What If Audiences Shrug?
The value proposition behind the Atlas Shrugged movie.


Daniel Foster

Who is John Aglialoro? He’s the founding chairman of UM Holdings Inc. — a collector, restorer, and dealer of businesses for three decades running who has presided over everything from an airline to an oil company. He’s a semi-professional hold ’em player who in 2004 won the U.S. Poker Championship. He’s even the deputy mayor of the posh Philadelphia hamlet he calls home. But first and foremost, he says, he’d like to be thought of as a member of the “productive class,” a “creator of wealth.”

Ask him and Aglialoro will tell you that wealth-creators are “heroes,” that entrepreneurs are the “economic quarterbacks who have made this country great.” And he will lament what he sees as their persecution at the hands of a political class that rewards their productivity with taxation, regulation, and disdain. That he lionizes the productive class, and that he has managed to ascend to it, are “directly correlated,” he says, with being “zapped” by the writings of Ayn Rand in the early 1970s. And so it makes sense that 40 years later he is co-writer, co-financier, and custodian of the long-awaited big-screen adaptation of Atlas Shrugged, Rand’s novel of statist oppression and capitalist revolt. But will Rand’s meditation on the virtues of the dollar sign translate into dollar signs when it opens on April 15, the traditional Tax Day? Can you proselytize wealth-creation while also doing a bit of it?

That was an open question when I met with Aglialoro in a boardroom above Rockefeller Plaza in New York, inside the well-appointed offices of the medical services firm EHE International, where he sits on a board first chaired by William Howard Taft. Aglialoro is 67, with close-cropped hair more salt than pepper and serious eyes. He’s wearing a gray flannel blazer, dark slacks, and a striped oxford open at the collar, and looks more like your Uncle Frank at the last family reunion than he does an avowed Objectivist captain of industry and film producer.

I asked him how the Atlas film came to be, and Aglialoro answered that it almost did not. The adaptation had been in development limbo for decades, with Aglialoro buying the rights in 1992 and spending millions on extensions, the commissioning of half a dozen scripts, and cross-continental trips to court various studios.

“I had a long-term lease of 15 years [in 1992], and I thought, ‘Well, I’ll take care of this in a year.’” But despite having a number of prominent stars — most famously Angelina Jolie — attached to the project at one time or another, Aglialoro couldn’t find the right deal. I asked if he thought it had to do with Tinseltown’s notorious leftward bent. “Would I say that implicitly, there was a bias against that philosophy? Yes,” he responded. “But there was never anything explicit.” The sense among studio executives, he said, was that Atlas was “too cerebral.”

And so by March of 2010, with his latest hold on the rights set to expire on June 15 and no studio deal, Aglialoro decided that he would finance and distribute the film independently. He joined forces with journeyman producer Harmon Kaslow, whom he met through a mutual friend, and on June 13, just two days before the rights expired, the pair published a full-page ad in Variety announcing the beginning of principal photography. They’d shoot 102 minutes of screen time — representing roughly the first third of the book — in six weeks with a production and distribution budget of $10 million, which Aglialoro says is “still clocking away.” The film will initially open on about 200 screens in several cities, with an eye to national and international expansion should it garner significant buzz.


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