Tea party bears weight for success of new 'Atlas Shrugged' movie

In Atlas Shrugged, Henry Rearden (Grant Bowler) and Dagny Taggart (Taylor Schilling) use their wits to solve a mystery.

The Strike Productions

In Atlas Shrugged, Henry Rearden (Grant Bowler) and Dagny Taggart (Taylor Schilling) use their wits to solve a mystery.

Ayn Rand's sprawling, dystopian 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged is the Common Sense of the tea party, a literary piece inspiring a revolution.

Rand's book — at least the first 10 chapters — is also now a movie challenging the way Hollywood does business, as tea party members have in Washington, D.C.

Atlas Shrugged: Part I opens on groundbreaking terms Friday — not coincidentally Tax Day — in slightly more than 300 theaters nationwide including five Tampa Bay venues.

Rather than a conventional ad blitz, Atlas Shrugged: Part I is being directly touted to tea party members through a vast viral marketing campaign. Never before has this neopolitical faction been so actively courted to buy movie tickets.

To evidence the popularity of Rand's novel in the tea party movement, look to homemade signs at rallies sporting the book's cryptic, recurring question: "Who is John Galt?" and asking "Is Atlas Shrugging?" The Washington, D.C., headquarters of FreedomWorks.com spearheading the viral strategy displays a portrait of Rand in its lobby.

"When you look at what's on the news over the last 18 months there are a lot of parallels to what the book was talking about," said FreedomWorks.com marketer Michael Duncan. "The government taking over means of production, the burden the government places on producers in society. You can even point to the turmoil in the Middle East and oil prices.

"There are a lot of parallels between what Ayn Rand saw back in 1957 and what we're seeing now as a country. The message has resonance with our membership and liberty-minded people by and large."

Moviegoers generally aren't aware of the $10 million production — personally bankrolled by fitness machine mogul John Aglialoro — unless they're among 1 million people receiving e-mails from FreedomWorks.com promoting Atlas Shrugged: Part I. The messages link to the film's website (www.atlasshruggedpart1.com) and FreedomConnect.org, a tea party activism site.

From there, the word-of-mouse spreads like a juicy birther rumor.

Atlas Shrugged: Part I is following the economical lead of Christian-themed films in targeting the faithful, and the horror flick Paranormal Activity by adapting the breadth of the film's release to markets measured by clicks on a "demand" button.

Apparently Tampa Bay tea partiers pounded that button. A week ago, Atlas Shrugged: Part I wasn't booked in any local theaters. Now it's slated at Woodlands 20 in Oldsmar, BayWalk 20 in St. Petersburg, and Tampa's CineBistro, Citrus Park 20 and Starlite 20.

"The amount of e-mail and demands that we've gotten from Floridians is astonishing," co-producer Harmon Kaslow said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles. "Exhibitors are coming to us, (asking) can they book it?"

With a limited number of prints due to budget constraints, Atlas Shrugged: Part I is expected to circulate later to other markets.

"What we did in the last election was like an end run around establishment Washington D.C., both Democrats and Republicans," Duncan said.

"This film in a lot of ways is the same deal; we're having to do an end run around Hollywood to get the film seen."

Atlas Shrugged is the saga of railroad industrialist Dagny Taggart, whose plans for an economic renaissance are hindered by government and union intrusions, and the disappearances of society's innovators — thinkers and doers carrying the world on their shoulders like the Greek god Atlas.

They've been convinced to go on strike — to "shrug" — by the mysterious Galt, whose climactic 90-page speech on the virtues of "rational self-interest" in capitalism has become a tea party touchstone. That speech isn't included in Atlas Shrugged: Part I, and the movie's box office returns will determine if it's ever filmed.

"If the movie bombs we're not going to continue making parts 2 and 3 of the book into movies," Kaslow said. "There's no doubt about that."

But if it's even a minor hit, Atlas Shrugged: Part I may inspire production of not only the remaining chapters but also other conservative-minded productions, the way church-financed films emerged after The Passion of the Christ proved an audience exists for faith-based movies.

Aglialoro bought the rights to Rand's book for $1 million in 1993, with stars like Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt expressing interest through the years but all deals fell through. Production started in 2010, two days before the rights would revert to Rand's estate. Kaslow was hired for experience in independent film production that Aglialoro lacked.

A private screening of Atlas Shrugged: Part I was held in January at the conservative Heritage Foundation. In the audience and impressed was FreedomWorks.com founder Matt Kibbe, a longtime fan of the book. Kibbe arranged for a preview trailer to be shown at February's Conservative Political Action Conference — considered the tea party's national convention — where the response was encouraging to Kaslow.

Box office success won't be measured by the usual opening weekend standards. Atlas Shrugged: Part I will debut on less than one-tenth of the number of screens for a mainstream Hollywood release. With a solid per-screen average in ticket sales — $4,000 during an opening weekend is respectable — the movie would gross around $1.2 million, good enough for only 14th place in last weekend's box office chase.

That is, appropriately, a conservative projection. According to a CBS/New York Times poll, nearly 9 million Americans consider themselves active tea party members. Multiply even half of that number by $8 per ticket and the box office potential of Atlas Shrugged: Part I is considerable.

But only if tea party members show up at the box office with the fervor they brought to voting booths in 2010.

Steve Persall can be reached at persall@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8365.

Tea party bears weight for success of new 'Atlas Shrugged' movie 04/13/11 [Last modified: Thursday, April 14, 2011 12:01am]

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