His passion is showing

Gibson surprises auds with screenings

Get ready for “Mel: The Passionate Return.”

Mel Gibson‘s recent surprise appearances at Cameron U. in Oklahoma and the Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, to screen a rough cut of “Apocalypto” were right out of the “Passion” playbook.

The screenings — in which Gibson variously brought pic’s star Rudy Youngblood, donned a disguise that fooled no one and registered mild protest vs. the Iraq war — echo Mel’s below-the-radar approach to building early support for “The Passion of the Christ.”

Gibson took that film first to select religious leaders, then went broader with a surprise screening of “Passion” at the (yes, this is its real name) “Butt-Numb-a-Thon,” a 24-hour movie marathon run by Ain’t It Cool News’ Harry Knowles at Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse. Gibson’s film — and Gibson himself –appeared in the 23rd hour, the crowd went wild, and the “Passion” play was on.

For “Apocalypto,” Knowles got his own private screening, then saw the film again at the Fantastic Fest. The result: Knowles raved that pic had “the soul of a great artist and the production values of the best of Hollywood.”

It’s probably not the last quiet screening of the pic.

“You’re going to see more of the film and more of Gibson now,” says one film exec who has worked with him. “Once he sees he’s getting a good response, like he did in Austin, I think he’s going to come out into the light.”

Back then Gibson had distrib Newmarket, seasoned at locating niche auds, coordinating the rollout. This time around, the ball is in Disney’s court for the Dec. 8 release.

Normally for a big holiday pic arriving amid a storm of media attention, the studio would calibrate every move. ButDisney is giving a lot of autonomy to Gibson on “Apocalypto.”

After all, no one knows how to work his way out of controversy better than Gibson himself. Helping him are longtime collaborator Bruce Davey and other marketing whizzes.

But this campaign might have a few snags that “Passion” didn’t.

For one, unlike the core aud “Passion” could count on, there isn’t exactly a constituency of doomed Mayans the “Apocalypto” campaign can aim for.

But since the movie itself is less of a touchstone, Gibson’s job is simpler this time around: Make sure interest in the film drowns out any protest over his DUI incident or subsequent comments.

And even those missteps might be harnessed to promote the film.

There are rumors that Time and Newsweek are scrambling to land the first print interview with Gibson, in which reflection on the driving incident is expected to be a major component.

So Mel is back, and could be coming soon to a theater near you. Just don’t expect any “Apocalypto” screenings in Malibu.

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