money to make "Apocalypto," has already started stumping for the story of a man's struggle to return to his family during the collapse of Mayan civilization. Mr. Gibson is invested in every aspect of the film -- he's credited as the writer, producer and director.

If the nationally broadcast interview with Ms. Sawyer was the opening salvo, the now-infamous actor has since taken a more grass-roots approach to promoting the movie. He screened a rough version at Harry Knowles' Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, and at a casino in Oklahoma for audiences of Native Americans. Mr. Gibson and the movie's star, Rudy Youngblood, were on hand to answer questions.

'Gripping, thrilling and touching'
Mr. Knowles, a well-known fanboy and webmaster who was an early supporter of Mr. Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," said it would be "a disaster" to keep Mr. Gibson out of the marketing picture for "Apocalypto." He called the movie "absolutely gripping, thrilling and touching."

"We had an unannounced screening, and we got close to 520 hits in newspapers, magazines, TV and other media around the world," Mr. Knowles said. "There's no way that a movie about indigenous people 600 years ago would normally get that kind of attention. That's the power of Mel Gibson."

While Mr. Gibson relentlessly targeted the evangelical Christian community for "The Passion," he's not necessarily stressing religion for "Apocalypto." There is some outreach to the faith and family market, but it's a fraction of the effort that propelled "Passion" to its $612 million worldwide gross.

Media hot button
Mr. Gibson has drawn political comparisons between the ancient Mayans and the current Bush administration, providing a potential hot-button topic for media interest.

"What's human sacrifice if it's not sending some guys off to Iraq for no damn reason, you know? I can't figure that one out," Mr. Gibson said after the Texas screening, which Mr. Knowles has made available as a podcast on his site AintItCoolNews.com.

In some ways, Disney will treat the movie like any other on its slate. The studio plans to surround "Apocalypto" with traditional marketing such as TV and print ads, stressing its unique story.

Adding baggage?
"Moviegoers en masse have said over the last couple of years that they don't want the same old, same old," Mr. Gallagher said. "This is a provocative story of a personal journey."

There were a number of difficulties in filming "Apocalypto," including its remote jungle locations in Mexico, where bad weather caused delays in production. Mr. Gibson is rushing to put finishing touches on the film now -- it's scheduled for a Dec. 8 release -- and might not be available to do the usual raft of national media appearances. He likely will continue to screen the film to carefully selected audiences, trying to stoke word of mouth. Regardless, it's certain he will be ever-present in pushing the movie, which some Hollywood marketers think is a bad idea.

"There's so much baggage already to market a movie like this," said Paula Silver, a veteran marketing consultant who once headed marketing at Columbia Pictures. "To use him in the marketing is adding more baggage."

But Ms. Silver, who's an Academy member, said she will see the movie because she's heard it's brilliant and could be an Oscar contender.
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