Paul Harris in New York
It’s a film executive’s nightmare. You need to market a $50m blockbuster, but can’t mention the biggest Hollywood name behind the project, especially when that A-list star has become infamous for drunken driving and mouthing anti-semitic comments. Its a dilemma facing studio bosses behind Mel Gibson’s new project, Apocalypto, as they seek to save the film, once seen as an Oscar hopeful and a potential moneyspinner.
Now the eccentric film-maker has embarked on a remarkable marketing campaign to promote Apocalypto to audiences in America’s heartland, skipping the usual media channels and going direct to the public.
‘This is not the time to release a Mel Gibson film. What he said was a big turn-off to a lot of people,’ said Michael Levine, of Levine Communications, who has run PR campaigns for celebrities such as Cameron Diaz and Demi Moore.
But Apocalypto, set in an ancient Mayan civilisation, is starting to generate some high-quality buzz. First reports from a series of Gibson-organised test screenings have been positive. At one, the movie was given a standing ovation. Harry Knowles, a hugely influential internet critic, said it was a ‘rough masterpiece’ of ‘immense power’.
It is certainly an unusual film, not least because Gibson seems now to shun English. The Passion of the Christ, was filmed in Aramaic; Apocalypto has been shot all in Yucatec, the Mayan language little known outside rural parts of Mexico.
Its cast, entirely made up of unknowns, is headed by a young native American called Rudy Youngblood. He plays the film’s main character, a warrior called Jaguar Paw whose village is attacked by another tribe during the dying days of the Mayan empire. The film explores grandiose themes of decline and fall and the apocalypse of a civilisation. It also contains more than a fair dose of gruesome violence and human sacrifice.
Even before Gibson’s arrest for drink driving last July – during which he spouted an anti-Jewish tirade – the film was raising eyebrows in Hollywood. Aside from its bizarre setting and language, it was shot in remote jungles where heavy rains set back its production schedule. During the shoot Gibson also grew a long, straggly beard that gave him the look of a madman (or genius).
He is applying that same eccentricity to promoting the film, hoping to overcome the legacy of his anti-Jewish comments. He has screened it at a science fiction festival in Texas, carefully nurturing Knowles’s participation. He has also shown it at several locations in Oklahoma, Youngblood’s home state The audiences, mostly native American, reacted positively. The result has been a sudden buzz of anticipation about the film and Gibson’s first positive PR since his late-night arrest in Malibu.
Yet he has not entirely been able to escape new controversy. Though The Passion established him as a darling of the right, Apocalypto seems to court a more liberal audience. Gibson sees a link between the collapsing Mayan world and the policies of the White House, and has likened the human sacrifice in the film to the waste of US soldiers’ lives in Iraq.
That has led some conservatives, such as radio talk-show host Michael Medved, to attack Gibson as a sell-out. At the same time, his name is still toxic in Hollywood. ‘If Gibson was on a 12-step programme to recovery, he’s probably on about step two,’ said Lloyd Grove, gossip columnist at the New York Daily News
The task ahead of him in promoting Apocalypto remains enormous. However, he does have a record of pulling off unlikely success. The Passion was shunned by all the major studios, which thought the project was bound to fail. Gibson paid for it himself, marketed it through Christian grassroots networks and churches and ended up with a worldwide blockbuster that netted more than $600m.
After that, no one would write off Apocalypto entirely. There is also one thing playing in Gibson’s favour. In a movie world where everyone loves a dramatic story, no plot line succeeds like a comeback against all the odds. ‘It is an inalienable right in Hollywood to have a happy ending,’ said Grove.