A few years ago the notion of a Mel Gibson movie bypassing cinemas in the US, instead premiering on a satellite broadcaster, would have seemed far-fetched, another sign that the superstar's career had hit rock bottom.
Yet his latest film, Get the Gringo (formerly How I Spent My Summer Vacation) is launching in the US on DirecTV on May 1, potentially reaching nearly 20 million homes.
Rather than being regarded as another setback in the actor's chequered career, the initiative is being hailed by some commentators as a bold move which could help create a new paradigm for releasing films in the US and, eventually, in markets including Australia.
Produced by Icon Productions, jointly owned by Gibson and his long-time business partner Bruce Davey, the action-comedy directed by Adrian Grunberg stars Mel as a career criminal named Driver.
Pursued by the US Border Patrol, Driver crashes his car carrying a load of cash and a dying accomplice and ends up in a hellish Mexican prison where he finds an unlikely ally: a 10-year-old boy.
“It might be easy to conjecture that Gibson's recent personal issues were a reason to bypass theatres, especially after The Beaver grossed less than $1 million domestic,” observed Deadline.com's Mike Fleming.
“I think this is different — a ballsy move by a maverick entrepreneur whose willingness to break rules led him to self-finance the $30 million R-rated The Passion Of The Christ and watch it gross $371 million domestic and $612 million worldwide (still the biggest indie film of all time), and spend $40 million to fund Apocalypto, a film that grossed $51 million domestic and $121 million worldwide.”
In a promotional campaign, Gibson will take part in a question-and-answer session at a screening of the film in Austin, Texas, hosted by Ain't It Cool News founder Harry Knowles, an event that will be beamed to cinemas in about 10 other cities.
That'll be far cheaper than the $US20 million that distributors typically spend to support a nationwide theatrical release, and Icon will probably pocket about 50 per cent of the $10.99 fee forked out by each DirecTV subscriber.
Focus World, a unit of Universal's Focus Features, is releasing 12-15 titles direct to consumers via video-on-demand in the US this year, including James Franco's biopic of poet Hart Crane, Broken Tower, Iceland director Gaukur Úlfarsson's documentary Gnarr and Liza Johnson's drama Return starring Michael Shannon and John Slattery.
But Get the Gringo is the highest-profile movie to go straight to VOD. Unlike the US, the film will get a significant cinema release in Australia via Gibson's Icon Films later this year. Icon's Greg Denning is looking forward to seeing the film in the next week or so and tells SBS Film, “We hear it's very commercial. If so, I expect it will get a wide release.
“Now that the US release plans are in place we can start looking at release date. We usually go out at the same time or after the US due to piracy concerns.”
If Gibson's trail-blazing distribution initiative works in the US, it will almost certainly be copied by Australian distributors at some point, probably when the nascent VOD market reaches a critical mass spurred by the roll out of the National Broadband Network.
“I'm sure that a lot of people are watching this to see if it represents a viable alternative in other markets,” said Mike Selwyn, managing director of Paramount Pictures Australia.
However, not everyone is rooting for Mel's movie, judging by some of the comments posted on Ain't it Cool.
“Let's be honest… if the movie was good enough to come out in theatres, it would be. The trailer looks unfunny and dated. It belongs on VOD,” said one cynical non-fan.
“Even in divorce, he's got a little less money than God and his bank account falls somewhere between Oprah and George Lucas. He never needs to come inside L.A. proper again if he has VOD distribution,” carped another.
Gibson will be hoping a sizable number of people agree with one poster who said, “I forgave Gibson long ago and I think he deserves a chance. I'll be watching this first day.”