- The Washington Times - Friday, December 1, 2006

LOS ANGELES — When Mel Gibson’s Mayan-history epic “Apocalypto” opens next Friday, all of Hollywood will be waiting for the verdict: whether filmgoers will have forgiven the actor’s indiscretions.

The film’s distributor, Walt Disney Co., is waiting to discover whether American and world audiences will separate the man from the movie.

“If you have a great film, people will go,” said producer Lynda Obst, who has a production company at Paramount.

In an interview with Entertainment Weekly for next week’s cover issue, the Australian-reared actor said he’s confident his movie will not be hurt.

“It’s primarily entertainment,” Mr. Gibson told the magazine. “An 18-year-old college guy, out with his buddies, he’s going to get into the chase. The movie will stand on its own, regardless of any unfortunate experience I may have stumbled upon.”

Disney got such “an enthusiastic response” at an exhibitor screening Monday that it gave “Apocalypto” a vote of confidence by deciding to open it on more than 2,500 North American screens, up from the previous 2,000, according to Daily Variety.

Mr. Gibson has always had his detractors. But when the 50-year-old Oscar-winning director was arrested for drunken driving in Malibu on July 28 and then embarked on a tequila-soaked anti-Semitic tirade to the arresting officer, who is Jewish, critics went public.

Sony Pictures chief Amy Pascal expressed her anger, and former MCA President Sidney J. Sheinberg called Mr. Gibson “a putz.” Some, including superagent Ari Emanuel, decried Mr. Gibson’s “bigotry and racism” and called for the entertainment community to shun him.

The test case is “Apocalypto,” which was filmed in Mexico with unknown actors and depicts the last, bloody days of the fall of the Mayan Indian civilization before the arrival of the Spanish. Disney reportedly planned to spend more than $25 million more on prints and advertising in the U.S., with Mr. Gibson’s production company Icon having foreign distribution rights to the film.

“Let’s see what happens,” said Alan Nierob, Mr. Gibson’s longtime publicist with Hollywood powerhouse Rogers & Cowan. “He’s doing the publicity. No one can sell it better than Mel.”

Like “The Passion of the Christ,” Mr. Gibson produced and directed the film, but does not star in it. Also like “The Passion,” “Apocalypto” is in an ancient foreign language and will be shown with subtitles.

“People who have seen the film love it,” Mr. Nierob said. The early critical buzz has been good also.

Following a carefully mapped public relations campaign, Mr. Nierob said, “Mel was up at 6:30 this morning doing a radio show for Latin American audiences.”

ABC’s Diane Sawyer devoted one hour to the film’s making and release last week. Mr. Gibson will make the rounds of the talk shows next week, including Jay Leno and Ellen DeGeneres, and will appear on the cover of Entertainment Weekly.

In addition to such usual methods of publicity, Variety magazine noted the ways that the film’s marketing also has unpredictable elements, similar to the pitches Mr. Gibson made to evangelical Christians throughout 2003 and 2004, which made “The Passion” such a success.

There is no-star studded Hollywood premiere for “Apocalypto.” Instead, Mr. Gibson will hold its first public screening tonight in Oklahoma as a benefit for the Chickasaw Indian nation.

Mr. Gibson also has arranged pre-screenings for American Indian and Hispanic audiences, including the Latin American Business Association in Los Angeles. In Oklahoma two months ago, the filmmaker showed up at test screenings in disguise to gauge the reaction.

He also has held screenings at more than 60 college campuses and an Indian reservation in the past week. Already, the huge billboards for “Apocalypto” are lining the boulevards in West Hollywood, and the movie’s trailer is in theaters.

But even supporters of Mr. Gibson acknowledge that “the Mel factor” may interfere with the effort to focus only on the film.

“There’s also the curiosity factor,” said Paul Dergarabedian of Exhibitor Relations Co. in Encino. “Like him or hate him. There are some people who will not be convinced.”

Although Mr. Gibson apologized for his remarks and entered alcohol rehabilitation, his career has suffered a body blow. For example, the hottest topic among the discussion forums for “Apocalypto” at the Rotten Tomatoes film-review Web site, as of last night, was “anti-Semite Mel,” with 21 replies. The other nine topics had a combined 15.

“No question about it,” said Mr. Dergarabedian. “Any time you’re a public figure you generally want to have a good relationship with the public.”

He added that “Apocalypto” is “not the most conventional movie. It’s a tough sell. We’ll have the verdict opening weekend.”

Paramount’s Ms. Obst called the film “a really ambitious idea on a really interesting subject, done in a totally uncompromised way.”

“So who knows” whether it will be successful, she said.

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