Disney's Mel Gibson problem
'Apocalypto' opens Friday, and despite the controversy over Gibson, Disney features him prominently in the film's marketing.
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- You would think Walt Disney would have a major problem on it hands in trying to market its new movie "Apocalypto."
The movie was directed by Mel Gibson, who, in case you've been living under a rock, has gone from being one of Hollywood's most popular stars to persona non grata for launching into an anti-Semitic tirade following an arrest on suspicion of drunk driving in Malibu back in July.
But rather than try to hide the fact that Gibson is the director of the film, Disney (Charts), whose Buena Vista Pictures unit is distributing the film in the U.S., is going out of its way to remind people that he is the creative force behind it.
The movie, which hits theaters Friday, is being billed as "Mel Gibson's Apocalypto" in ads. The TV commercials, which prominently feature Gibson talking about the story, have aired on Disney-owned ABC and ESPN, but also during top-rated shows on other networks such as "Heroes" on GE (Charts)-owned NBC and "House" on News Corp.'s (Charts) Fox.
In addition, ABC ran a special edition of "Primetime" on Thanksgiving night about the movie.
And Gibson appeared on "Aqui y Ahora," a weekly news show on Spanish-language broadcaster Univision, on November 30 to discuss the film. The movie, about the end of the Mayan civilization, was filmed in Mexico and features mostly Mexican actors.
So why is Disney embracing Gibson?
"Mel Gibson is one of the most accomplished actors and directors of our time, so from the very beginning we knew he was an important and valuable component to our plan," said Dennis Rice, senior vice president of publicity with Walt Disney Studios. "We believed that before and after what happened."
But given the public outcry over his comments, it would seem that the only thing riskier than putting Mel's name in the spotlight would be for someone in Hollywood to green light a new sitcom starring Michael Richards.
Yet in many respects, it seems like the right move for Disney, since Gibson, despite his troubles, is the most marketable part of the film. The cast is mostly unknown. The dialogue is spoken in an ancient Mayan dialect. And the film is about a topic unfamiliar to many moviegoers.
It's fair to say that it will be extremely difficult for "Apocalypto" to come anywhere close to duplicating the box-office prowess of the last film Gibson directed, 2004's wildly successful "The Passion of the Christ." That movie grossed $370.8 million in the U.S. and $611.9 million worldwide, according to figures from research firm Box Office Mojo.
Although that film presented similar marketing hurdles - i.e. relatively unknown actors in key roles as well as the fact that it was subtitled - that movie obviously appealed to a huge demographic.
"In some ways, 'Apocalypto' has the same challenges that were inherent with 'The Passion of the Christ.' But the difference is you had a worldwide built in audience for Christian-themed entertainment," said Charles Merzbacher, an associate professor and chairman of the Department of Film and Television with Boston University.
So playing up Gibson may be the only way to really garner any interest in the movie.
"Let's put this in the crassest Hollywood terms, if this was a movie starring Tom Hanks and directed by Mel Gibson, you go with Tom Hanks in the marketing. But to run away from the Gibson association, I'm not sure what Disney would be left with," Merzbacher said.
And even though Gibson's star power may have dimmed, he still is someone that attracts curiosity. To that end, 7.2 million people watched the Thanksgiving special, according to data from Nielsen Media Research.
Plus, the ratings for this special were better than that of several highly marketed prime-time shows such as NBC's "Studio 60" and ABC's "Day Break" last week.
Gitesh Pandya, editor of the movie industry research Web site BoxOfficeGuru.com, added that Disney and Gibson are making a wise move in playing up the fact that the movie takes place in Mexico.
This, Pandya said, combined with Gibson's appearance on Univision, could make the film more attractive to the lucrative audience of Hispanic-Americans.
"The film was never going to be an easy sell to begin with, even if the whole Mel Gibson drunken rage never happened. But what will be interesting to see is if a large Latino audience comes to the movie," Pandya said.
Still, the biggest challenge will be convincing people that the movie is worth seeing even if you are appalled by Gibson's anti-Semitic remarks. Disney's Rice said he hopes people can put aside the controversy and focus on the movie itself.
"The most important thing is to try and separate Mel the artist from Mel's personal life. Our hope is that everyone can evaluate the movie on (its) artistic merits," he said.
Ironically, some think that "Apocalypto" could actually be a bigger draw to many more liberal-minded moviegoers since the film is said to be somewhat of an anti-Iraq war metaphor.
But this audience might actively avoid "Apocalypto" simply because of Gibson. For example, when I saw "Borat" at a packed theater in New York City on opening night, the audience loudly booed the "Apocalypto" trailer, most notably when Gibson's name appeared on the screen.
That means Disney needs to play up the action sequences of the film, which it has done in some commercials, and hope that people will go to the movie expecting a thriller, as opposed to a political allegory.
As such, Rice said he thinks the movie is "a flat out action adventure that general audiences will fall in love with."
But others say it's not that simple.
"This is complicated," said Steven M. Shugan, professor of marketing at the Warrington College of Business at the University of Florida. " 'The Passion of the Christ' offended a lot of people that would like the anti-Iraq message in 'Apocalypto' but that message may offend the people who liked "The Passion of the Christ.' "
For that reason, Shugan thinks the movie may have a decent first weekend but that bad word of mouth could hurt the film's performance afterwards.
"I think the movie will do better with Gibson marketing it than it would without him marketing it. But this is not an upbeat action movie," he said.
And Pandya said the movie might not even fare that well in its debut weekend. But if it flops, he thinks it won't have much to do with the controversy surrounding Gibson and everything to do with good old-fashioned competition. Two other films with well-known casts hit theaters the same day.
"Blood Diamond," starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Academy Award winner Jennifer Connelly, also came out on Dec. 8. So did "The Holiday," a romantic comedy featuring Kate Winslet, Cameron Diaz, Jude Law and Jack Black from Sony's (Charts) Columbia Pictures. "Blood Diamond" is being released by Warner Bros., which like CNNMoney.com is owned by Time Warner (Charts).
"There's no star power other than Gibson. He's the star," Pandya said. "I'm not expecting a strong opening."
The reporter of this story owns shares of Time Warner through his company's 401(k) plan.