It’s too violent. It’s in an obscure language. It has no stars, and was directed by a guy with PR problems. Snipe all you want about Apocalypto, but don’t forget: The same things were said about The Passion of the Christ, with its skin-shredding torture, its Aramaic dialogue, and the controversy it stirred within the Jewish community. Yet The Passion opened with an astonishing $83.8 million and went on to gross $370 million domestically, thanks in large part to Gibson’s courtship of the churchgoing public. Who will show up this time?
Disney and Gibson are using the film’s jungle chase to tempt a wide, thrill-seeking crowd. ”Anybody that’s a fan of the action genre is going to be wildly entertained,” says Disney marketing chief Dennis Rice. ”Nothing is going to get in the way of them enjoying the picture — not subtitles, not the fact that you don’t have big names in the cast.” The filmmakers are also reaching out to the descendants of the Mayan people and inviting Latino and Native American leaders to screenings. ”It’s one of the most powerful pieces I’ve seen done on the first-nation people,” says actor and Latino activist Edward James Olmos (Battlestar Galactica). ”It deserves to be seen on its own merit.” Courting this demo is a shrewd move: Hispanics are a consistently underappreciated audience. According to the MPAA, they watched an average of 9.8 films in theaters in 2005 versus 7.5 films for white moviegoers.
Perhaps no movie could generate a turnout like The Passion’s. Christians who had long avoided Hollywood fare marketed it themselves in an astonishing grassroots campaign. Will they follow Gibson to the Yucatán? ”Boy, that’s a hard call,” says Paul Lauer, a Christian-marketing specialist who was hired to work on The Passion but not Apocalypto. Lauer, like other Christian entertainment leaders contacted for this story, declined to speculate. Even Gibson’s detractors are undecided. The Anti-Defamation League is withholding comment until they have seen the film.
As of now, the filmmakers’ Latino marketing campaign hasn’t been as sweeping as the push for The Passion. Several high-profile organizations say they were not contacted about Apocalypto and are reserving judgment. ”I hope he does reach out to us,” says Manny Alfaro of the Hispanic Organization of Latin Actors. ”He needs all the publicity he can get.” — With additional reporting by Vanessa Juarez