'Atlas Shrugged': The Blockbuster That Wasn't

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Atlas Shrugged producer John Aglialoro has told the Los Angeles Times that he is reconsidering plans to produce two more movies based on Ayn Rand's novel. This strikes us as sensible. Since being released two weeks ago, the film has grossed only $3.1 million--not good for any wide release, but particularly troubling for a film that seemed perfectly positioned to cash in on America's new libertarian streak. What went wrong? How could a country with a newfound regard for Ron Paul and Paul Ryan resist the movie version of their favorite book? There's precedent for this type of movie becoming a hit--The Passion of the Christ and Fahrenheit 9/11 both broke $100 million in 2004 by appealing to grassroots audiences. Here are three reasons Atlas Shrugged didn't have that kind of success.

Bad reviews

The reviews weren't mixed or middling or lukewarm--they were terrible. All of them. Just 6 percent of the critics polled by Rotten Tomatoes--two out of 33--liked the movie. The Passion of the Christ was controversial, but it had its defenders, and posted a respectable 'Fresh' score of 49 percent.

Limited distribution

There actually was strong initial interest in the project. This Ron Paul fan site says the trailer was viewed over700,000 times in its first two weeks on YouTube, and we don't doubt it.. So why only put the film on 299 screens on its opening weekend? The Passion opened on over 3000 screens in 2004 (on Ash Wednesday), even while provoking major controversy. The slow rollout strategy used to be the industry standard, but now is used almost exclusively to build up positive buzz for prestige pictures. Atlas Shrugged was never going to be one of those movies. Blame Rand's politics all you want, but this version had no stars (unlike the 1958 adaptation, which starred proven draw Gary Cooper) and tried to tell a sweeping story about trains and beautiful buildings on an $18 million budget. Aglialoro handled the whole production--including distribution--independently. Without a major studio for a partner--or even a production company with experience distributing tricky projects, like Mel Gibson's Icon productions--the film couldn't capitalize on Rand-mania, even for just a weekend. The screen count was increased to 499 for the second weekend, but it was too little too late. The reviews were out and the damage was done.

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A target audience that doesn't go to the movies

The problem with making a movie for a niche audience, as Roger Ebert observed in his 2003 review of Gods & Generals, a Ted Turner-backed Civil War epic that bombed at the box office, is that you end up making "the kind of movie beloved by people who never go to the movies, because they are primarily interested in something else--the Civil War, for example." Like Civil War buffs, perhaps Rand devotees and vocal Tea Partiers don't go to the movies very often because they're busy with other things. Lukewarm advance reviews from prominent libertarians like P.J. O'Rourke ("[M]embers of that tribe of 'Atlas Shrugged' fans will be wondering why director Paul Johansson doesn't knock it off with the incantations, sacraments and recitations of liturgy and cut to the human sacrifice") also didn't do much to generate anticipation with the gold standard set.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.