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Can Mel Gibson Bounce Back?

In Hollywood, a filmmaker’s next movie is often only as good as his personal brand.

Will the end of civilization on the big screen coincide with the end of Mel Gibson’s career in Hollywood?

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The approaching release of Apocalypto — a Gibson-directed epic set around the fall of the Mayan empire — has people wondering if his drunken litany of anti-Semitic remarks will sink box office receipts, or if his directorial expertise and blockbuster career will keep the Mel Gibson brand afloat.

The experts seem to think his recent run-in with the law can be forgiven and that the film will redeem his tarnished image.

After all, he wouldn’t be the first. Winona Ryder came back from grand larceny to share the camera with Adam Sandler (Mr. Deeds) and Keanu Reeves (A Scanner Darkly). Angelina Jolie went from a boisterous marriage with Billy Bob Thorton to being the apple of Brad Pitt’s eye and a Goodwill Ambassador to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Eddie Murphy even ended up doing the voice of Donkey in the popular family film, Shrek, after soliciting sex from a transvestite prostitute.

“Whoever said ‘all press is good press’ never had their share of bad press,” says branding expert Karen Post, who explains that coming back from a blunder like Gibson’s is possible, but won’t be easy.

Tom Cruise is a case in point. The image of a calm and cool Cruise who flipped cocktail shakers, drove stock cars and flew fighter jets has lately been recently replaced by an excitable Cruise who jumps up and down on Oprah’s couch and preaches a religion that believes in space aliens.

The result of his new brand identity was a disappointing open for Mission Impossible III — which, despite critical acclaim, saw box office sales well below industry expectations — and the of end of his relationship with Paramount last August.

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“When something hits in a sensitive area for a large group of people, it’s very hard to recover,” Post explains, but adds that entertainers are in a unique position to reinvent their images.

“With a brand, there are mental associations consumers make. With actors, the associations that develop aren’t real because they’re playing a role,” says Post, who points out that Gibson was once thought of as a comical but loveable madcap, thanks to his roles in Mad Max and the Lethal Weapon series.

Gibson’s later days as a freedom fighter in Braveheart and The Patriot were certainly overshadowed by the image of an overtly Christian Gibson after the 2004 release of The Passion of the Christ — a box office success despite accusations of anti-Semitism in the film. His tirade this summer further revealed his religious prejudices, promoting the notion that he is more belligerent anti-Semite than he is devout Christian. But if entertainers create a brand based on their last role, Gibson may be able to transform himself again, this time into a purveyor of ancient Mayan culture.

“People tend to be forgiving,” says John Moore, owner of Brand Autopsy, an Austin, Texas brand strategy firm.

Moore explains that in a situation like this, for an individual or for a company, it is important to admit the mistake and then take action to correct that mistake. Gibson admitted his mistake, publicly apologized and then sought treatment for his alcoholism.

“Now is when you get back on the horse and do what you do uniquely well, and if you’re good at it, you’re going to survive the things that have tarnished your name in the past,” says Moore.

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Branding needs repetition over time to take effect, so as long as bad behavior is the exception to the rule, consumers are a forgiving bunch.

Annie Jennings, who runs the Princeton, N.J.-based PR firm, Annie Jennings PR, points to Angelina Jolie, whose good behavior over time is working to change any negative associations the public once made with her.

“Jolie will need to continue to reinforce her humanitarian positioning but she is well on her way,” says Jennings. Likewise, Gibson can be forgiven as long as his movies are consistently good, and run-ins with the law don’t happen often.

“If all his movies were flops, he would never bounce back because there would be nothing to bounce back to,” Jennings adds.

On the contrary, Braveheart won Best Director and Best Picture at the 1995 Oscars and Passion had its share of nominations in 2004. The studio isn’t shy about attaching Gibson’s name to the project, or evoking his past Hollywood successes. Having him narrate the trailer and advertising the film as “Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto” seems like a clear vote of confidence in the consistent value of his brand.

As Moore explains it, a company’s brand isn’t destroyed until it violates some of the promises it has made, implicit or explicit, to consumers.

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Take Michael Richards’ recent stand-up blunder at the Laugh Factory in Los Angeles. People expect feel-good comedy, eccentricity, and a little slapstick from the former Seinfeld star. Instead, he gave his audience racism and hostility. His brand is so damaged that even those close to him are trying to distance themselves; former co-star Jerry Seinfeld has publicly expressed his shock and disgust at Richards’ racist epithets.

Conversely, while Gibson’s actions may have garnered some bad press, they didn’t betray what people expect from him — a good movie.

The verdict? People will talk, bloggers will blog, and critics will criticize, but as long as Apocalypto lives up to Gibson’s reputation for entertaining movie making, the film should be a success.

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