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'Atlas Shrugged' and the Tea Party

Leading Role
Courtesy of The Strike Productions

Movie from Ayn Rand’s best-seller may be first to market through movement’s followers.

Atlas Shrugged, a novel in which society’s most productive citizens choose to disappear, was published in 1957, and filmmakers have spent nearly every year since trying to adapt it. They finally succeeded, and the first part of what’s planned as a trilogy comes out April 15. If you didn’t know that, it’s likely you’re not a member of the Tea Party.

It was probably only a matter of time before Hollywood tried tapping the e-mail lists and social networks of the giant political movement, as distributor Rocky Mountain Pictures and filmmakers including co-producer Harmon Kaslow have for Atlas Shrugged: Part 1.

Despite years of cinematic interest and high hopes for stars and funding, the film was made for less than $10 million, with Taylor Schilling — who appeared on NBC’s short-lived Mercy — playing protagonist Dagny Taggart.

By Hollywood standards, the marketing budget is tiny, so word-of-mouth from Tea Partiers sympathetic to the film’s message is crucial to its success.

The film is also the perfect test case to see whether such an effort can work because Ayn Rand’s novel extols free markets and entrepreneurialism and excoriates government coercion and overtaxation, values that unite Tea Partiers. In fact, rallies invariably feature signs that mimic the book’s opening line: “Who Is John Galt?” Another common sign at Tea Party rallies asks, “Is Atlas Shrugging?” If Hollywood can’t persuade this demographic to support Atlas, it might as well write off the Tea Party as a marketing source.

About 9 million adults are active Tea Partiers, and 45 million support the movement, a CBS/New York Times poll says. The makers of Atlas have been working to get organizers to insert mentions of the film into the millions of e-mails that go out to the faithful, and Tea Partiers have obliged. Many have also attended screenings and are satisfied that the movie adheres to Rand’s principles of objectivism, individualism and self-responsibility.

One recent e-mail to Tea Partiers in California, for example, alerted members of upcoming Freedom Rallies. But it also included a link to the movie’s trailer, the name of the local theater that has booked the film and the line, “Mark your calendars for a celebration of capitalism.”

Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, an organization that predates the Tea Party but has become aligned with it, has attended five screenings and recommended the film through an e-mail sent to 1 million Tea Partiers, many of whom forwarded the message to others on different lists, and so on.

“That’s the power of the Tea Party,” Kibbe says. “The people with the best e-mail lists are the local leaders. Our job was to push it to those leaders.”

He uses the word “job” loosely because no money changed hands. “It’s all done from the bottom up through a viral network on a volunteer basis,” he says.

Adds Kaslow, “They have a very efficient means of communicating via e-mail, and it seems to be working well for us.”

Kibbe has also pushed the movie to users of FreedomConnector.com, a social network for Tea Partiers that was created by FreedomWorks and is promoted by Fox News star Glenn Beck.

Atlas might be the first feature marketed through the Tea Party, but it probably won’t be the last. “If there is a movie that connects with the ethos of the Tea Party, I’m going to push it out to them,” Kibbe says.

The movie should connect, though it is devoid of the heavy-duty ideological speeches. Instead, there are one-liners that will jump out at Randians but could fall flat with the uninitiated, who might wonder why they invested 90 minutes in a mystery that doesn’t have much humor or action and ends on a cliff-hanger.

As in the book, dishonest bureaucrats sell to gullible voters “The Anti-Dog-Eat-Dog Rule” and “The Equalization of Opportunity Bill” as altruistic pieces of legislation designed to even things out but which actually make things much worse. Those who back big labor unions and agitate for government handouts, bailouts and intervention are society’s moochers.

The movie is set in 2016 as oil spills, pirates, high gas prices and a bad economy dominate headlines. The bad guys talk of “social progress” and businesses being made to “lend a helping hand.” One hero, in contrast, describes himself as “someone who knows what it’s like to work for himself and not let others feed off the profits of his energy.”

But while there’s lots to whet the appetite of Tea Partiers, getting them in theaters is another matter. The film will open Tax Day — not chosen at random — on 200 screens, unless the distributor sees a sudden surge in early bookings.

Beyond e-mails to Tea Partiers, producers have sent the film to conservative commentators John Stossel, Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, hoping they’ll mention it favorably on their TV and radio shows and prompt consumers to ask their local theaters to book the movie. It’s working. Radio host Neal Boortz, for example, recently tweeted: “You want Atlas Shrugged shown in your city? Here’s the website to make your wishes known. http://tinyurl.com/WeWantAtlas.”

The film was directed by Paul Johansson. Some might find it off-putting that the director, known for his work in television, voted for Barack Obama. But John Aglialoro, the businessman who financed, co-wrote and co-produced the movie, didn’t ask Johansson about his politics.

“I read it when I was 17, and it changed my life,” says Johansson, who also appears as the shadowy John Galt in the film. “It gave me permission to be who I am. It taught me that it’s OK to stand alone and not be part of a group.”

Lots of Americans might agree: A 1991 survey by the Library of Congress and the Book-of-the-Month Club determined that Atlas Shrugged was the second-most-influential book in history behind the Bible. The next three works of fiction on that list — To Kill a Mockingbird, The Lord of the Rings and Gone With the Wind — have already become Hollywood blockbusters. Don’t expect Atlas to replicate that sort of success, though. Aglialoro needs only to make some money with it, or the subsequent two installments will be scrapped and the novice filmmaker will abandon other projects on which he’s working.

“If it bombs, I will not make another movie,” he says.

The first installment of Atlas was 44 years in the making because Rand and Hollywood couldn’t agree on how to bring the book’s 1,168 pages to the screen.

Through the years, big names have attached themselves to film or TV versions, but the film was made without A-listers and is being distributed by a Utah-based indie with an affinity for political and religious themes.  

“Talent agencies were not sending us many of their top people,” Kaslow says. “I don’t think it was political. We just suffered a credibility issue because everyone knew that a lot of well-known people had already tried to get this movie made.”

Aglialoro, who paid Rand’s heir Leonard Peikoff $1.1 million for rights to Atlas in 1992, ended up rushing it into production to prevent them from reverting. He beat the deadline by two days; Peikoff lost faith in the filmmakers over 19 years and said through a colleague that he fears the film doesn’t sufficiently reflect Rand’s philosophy.

Reviews suggest otherwise. “There is not a moment where an honest fan of Rand could say that the makers of this film just didn’t get it,” wrote Brian Doherty at Reason.com.

Johansson expects a passionate reaction to the film. “If we had the perfect script, perfect actors and unlimited money, we’d still be under a microscope because of the source material,” he says. “It’s like holy text to some people.”

A LONG HISTORY OF ATLAS SHRUGGED HEROINES: At one time or another, these actresses were discussed to play Dagny Taggart

Atlas Shrugged makes its way to the big screen April 15, though in more modest form than originally envisioned. That’s because many attempts at big-budget treatments of the 1,168-page book fizzled.

Ayn Rand was trying to develop her 1957 novel into a miniseries or film around 1972, and she expressed a desire to have Fritz Lang or Alfred Hitchcock direct. Rand died 10 years later after completing less than half a script for a nine-hour teleplay, according to Jeff Britting of the Ayn Rand Institute.

Perhaps the most notable attempt at a movie came from producer Albert Ruddy, who was attracted to the project just after releasing The Godfather in 1972. The deal blew up when Rand demanded veto rights over editing.

During the late ’70s, Rand worked with producers Henry Jaffe and his son Michael to create an eight-hour miniseries for NBC. Rand imagined that Raquel Welch or Farrah Fawcett would play heroine Dagny Taggart, but the project was scuttled when the network named Fred Silverman its president in 1978, according to Anne C. Heller, author of Ayn Rand and the World She Made.

Philip Anschutz tried and failed, as did Baldwin Entertainment Group. Lionsgate gave it a shot, with a script rewritten by Randall Wallace, the Oscar-nominated writer of Braveheart; insiders say he also wanted to direct the movie. The deal fell apart when Angelina Jolie chose to star in Clint Eastwood’s Changeling instead, then got pregnant in 2008. The recession didn’t help.

Others who discussed playing Taggart on TV or film include Sharon Stone, Anne Hathaway, Charlize Theron, Julia Roberts, Cate Blanchett, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Keira Knightley. In the end, Atlas Shrugged: Part I was made for less than $10 million, and Taggart is played by relative unknown Taylor Schilling.     

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