While Hollywood is very lenient with the off-screen behavior of its biggest stars, there often are stern consequences when such conduct impacts the bottom line.
Walt Disney chair Dick Cook was handed a major headache over the weekend as Mel Gibson, whose next film, “Apocalypto,” is skedded to be released by the Mouse House on Dec. 8, acted like a raving, anti-Semitic lunatic during a drunk driving arrest in Malibu early Friday morning.
Gibson, who has fended off charges of anti-Semitism before, has apologized for his behavior and remarks. But the incident could further isolate the star from the Hollywood establishment he has held at arm’s length in recent years. And, perhaps more critically for his current career, the controversy could cost him clout with the millions of conservative Christians who consider him a hero following the 2004 release of “The Passion of the Christ,” which grossed more than $1 billion worldwide in combined box office and homevideo.
Also causing a stir Friday was last week’s reprimand of Lindsay Lohan, who received a sternly worded letter from the producer of her current film, telling her that hard partying is no excuse for not showing up on the set.
And Tom Cruise is paying the price for his couch-jumping, psychiatry-bashing world tour of last year as he and producing partner Paula Wagner continue to try to negotiate the extension of their rich production pact with Paramount.
Gibson’s actions may well end up being a barometer for how forgiving the ticket-buying public can be.
“Americans have a very spotty track record in separating the personal lives and the onscreen lives of the movie stars they idolize,” said one exec who asked not to be named. He pointed out the struggle Woody Allen still deals with to win back an audience after the scandal involving Soon-Yi (Previn).
Disney has its hands full, as “Apocalypto” was a marketing challenge to begin with, since it is spoken largely in the Mayan language and several other studios had turned it down as being too violent.
For the Mouse House, the stakes are the hefty P&A commitment it made when it secured domestic distrib rights to “Apocalypto” last summer — a sum that runs into the tens of millions on the typical studio wide release. Gibson’s Icon Prods. financed the pic’s undisclosed budget of “Apocalypto,” and Icon retains all foreign rights.
Disney declined comment on how it thinks Gibson’s arrest could affect the film, but distrib execs at rival studios said they expect the incident to impact the pic’s box office potential.
“The Passion” proceeds gave Gibson the autonomy to finance his films largely outside the studio system. But domestic distribution is the one area in which he still seeks to work with the majors. “The Passion” was independently distribbed by Newmarket, but the indie’s lack of clout with theater owners made it difficult to collect film rentals at the same rates studios get. Twentieth Century Fox distribbed the pic on DVD.
If Hollywood studios turn away, one exec speculated, he could try to build his own domestic distrib unit at Icon, which already self-distributes in some foreign territories. “Maybe he’ll think about Icon becoming a self-distribution company,” the exec said.
But the fact that Disney was willing to make the “Apocalypto” deal showed that Gibson’s post-“Passion” box office clout trumped the earlier controversy over whether “The Passion’s” portrayal of Jews was anti-Semitic.
In addition, his methods of courting conservative pundits, evangelical leaders and their congregations — an aud Hollywood has traditionally had difficulty reaching — were quickly copied by indies and studios alike. Similar efforts have been made on behalf of Disney’s own “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” the Walden Media co-financed pic that the Mouse House is betting will spawn a lucrative franchise, as well as Sony’s “The Da Vinci Code,” Universal’s “United 93” and Paramount’s upcoming “World Trade Center.”
And though Gibson has said he has no interest in returning to the sort of roles he played in the 2002 M. Night Shyamalan thriller “Signs,” which grossed $408 million worldwide, or the 2000 romantic comedy “What Women Want,” which took in $404 million at the global box office, his ICM agent Ed Limato has pointed to a pile of scripts with $20 million offers attached sent to Gibson after “The Passion” to demonstrate that the star was as in demand in Hollywood as ever.
But he has not been eager to take any such offers. He ankled Warner Bros.’ “Under and Alone,” the true story of an undercover agent who infiltrated the Mongols motorcycle gang, in order to make “Apocalypto” with his own money. And Gibson repeatedly has turned down offers for sequels to his earlier “Lethal Weapon” and “Mad Max” hits.
The earlier claims of anti-Semitism stemming from “The Passion” had largely been put to rest before Gibson’s drunken outburst in Malibu.
In December, he struck a deal with ABC to develop “Flory,” a longform TV project based on the true story of a Dutch Jew named Flory Van Beek and her non-Jewish boyfriend who sheltered her from the Nazis.
In a 2004 interview with ABC’s “Primetime Live,” Diane Sawyer asked Gibson point blank, “Are you an anti-Semite?” Gibson responded, “No, of course not. And here’s the other thing. For me, it goes against the tenets of my faith to be racist in any form. To be anti-Semitic is a sin. It’s been condemned by one papal council after another. There’s encyclicals on it, which is, you know, to be anti- Semitic is to be un-Christian. And I’m not.”
Even his loudest critic, the Anti-Defamation League’s Abraham Foxman, interviewed for the same program, agreed, saying he did not believe Gibson was anti-Semitic, but added, “I believe that (“The Passion”) has the potential to fuel anti-Semitism, to reinforce it.”
In early coverage Friday, the mainstream media (cable and broadcast news, newspapers) mostly treated the Gibson incident as a simple DUI arrest. Few mentioned Gibson’s alleged outbursts. But the Internet was abuzz with the news, citing documents posted by TMZ.com and reporter Harvey Levin, which detailed Gibson’s alleged anti-Semitic statements (as well as the report that he called a policewoman “Sugar tits”).
The sheriff’s department was under fire Sunday for giving celebrity treatment, but said it would issue a statement soon.
According to a sheriff’s report from Friday’s arrest, posted by TMZ.com, Gibson was pulled over for speeding on the Pacific Coast Highway around 2:30 a.m.. Although initially cooperative in the arrest, in which a Breathalyzer test showed his blood alcohol content at .12, well above the .08 legal limit, the report says he was verbally abusive to officers, threatening retribution and refusing to get into the back seat of a patrol car.
The report also quoted Gibson as saying “Fucking Jews … The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world,” and asking a sheriff’s deputy, “Are you a Jew?”
On Saturday, Gibson released a statement apologizing:
“After drinking alcohol on Thursday night, I did a number of things that were very wrong and for which I am ashamed. I drove a car when I should not have, and was stopped by the L.A. County Sheriffs. The arresting officer was just doing his job and I feel fortunate that I was apprehended before I caused injury to any other person. I acted like a person completely out of control when I was arrested, and said things that I do not believe to be true and which are despicable. I am deeply ashamed of everything I said, and I apologize to anyone who I have offended. Also, I take this opportunity to apologize to the deputies involved for my belligerent behavior. They have always been there for me in my community and indeed probably saved me from myself. I disgraced myself and my family with my behavior and for that I am truly sorry.”
He went on in the statement to say that he has had substance abuse problems in the past. “I have battled with the disease of alcoholism for all of my adult life and profoundly regret my horrific relapse. I apologize for any behavior unbecoming of me in my inebriated state and have already taken necessary steps to ensure my return to health,” Gibson said.
The ADL’s Foxman, however, was unmoved by the apology. In his own statement, released Sunday, he said, “Mel Gibson’s apology is unremorseful and insufficient. It’s not a proper apology because it does not go to the essence of his bigotry and his anti-Semitism. His tirade finally reveals his true self and shows that his protestations during the debate over his film ‘The Passion of the Christ,’ that he is such a tolerant, loving person, were a sham. … It is unfortunate that it took an excess of booze and an encounter with a traffic cop to reveal what was really in his heart and mind. We would hope that Hollywood now would realize the bigot in their midst and that they will distance themselves from this anti-Semite.”
And there were signs that even Gibson’s conservative Christian fans were not moved by the response. Reaction in the popular conservative online forum FreeRepublic.com, was also largely negative. In response to the statement, one commenter posted, “Gibson showed his true colors last night during his arrest. I argued with you about ‘The Passion of the Christ’ and his portrayal of Jews. I stood up for Gibson to you and a number of my Jewish friends. Now, I’m sorry I did.”
Another, responding to hopeful comments that Gibson can still change his views, wrote, “Lots of denial going on here. It’s difficult when your hero falls so far.”
It’s difficult to imagine that so many in the entertainment industry would be asking so many questions about Gibson’s future had he only been arrested for drunken driving. Hollywood has a forgiving record when it comes to bad behavior off the set.
Earlier this year, for example, just weeks before lensing was due to start on Columbia’s “Next,” an actioner starring Nicolas Cage and Julianne Moore, director Lee Tamahori was arrested in West Hollywood on charges that, while dressed in drag, he approached an undercover officer and offered to perform a sex act for money. The arrest caused studio execs and reps at CAA to mull the future of the project and scramble to find a replacement but in the end kept him on. Prostitution charges were later dropped in exchange for probation and community service.
But recently, those who write the check in Hollywood have been trying to teach stars that bad behavior also can be bad business. After Lohan failed to show up at the set of “Georgia Rule” Wednesday, Morgan Creek topper James G. Robinson, who is financing the $27 million pic also starring Jane Fonda and Felicity Huffman, wrote in a letter, “You and your representatives have told us that your various late arrivals and absences from the set have been the result of illness; today we were told it was ‘heat exhaustion.’ We are well aware that your ongoing all night heavy partying is the real reason for your so-called ‘exhaustion.’ We refuse to accept bogus excuses for your behavior.”
The letter, which claimed that Lohan’s delays had cost the production hundreds of thousands of dollars, seemed to have its desired affect, as Lohan reportedly showed up on time on both Thursday and Friday.
And Cruise, who has spent most of his career branded as the world’s biggest movie star, has found his business dealings scrutinized following well-publicized outbursts defending his beliefs in Scientology and his love for Katie Holmes, new mother to their daughter.
His production company, Cruise/Wagner, is negotiating to renew its pact with Par that is set to expire Aug. 31. Cruise/Wagner had commanded some of the sweetest terms in Hollywood, but after the new public scrutiny of Cruise’s persona, and the less-than-stellar $133 million domestic perf of “Mission: Impossible III,” Par has been in no rush to renew.
It’s impossible to quantify the effect of celebrity behavior on box office. After Cruise’s couch-jumping, “War of the Worlds” grossed more than $500 million worldwide. However, some felt that the gross could have been even higher without Cruise’s off-camera behavior and if his energetic promotion of the film had concentrated on the movie without bringing in Scientology, psychiatry and post-partum issues.
It’s a lesson that other stars may need to take to heart, as well. In the age of the blogosphere, you can’t run from a public that scrutinizes your every move.