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.