An Explanation of Atlas Shrugged—Part 1 Being an Unsatisfying Film Despite Its Superb Literary Source

by David P. Hayes

Like many people who admire Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged, my reaction upon seeing the first film to be adapted from it has been far from wholly positive.  Some with a thorough understanding of the novel have said they have made allowances in declaring that they enjoyed the film, while others have declared it boring.  The movie struck me as lame and more often uninvolving, its intriguing aspects interspersed over its length, the lively and stunning moments appearing sporadically.

I regard producer John Aglialoro’s efforts to have had the potential to result in an estimable film.  That the film instead is uneven, generally mediocre, a mixture of discordant elements, is not the consequence of the film’s low budget, lack of major studio backing, or his lack of experience in the film business, but of rushing into production following a lengthy period of time during which aspects of production which might have been planned were not.  The producer comes from a background in manufacturing, where new personnel join a project in a manner that does not parallel the manner best for an actor, director or screenwriter to be brought aboard the production of a drama.

The value of rehearsals

Key personnel of theatrical plays have over the centuries found through experience that extensive rehearsal hones a play into the form most likely to enthrall an audience.  Can anyone say that Mr. Aglialoro put his cast and director through a series of beginning-to-end rehearsals of the full screenplay of Atlas Shrugged—Part 1 prior to camera work? How could Mr. Aglialoro have done so? He reportedly hired his Dagny—his female lead—just two days prior to commencing photography.

Rehearsals needn’t add much to a film budget.  Camera rentals, technician salaries, crew expenses, fees to film on locations and on sound stages, etc., are not incurred.  Actors (other than those in the small parts who are paid by the day) negotiate salaries based on their box-office appeal rather than the amount of time they are to be committed to a project, and actors who know they face challenges in bringing a character to life are willing to put in the extra time rather than incur a reputation for delivering an unconvincing performance.  Atlas Shrugged represented a statistically-unusual situation for the actors: the characters are unlike those they’re likely to have encountered in their training and unlike what they’ve been called upon to play since.

The performances of the lead roles in Atlas Shrugged—Part 1 are pale, misguided, synthetics imitations of the personages created by Ayn Rand for the novel.  I don’t accuse the actors of seeking to portray the roles this way.  An Ayn Rand hero derives his self-esteem from productive work, and his high self-estimate takes the form of an inner excitement, a palpable impression that comes across in his face and in his bearing, the outer signs that that there is (metaphorically speaking) fire in his veins.  His movements aren’t wasted—not because he consciously controls them, but because his body is under orders of a mind that makes decisions which rest on earlier decisions, resting on yet earlier decisions, all aiming to get the most of his time.  The actors’ performances captured in Aglialoro’s film didn’t reflect that understanding.

Ayn Rand served as an advisor on the movie version of The Fountainhead (1949), and offered her understanding of the psychology of her key characters to the actors playing them.  The book Journals of Ayn Rand reproduces written instructions prepared by Miss Rand to aid actress Patricia Neal in performing a pivotal scene.  Apparently, Miss Neal profited from the delineations expressed in the several pages written by Ayn Rand for this purpose.  A comment which accompanies the published version of this instruction says that Ayn Rand later declared this scene to be “the best acted scene in the movie.”  (See Journals of Ayn Rand, pgs. 235-237.)

Hired nearly three decades after Ayn Rand’s death, the actors of Atlas Shrugged—Part 1 were denied the opportunity to be tutored by Ayn Rand herself.  Nonetheless, actors on film productions based on novels of long-dead authors have honed strong performances with their directors and with their fellow actors by rehearsing and hashing out their different assumptions.  Francis Ford Coppola assembled his major cast for his film Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) at a table and had them take turns reading aloud the complete 1897 novel.  Rehearsals were also conducted.  Though different interpretations may have been held by the actors of how characters should behave and how they would be shaped by the novel’s historic setting, the actors ingrained the director’s decisions.

Winona Ryder in her own life has denounced fashion as being unconscionably-hyped, overpriced consumerist extravagance that a person would be justified in stealing, then lived by this belief by stealing from Sak’s Fifth Avenue, yet she delivered performances that convincingly make her come across as the product of an honorable historic past in Coppola’s Dracula and Martin Scorcese’s The Age of Innocence.

Ayn Rand had an experience with a director of her work, nine years before the production of the Fountainhead movie, which demonstrates how blind to proper performance even a much-experienced and conscientious director can be when he brings himself outside of his areas of strengths.

George Abbott was a highly-successful and prolific Broadway producer whose experience was primarily musical comedy and farce, but he wanted now to direct a serious play.  Abbott read the play that Ayn Rand had adapted from her then-recently-published novel We the Living, and decided it would be that play; he allocated to it his highest budget ever.  Ayn Rand remembered him years later as a “very nice person” but “totally inept about drama.”  The one-week tryout the play had in Baltimore convinced Abbott that the leading lady had to be fired.  Although Abbott had spent months arranging contracts for the play, casting the play, and rehearsing the play, it was in casting anew the leading lady that he made a key discovery.  Ayn Rand recalled years later the audition of a particular actress: “Abbott had not even wanted to give her a reading but did it as a courtesy for the agent.  The reading was magnificent.  But she was just so much not the type that it was impossible.  She was short, stocky, somewhat piano legs …  Abbott told me afterwards, he said, ‘Do you know,’ in a kind of sad manner, ‘I only now realized what your writing is like or how this play should have been done.’  He said ‘that actress made me realize. […]  I only realized it by the way she read it.’ … But imagine a director telling you that, when it’s too late.”  (quotes from Jeff Britting, “Adapting We the Living,” in Robert Mayhew (ed.), Essays on Ayn Rand’s “We the Living,” Lexington Books (Lanham, MD, 2004), pgs. 158, 161-163)

Given the rarely-dramatized human traits presented in an Ayn Rand work, it’s understandable that difficulty will arise in finding a director and actors who will understand “how this [screen]play should have been done.”

Rare seems the person in Hollywood who can see in his mind what a person looks like when he has established a track record of being productive and has evaluated himself as exemplary on account of his worthy, moral productivity.  Just as rare if not rarer is the actor who has conveyed those mannerisms and manifestations on film.  Warren William (pictured, right) played a business leader convinced of his achievement in both Skyscraper Souls (1932) and Employees Entrance (1933).  A highlight of the former has him declare with verve that he spearheaded the construction of the tallest building in the world and conveys that he is enthralled by that knowledge:“It’s mine!

Moments of that emotional resonance aren’t to be found in Atlas Shrugged—Part 1.  The Atlas movie does have its Hank Rearden declaring without compromise that “my only goal is to make money,” but it is comparatively tepid.  True, Rearden at this point is conflicted, so Grant Bowler’s performance of the scene reflects that fact.  Nonetheless, Atlas Shrugged—Part 1 seems shorn of Ayn Rand’s goal that her work depict the ideal man.

The Dagny Taggart of Miss Rand’s novel is the engine by which the novelist presented in the first third of the novel a human ideal.  The film doesn’t do likewise.

The Dagny of the movie is too often giddy when not mechanical.  When she remarks about the invitation extended to her to attend Hank Rearden’s anniversary party, she reacts as though she were a teenager eager to be part of the “in” thing among the most-talked-about clique.  Her attitude towards indicating to Hank that she is interested in becoming part of a couple with him suggests that she pursues such pairings as though she seeks to win a popularity contest.  Her attitude towards Hank’s troubling wife suggests that Dagny isn’t so much interested in vindicating Rearden for having sought to share with his wife a valuable souvenir of his goals (the bracelet made from the first pour of Rearden Metal) but in giving herself the veneer of someone who will act as Rearden’s cheerleader—with no more depth of understanding of the achievement involved than is Hollywood’s stereotype of the high school football team’s pom-pom squad.  The script gave its Dagny a second chance of conveying an achievement-affirming message, when outside the Rearden home Dagny tells Hank that the two of them both know that the exchange of bracelets had a meaning understood by the two of them and not by others; unfortunately, the words ring hollow in its Dagny’s voice, as though perhaps the actress believes such words are stated as magical incantations to make objections go away and that phrases that seem analytical are never believed by anyone who says them.

(Some aspects of Taylor Schilling’s portrayal of Dagny that run counter to the novel can be partially excused owing to the update of the time period from the near-future as envisioned in the 1950s to the time period shown in the film: 2016.  This Dagny would have gone through her teen years at around the beginning of the 21st century.  The filmmakers may well have decided with conscious deliberation that a young woman not unusually sheltered would have absorbed that period’s attitudes permitting and encouraging not-quite-women-yet to flaunt their sexual awareness, to test their desirability to men by seeing how men react to sensuous glances.  The Dagny of the novel is so unwilling to accept a man of lesser standards that she would not have ingrained in herself such immediate and undiscerning flirtations as Taylor Schilling’s Dagny has, yet there was probably a need to strike an appropriate balance, to determine the extent to which a latter-generation Dagny would be part of her generation and the extent to which she would stand apart from it.  Such modern conceptions of female empowerment may account for a brief moment which occurs when the movie’s Dagny asks the movie’s Francisco d’Anconia to invest in the John Galt Line.  Although she otherwise focuses on the merits of her business proposition, she briefly rubs herself against Francisco’s back and rubs her arms around his neck, asking in a deep voice, “Is it me you want?” This could be taken as delivering a message that she is willing to surrender her body to his for money—or it could merely be her attempt to draw from him a confession that he still finds her desirable, even as she has no intention of following through on any willingness of his to pay her for intimate contact, merely seeing his acknowledgment of his interest in her as a starting point to negotiate anew on the merits of her railroad.  The movie leaves this point unexplained.)

Aside from scenes which express Dagny’s attitudes toward her sexuality, the film contains unconvincing scenes where Dagny is supposed to have a take-charge attitude in business.

There are times when Dagny’s eyes bulge too much, as though she has gone from uncertainty to the willful attempt to put on the outward appearance of certainty, doing so too quickly to be believable.  When she uncompromisingly proclaims to the union official that as employer she will deny the official’s attempt to exclude the union membership from piloting the first train on the new track, her tone of voice carries the proper force, but she descends into her chair with the stiff movements of a Barbie doll.  Her posture is too unnatural for a character whose body and mind are supposed to be properly integrated.

Do I deny that Taylor Schilling couldn’t do better? Not at all.  I repeat: the cast needed more time to know the roles.

Charles Laughton was one of the most highly-regarded actors working in films from the 1930s through the 1960s.  He won the Academy Award for Best Actor in the title role of The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933).  Nonetheless, when he was first on the set of what would become an aborted attempt to film I, Claudius he was heard to grumble several times, “I can’t get the man.”  This expression conveyed that he was stymied in understanding the essence of the character it was his responsibility to bring to life: the lead role, which was also the title role, the historic Roman.  In time he came to have a grasp which would guide him in his performance: Laughton declared that Claudius had the inner character of a particular king in England’s history.  (The king in question was Edward VIII.) (Producer Alexander Korda pulled the plug on this attempt to film I, Claudius when spiraling cost overruns were followed by injury to his leading lady in an automobile accident.  The comments herein are derived from a documentary about the troubled production, The Epic That Never Was, produced for British television.  It has been released on home video.)  notes

The experiences of Laughton indicate why I believe Atlas Shrugged—Part 1 should have been rehearsed for a month prior to filming.

Many of us may recall stage performances that have been lively, convincing, stirring, thought-provoking.  These may have been regional productions or even ones unlikely to draw an audience from anywhere outside the local area, yet the actors buried their own emotions so deeply in the roles they played that audiences could not have gleaned what the actor was like in his off-stage life.  The production may have had “no names” insofar as marquee draw was concerned, but the audiences seated inside the theater were treated to several hours of quality theater.  Such performances likely benefitted from proper rehearsal (and, to name a subject not to be elaborated here, excellent casting).

Rehearsals enable actors to become comfortable with one another, to observe one another’s unconscious reactions and to adjust their own responses to an appropriate emotional fit.  An onscreen interview with one of the lead actors of The Big Chill (1983) had him recall that the full cast went through several weeks of rehearsal of the screenplay prior to shooting, and that this was a boon for the performances.  He recalled that on other shoots an actor might be introduced to another cast member on a day of filming, with a statement of “This will be your wife,” and then the newly-introduced couple would be confronted with how to appear to have grown comfortable with one another over the course of several years when in actuality the supposed spouse was fully a stranger.

The Dagny and Hank of the movie don’t come across as complementing each other emotionally.  In conventional parlance, as a couple they lack “chemistry.”  When in proximity to one another, the nuances, inflections and gestures which are conveyed to the other suggest no mutuality, no sense that either has become accustomed to the bearing and stamina of the other, let alone that there is admiration or appetite, let alone longing or even a long-withheld lust.  (The best expression of the kind of rapport the two characters should have toward one another occurs in a telephone call where they discuss the dearth of qualified personnel available to be hired, but even this scene suffers from the film having offered no justification for one of them to have called the other, nor why at that early point in their acquaintance either is interested in discussing with the other anything but pressing business.) In rehearsals, a good director or fellow cast members might have noticed and commented where Miss Schilling should have subdued the parts of her characterization which seem to have been patterned after a high school class president; if Miss Schilling had in her life up that point not been afforded the opportunity to observe up close an adult woman in a leadership position, this might have come to the attention of others on the set and a suitable introduction or discussion might have resulted.

A standard hour of television, with its stock character types, familiar situations, and roles similar to what the actors have played before, can get by without the level of rehearsal recommended here because the greatest challenge in standard television is that the actors learn each day only the limited number of lines to be filmed; for a production such as Atlas Shrugged, rehearsal has a less-quantifiable benefit: “breathing” life into a role.

Had actors and director gone through repeated performances and spoken readings of the screenplay, some of these people might have noticed incongruities, awkward passages, and unexplained references.  In one scene, Dagny states without explanation that she is limited to nine months to rebuild the Rio Norte track.  Not until a subsequent scene is it established that Dan Conway’s competing line has been forced to close.  In that the decision which will force Conway’s closure does not even occur until after Dagny has made her statement, it’s apparent that some dialogue was “orphaned” when the chronology of scenes was shifted.  Likewise, when Dagny names the investors in the John Galt Line, they are (excepting Ellis Wyatt) names with no meaning to anyone who has not read the book; perhaps the producers, director and screenwriters hoped that the fact that the investors had the names of individuals rather than of institutions would communicate to the viewers that individuals but not banks are better able to recognize business opportunities in general, the value of this specific railroad line, and the value of Rearden Metal.  Nonetheless, had the production not been so rushed that dialogue this vague could go unnoticed, a quick alteration or supplement to the dialogue would have fixed this context-devoid moment.

The performances of the lead roles would not have been the only ones to benefit had the director and principal cast been afforded an opportunity to rehearse their roles.  Roles appearing in just one or two scenes could have benefitted from more assured direction and actors in the principal roles well-versed enough in their roles that they could offer advice to the players brought in for just a day of shooting.  The Owen Kellogg of the book comes across as dedicated to performing quality work and pleased in knowing that he has earned an advanced position at Taggart Transcontinental.  In the movie, he is squeamish, as though he’s afraid to admit even to himself that in offering his unexpected resignation at Taggart he is giving up something he would prefer, as though he is motivated by a fear, perhaps that he has been threatened with distribution of naked pictures of himself in a compromising position with an underage boy.  (In Washington DC, where I live, I’ve heard people well-connected to politics make jokes that this hypothetical threat is what politicians fear.)

What prompted the director, producers or casting people to choose the Hugh Akston that they did? Not an understanding of the role as delineated in the book.  Was this Akston on drugs? Why should he lean against a crinkling neck as though his shoulder muscles were injured by seizures running down his spine, perhaps the consequence of his intake of more controlled substances than he can now remember? A proper depiction of Hugh Akston would have the dignity of Sean Connery; this one seems to pattern himself after Donald Sutherland.

The difference in the caliber of any movie that a different cast will make should be intuitively obvious to anyone.  Most everyone has heard about a particular favorite film of his which was originally intended to star an actor who by the time of production had withdrawn himself from the production or been involuntarily replaced, and imagination can fill in to some extent how the original choice would have been different in the role.  For those wanting to grasp first-hand and at length how an entirely different cast would perform a virtually-identical script, it’s worth viewing two versions of The Prisoner of Zenda (1937 and 1952).  The source novel is Romantic art in the historic meaning of that term, with heroes, high stakes, commitment and resolve as primary character traits; the 1937 version conveys the appropriate atmosphere and morals, whereas the 1952 remake has cheeky detachment and empty-sounding talk in place of firm statements of heroism.

The screenwriters of Atlas Shrugged—Part 1 (which include producer Aglialoro) were confronted with a daunting task when they were faced with telling the story of the first ten chapters of the novel in the length of a feature film (and a feature film limited to a standard running time at that).  The choice of plot events was made well.  Nothing of diametrical meaning to that of the novel was introduced to the story line.  Legitimate criticisms of the screenplay seem limited to what occurs within scenes, not in choices of what to focus on in the story line as a whole.

Even within scenes and even when not using Ayn Rand’s dialogue, the screenwriters made some appropriate substitutions.

For an example, consider that in the novel, Miss Rand writes about Hank Rearden:

He had never entered a whorehouse; he thought, at times, that the self-loathing he would experience there could be no worse than what he felt when he was driven to enter his wife’s bedroom.

He would often find her reading a book.  She would put it aside, with a white ribbon to mark the pages.  When he lay exhausted, his eyes closed, still breathing in gasps, she would turn on the light, pick up the book and continue her reading.

In the movie, there is an addition of a line of dialogue spoken by Rearden’s wife after we’ve seen Rearden reach that moment of being “exhausted, … still breathing in gasps.”  Though the line is not in the novel and there is no book in sight which the wife seems ready to return to, the scene as a whole conveys the emotional meaning and essential details of the counterpart scene in the novel.  The people behind the movie made superb decisions in this scene in its adaptation.  The performances and the single line of dialogue connote the same emotional detachment and sense that she merely services him in the guise of wifely duty and as expression of an unacknowledged malicious personality.  (Rebecca Wisocky’s performance as Lillian Rearden is appropriately nuanced and assured whenever she appears on screen.  She is excellent in her role.)

Other creative aspects

Nothing in the preceding is meant to deny that additional efforts on other aspects of filmmaking might have made for a superior Atlas Shrugged—Part 1.  With extensive additional shooting, of considerably more close-ups, of takes done in different moods, the editors could have intercut film to make the performances dazzle in ways they never did in long takes and uninterrupted deliveries by the actors.  With alluring futuristic settings and eye-popping special effects, the attention of the audience would have been taken away from the performances—and even from the characters—with the film impressing in a different way.

Did guerilla filmmaking doom Atlas Shrugged—Part 1?

“It’s such a serene, easygoing little movie, it’s hard to believe the production was surrounded by utter chaos.”

— Randy Skretvedt, writing about Block-Heads (1938), in Laurel & Hardy: the Magic Behind the Movies, Past Times Publishing Co., 1987 (expanded 1994)

Block-Heads was scarcely the only movie prior to Atlas Shrugged—Part 1 to be shoe-horned through production under adverse circumstances.  There have been any number of artistically- and financially-successful movies which seemed to have improbably high number of crises during filming.  Nonetheless, people in front of and behind the camera endeavor not to let the adversities show, and all too often they have succeeded.  (I consider Block-Heads a good example for this subject: it was rushed into production so that its independent the producer could secure a loan only available were production actually going on at his studio; his eleven-year relationship with a major releasing organization was to expire after this film was delivered; shooting started six days before the first script was completed; the first-billed star failed to show up at the studio several days during filming, and was believed to have been often drinking or drunk while on site; after principal photography but before he had been released from being recalled for retakes, he left town without indicating where he was going and without providing information on how he could be contacted; the director died during editing.)

John Aglialoro reportedly was facing the expiration of his right to produce a movie of Atlas Shrugged.  In cranking cameras prior to a specific date in June 2010, he assured himself that he would not take the loss of the money he had invested in those rights.  The potential loss of the costs of production could end up making the smaller loss of the costs of literary rights seem like the better choice, but that was far from certain; the possible loss of production costs was offset by possibility that he would earn back the costs of literary rights and of production costs, along with a profit, even a tidy profit, depending on the numbers of tickets sold, DVD sales, and contracts negotiated for cable and broadcast performances.

The contract which permitted Aglialoro to make the film had been signed eighteen years earlier.  Although he understandably held out for a deal with a major studio and box-office-draw stars, while also pursuing deals for a television miniseries on a network available in tens of millions of American homes, he seems to have waited too long to establish a “Plan B” to be used in case his preferred options didn’t pan out and he was facing eminent loss of rights.

Professional moviemakers tend to be one up on him in this regard.  Hollywood studios have long had a policy of commissioning scripts they probably won’t use just so that something will be available in the less-likely case that a major project cannot be undertaken but talent is available and paid for.  (Even the aforementioned Block-Heads had such a benefit.  Although the first script was not finished until six days after shooting began, it was based on one filmed by the same studio nine years earlier.  This gave the creative personnel an adequate understanding of where the events in the story would all lead.  Also, the two lead actors were playing the same character they had dozens of times before.) Musicals starring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland were so profitable for M-G-M that the studio developed more scripts for the pair than would be needed, so that the best ones could be chosen from among them and so that the superstar pair would never be benched for lack of an above-par script.  Scripts rejected for Rooney-Garland use that were nonetheless considered to have some value were shorn of scenes expensive to film, shortened to lengths appropriate for the second feature on a double bill, and then put before cameras with a less glamorous cast.

John Aglialoro seems to have commissioned scripts over the years, but perhaps never enough so that he would have one suitable for a faithful film version where the draw would be the source material and not the intended lead performers.  His fault may have been in being “penny wise and pound foolish” (as the old expression goes).  Such an approach is not merely counter to the acquired wisdom of the film industry.  In many lines of manufacturing and technology, research departments have spent years developing a prototype that never went into manufacturing because business forecasters determined that the product was unlikely to make back the additional costs that would be incurred in going from plan to market.  Such circumstances haven’t precluded companies from then developing the next potential blockbuster product, in the understanding that one successful product would make back not only its own incurred costs but the accumulated costs of the failed products by which it was preceded.

A script by a screenplay writer whose previous credits were in schlock horror films typically doesn’t cost much money.  Atlas Shrugged—Part 1 is credited to such a writer, in tandem with producer Aglialoro.  Commissioned long enough ago, such a script could have been shown to a number of other screenplay writers of modest status, each paid for a few days work to examine the script for glitches in continuity and bad craftsmanship.  Given such attention long enough ago, a script put through these steps could be kept in a drawer and pulled out when an emergency need for it arose.  Nothing about this process would preclude one or more additional scripts, each commissioned without disclosure to the other writers so hired, being readied for potential use.  I did say something about “an emergency need” and suggested that such might arise.  Apparently, as the producer’s time window to make a film was about to shut on him, such an emergency did arise.  Seemingly, he was not prepared.

Hiring decisions have to be appropriately made in that of other key personnel, too.  The director had directed episodes of a television series on which he had a role, but had never directed a feature film.  Although that is not is necessarily a harbinger of poor results, a director of limited experience should be one who brings a superb understanding of the scenes he will make live on screen.  In behind-the-scenes footage in a making-of documentary available on the internet, the director is wearing a “My Generation” tee shirt and shown buttering up the actor playing Hank Rearden in an ingratiating, insincere manner.  On the plus side, the director’s background in television may have removed a potential source of conflict for Aglialoro: theatrical movies are considered a “director’s medium” whereas television is considered a “producer’s medium”: television directors are expected to accede to the producer’s wishes as to mood, pacing and the general “look” of the production.  Directors of episodic television series are expected to deliver results that appear indistinguishable from those of their colleagues working on different episodes of the same series.  For a producer who wants his feature film to be faithful to the book, this means that a television director won’t overtly change the script or undermine the producer’s wishes on how the script is to be realized.

Successful precedent for self-distribution

The decision of the independent production company behind Atlas Shrugged—Part 1 to self-distribute the film (eventually replaced by letting distribution be handled by a small firm based in Utah) may seem to have been overt evidence that the theatrical tour of the film would be stillborn.  Such concerns did not take into consideration some financial successes experienced by producers who took that route.

Self-distribution was not so tough, according to a successful television producer who in 1985 ventured back into theatrical feature films without a deal with one of the Hollywood majors.  Producer Bud Yorkin (best known as partner of Norman Lear for such hit television series as “All in the Family,” “Sanford & Son,” etc.) independently produced a feature called Twice in a Lifetime without a distributor attached ahead of time, even though Yorkin had a cast of Gene Hackman, Amy Madigan, Ellen Burstyn and Ann-Margret.  Yorkin took to distributing it himself, calling theaters one by one.  He told the Los Angeles Times that the job seemed worth less than what distributors typically take from the theater rentals.

If he had gone with a major distribution company, about a third of [the net rentals, the money returned after theaters take their share] would have gone as the distribution fee.

But Yorkin set up his own distribution organization under Norman Levy, with four other staffers.  And although there were as many as 600 prints of “Twice in a Lifetime” in the field, he says his distribution cost was only 16% to 18% and the saving was his difference between profit and loss.

“Distribution didn’t cost me nearly that 35%, and that’s the only reason I was able to come in.”

Later in the article:

“Nobody will ever snow me again about distribution and advertising.  There’s a lot of money wasted in distribution, advertising and publicity and marketing.”  [“Once in a ‘Lifetime’ for Yorkin,” Los Angeles Times, Oct. 30, 1986]

More recently, a fantastic box-office success was enjoyed by a film that had been passed up by Hollywood studios but which had a built-in audience not typically reached out to.  The Passion of the Christ (Mel Gibson’s Jesus movie, 2004) became the top-grossing film ever released in March, a status it attained not by conventional advertising but through grass-roots activism to get the movie seen.  Gibson had seemingly escewed Hollywood distributors by shooting his $30 million movie (low by the standards of an actor whose salary alone was $20 million) in subtitled extinct tongues, on a seemingly non-commercial subject.  He laughed to the bank, with a huge ownership stake in the $600 million of ticket sales.  There was obviously a long-planted effort on his part to spur advance audience interest, by inculcating relationships with important allies.  Gibson gave Rush Limbaugh a months-ahead advance screening in Limbaugh’s home, brought Michael Savage to Hollywood for a less-advance but nonetheless pre-release screening, etc.

With Atlas Shrugged, we saw on-air mentions by John Stossel and news feature stories on Sean Hannity’s national prime-time cable show.  Hannity sounded intrigued talking about it.  The email readership of tea-party coordinators FreedomWorks received recommendations that they see the film and even to do activism on its behalf: “Go see this film, and if it’s not playing near you, demand that your theater shows Atlas Shrugged: Part One.”

Final thought

The preceding is offered to express a hope and an argument that subsequent films in the proposed Atlas Shrugged trilogy can be made properly and be moving experiences.  As this article is being written, Aglialoro has just insisted that he will make additional Atlas Shrugged films to spite his critics.

Companion article: Persons interested in present and future Atlas Shrugged movies may also be interested in how well the 1949 film of The Fountainhead did in business in theaters in 1949.  I have researched and written a web article reporting information from movie industry trade papers demonstrating that The Fountainhead did better than average business.


The recollection of Laughton’s statement came from the filmed interview of Eileen Corbett, Alexander Korda’s special script girl (in charge of continuity), who said, “In fact day after day he used to arrive at the studio and say ‘I can’t find the man, Jo. I can’t get the man.’ And he had the idea that perhaps if he started on a different sequence he could work himself into the film. …

“And then one day he arrived breathless and rather late on the set, very excited, and came up and said, ‘Jo, I got the man. I’ve found him. Don’t you realize it’s Edward the Eighth?’ He got ahold of a grammophone record of Edward the Eighth’s Abdication Speech to the nation, and thereafter he would never film until he’d first of all retired to his dressing room (which was a caravan on the set) and played through Edward’s last speech as king to the nation. And after he had heard it through, Charles would come and tried to play his part of Claudius in the film.”  “Jo” refers to director Josef von Sternberg. This comment begins at about 27:45 into the cited documentary film.

In the same documentary, Laughton’s co-star Merle Oberon recalls, “Really a rather sad experience, because I knew and respected Charles as a great actor, and suddenly something very odd happened to him. He would come on the set every day, and get made up, and get dressed, and then say then he couldn’t find his character. And break down.” Oberon’s statements are seen and heard in the documentary starting at about 25 minutes.

When this web page was first made available in April 2011, where I now identify the king as Edward VIII, I instead had within the parenthesis, “I no longer remember which one, but I recall that it was one of the kings whom William Shakespeare made subject of one or more plays, and that Shakespeare named the play for this king.” On again viewing the documentary in August 2014, I have corrected this statement. All four paragraphs of this footnote were added August 2014.

David P. Hayes worked on set of two dozen Hollywood productions, has worked as a researcher into past Hollywood films, and is published author of multiple published articles about film and co-author of one published book about vintage Hollywood film.



This page © 2011 David P. Hayes