Summary:

As one of the most polarizing actors of his generation, Mel Gibson can no longer get his own films booked into theaters. That’s led him to e…

As one of the most polarizing actors of his generation, Mel Gibson can no longer get his own films booked into theaters. That’s led him to experiment with new ways of distributing and monetizing movies. Now, Gibson is being forced to get creative again with his latest film, Get the Gringo.

Gibson wrote and stars in the film (formerly titled What I Did on My Summer Vacation), an action movie about an American man’s escape from a brutal Mexican prison. His Icon Productions announced yesterday that it had reached a deal with Twentieth Century Fox (NSDQ: NWS) Home Entertainment to distribute the film first on DirecTV’s VOD platform for $10.99 a rental starting May 1. After a month of exclusive play on DirecTV (NYSE: DTV), the film would then be released on DVD, Blu-ray and download later this year.

The film won’t get a U.S. theatrical run, and that’s unusual. If Get the Gringo succeeds in the marketplace, it could influence the way other independent producers release their movies going forward.

Gibson isn’t taking this route by choice. The very public accusations of domestic abuse, anti-semitism and misogyny have brought his Q Score to unprecedented lows — and have cut off the option of showing his films in front of big cinema audiences. Gibson’s last movie, The Beaver, did get a theatrical release, but it wasn’t his film — he neither directed or produced it. He received critical praise for playing a grieving corporate executive who talks to a beaver hand puppet for director Jodie Foster. But the movie wound up deeply in the red. The $20 million film grossed only $970,816 in the U.S., taking in another $5.4 million in revenues from its foreign theatrical release.

Gibson is now hoping the combination of DirecTV’s reach of 20 million subscribers, and more efficient marketing, will lead his latest film to profitability. That’s no sure thing. Filmed in the Sonoran Desert at a cost of around $20 million, Get the Gringo is an inexpensive movie by Hollywood standards. It features little in the way of recognizable on- and off-screen talent beyond Gibson. DirecTV, however, is picking up the lion’s share of the promotional budget.

He’s not the only one testing untraditional release strategies for new films: The big buzz at the Sundance Film Festival last week was the large number of producers who were arranging distribution of their movies through cable and satellite VOD, and download and streaming services at the same time they were releasing these movies into a small number of art houses. These producers are in effect closing the traditional movie release window, whereby a movie waits a set amount of time after its released in theaters – the standard now is about three months – before its put out on various home platforms

To get Get the Gringo off the ground, Icon is planning a one-time theatrical screening event, staged in partnership with Harry Knowles’ popular movie fanboy site AintItCool.com out of Austin, and digitally simulcasts to 10 other big-city theater locations. But for the most part, Get the Gringo will stay away from theaters and theatrical marketing, and that will drive down costs.

Several indie movies have made significant money through VOD and digital streaming channels of late – most notably, Kevin Spacey’s Sundance film Margin Call has taken in more than $5 million through these channels to date. A quartet of major studios – Warner Bros. (NYSE: TWX), Sony (NYSE: SNE), Universal and Fox – experimented last summer by releasing films on DirecTV’s VOD service just eight weeks after their theatrical premiere and charging a $30 rental fee. None of those studios has released revenue figures for those films.

Gibson has been been something of a movie-business innovator ever since his controversial film The Passion of the Christ debuted eight years ago. Because it was seen as having anti-Semitic overtones, the film was unable to get big studio distribution. Gibson had to use his own brand name — still potent in 2004 — to get the film in 3,014 theaters on his own.

Self-financing the religiously themed film’s $30 million budget, Gibson forsook traditional and expensive marketing rituals like pre-release press junkets, employing a grassroots promotional campaign that relied on churches. The film, which grossed nearly $612 million worldwide, was one of the most profitable titles ever on an ROI basis and changed the way many indie producers marketed their films.

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