Politics & Policy

What If Audiences Shrug?

The value proposition behind the Atlas Shrugged movie.

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.

And what’s the benchmark for success? Aglialoro said he’d like to recoup the $10 million shooting budget and the roughly $10 million he spent on rights and development. He’d also like to have cash to invest in the second installment of a planned trilogy — and of course, a profit.

“If it does a hundred million, roughly, at the box office, about half of that goes to the exhibitor — so if I were to subtract that $20 million, that would leave $30 million. And about half of that would be reinvested for the second one.”

If, on the other hand, it does significantly less, Aglialoro would look for investors to produce the second film, which he’d like to get to screens by Tax Day 2012.

I suggested, as many have, that the success of the independently financed mega-hit The Passion of the Christ would be an ideal model to follow. Aglioloro agreed. “I think this could do better — maybe not in the sense of the dollars, maybe in the sense of the dollars. But with Passion, if you’re not a believing Christian, you fall off the edge” of the prospective audience, he says. By contrast, he thinks Atlas could appeal to moviegoers who aren’t yet familiar with Rand.

“I’m interested in the third and fourth weeks, to see if Ayn Rand is correct — and I believe she is — that people who will never hear the word ‘Objectivists,’ that non-core world, will help make the movie get past that $100 million mark I was talking about.”

“This is a popcorn, thumbs-up movie,” he says when I ask him if the Rand text, with its layers of philosophizing and epic speeches, ever proved cumbersome in the adaptation process. “It wasn’t a catechism. It did follow the book well, but it’s got spontaneity, it’s got some humor in it.”

That’s something the sole previous screen adaptation of a Rand novel, the 1949 Warner Bros. production of The Fountainhead, was seen by contemporary critics as lacking. Variety called the Fountainhead script (penned by Rand herself) “garrulous” while criticizing the “miscasting” of Gary Cooper as hero Howard Roark and the “over-acting” of his co-stars. In the New York Times, Bosley Crowther called it a “long-winded, complicated preachment,” “wordy, involved and pretentious,” and a “curious lot of high-priced twaddle” with “more fervor than compelling conviction.”

Of course, one man’s pretentious is another man’s prophetic, and in a political moment dominated by the tea parties and defined by a grand debate over whether governments or markets are better suited to meeting society’s basic needs, Rand’s message appears more relevant than ever. Indeed, sales of Atlas Shrugged, now more than half a century old, spiked from 125,000 copies in 2007 to 450,000-plus copies in 2009. But would Rand herself have approved of the Tea Party?

“First of all, they’re carrying signs of her, so yes,” Aglialoro laughs. “What she would like is the spontaneity, what she called ‘the sense of life.’ She said, we don’t need Objectivists and only Objectivists to rule. She trusted that most in this country had that sense of life, without any philosophical or political creed behind it.”

And while he says that Randians might not agree with the tea partiers on every issue, he believes it’s “vital” for the two overlapping groups to “join arms.”

“As Franklin said, either we’re going to hang together or we’re going to hang separately. That’s the only way we’re going to get a civil society,” he tells me. “We need to beat this collectivist philosophy, the political class that is deflating the entrepreneurs.”

But if audiences shrug, if Atlas Part I doesn’t do as well as he hopes, will he take it as evidence against the Randian message? When I first asked, he hedged.

 

“It’s like a poker game, you don’t want to put good money after bad. If the public doesn’t want to see it . . . ”

But as we end our meeting after discussing early screenings of the film at places like Cato, Heritage, and CPAC, he is more confident. Leaning back in his boardroom chair, he says simply, “I think it is going to do well.”

“If you had asked me this question a month ago, I would have given you no answer or a different answer.”

He does everything but trace the dollar sign in the air.

Daniel Foster is NRO’s news editor.

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