Disney thinks ‘Apocalypto’ is a Mayan lion

Gibson preps for pic's Dec. 8 release

The marketing campaign for Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto” continues to be as unpredictable as the filmmaker himself.

Following screenings at 64 college campuses and an Indian reservation this week, “Apocalypto” gets an all-media screening tonight. It’s all part of Disney’s unorthodox approach to the very unorthodox film, which has been shrouded in controversy since Gibson unleashed a drunken, anti-Semitic tirade over the summer.

The film opens on more than 2,500 screens Dec. 8 — Disney upped the number from 2,000 due to an enthusiastic response from exhibitors who saw the film on Monday.

There will be no splashy Hollywood premiere for “Apocalypto”; instead, Gibson will appear Friday at a preem in Oklahoma benefiting the Chickasaw Nation.

Disney is also making a push with Latino and Native American auds. On Tuesday, Los Angeles’ Latin Business Assn. hosted a screening of the movie in Century City.

But it’s not entirely a renegade plan. Disney execs decided Wednesday that they will send screeners to all branches of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences — a contrast with the subdued, almost non-existent Oscar push for “The Passion of the Christ.”

And next week, Gibson will hold a press conference for the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., arbiters of the Golden Globes.

Gibson will also grace the next cover of Entertainment Weekly.

Despite such appearances by Gibson, Disney is banking on auds judging the movie, not the man who made it.

“I would like to have everyone — the press, the public, the Academy, the critics — to judge the movie and the director on the artistic merits of ‘Apocalypto’ only,” Disney senior VP of publicity Dennis Rice told Daily Variety. “That’s the best I can hope for.”

To this end, Disney has been aggressively screening the film for members of niche groups to whom the film will mostly likely appeal and are presumably less sensitive to Gibson’s personal foibles.

“It’s an action genre film, and that is the demo for that,” said Gibson’s publicist Alan Nierob. “They love it, they get it, they cheer, they’re animated.”

Younger auds are also less likely to be upset by the film’s extreme violence.

As for students’ concern with Gibson’s drunken rant during his arrest last summer, Nierob said: “It’s not even an issue. It doesn’t exist. They’re looking at the film.”

Early buzz from the critics has been positive. (Daily Variety‘s review will run Monday.)

As for the film’s Oscar push, Disney’s decision followed some debate within the company.Even without Gibson’s actions, “Apocalypto” is not an obvious sell to either mainstream auds or the Academy considering that it’s filmed in an obscure dialect and relates the story of a Mayan civilization on the verge of collapse. Furthermore, aside from the offscreen Gibson — who co-wrote and directed the pic — the film has no stars.

Last week, Disney and Gibson began to actively publicize “Apocalypto,” with the director appearing on a primetime special with Diane Sawyer that aired on Disney’s ABC Network. The show attracted a healthy 7.23 million viewers. Tonight he will be featured on Univision’s weekly newsmagazine show “Aqui y Ahora” (“Here and Now”). More TV appearances are planned for next week, including a stop off on the “Tonight Show With Jay Leno,” and, on Dec. 8, “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.”

Although much of the media emphasis so far has been on the film and its making, Gibson is not being completely forsaken as a marketing tool. The director appears on and narrates some of the “Apocalypto” TV spots.