'Atlas Shrugged' film born of sheer will, the Ayn Rand way

Graham Beckel as Ellis Wyatt in "Atlas Shrugged." Haddonfield's John Aglialoro, CEO of Cybex International, paid $1 million for film rights but couldn't interest a studio, so he made it himself.
Graham Beckel as Ellis Wyatt in "Atlas Shrugged." Haddonfield's John Aglialoro, CEO of Cybex International, paid $1 million for film rights but couldn't interest a studio, so he made it himself.
Posted: April 16, 2011

John Aglialoro felt as if he'd been sprinting full-tilt for years now.

"Try since 1992," he said.

That was the year Aglialoro - a Haddonfield resident and chief executive officer of exercise-equipment makers Cybex International - paid $1 million to lease the movie rights to Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. It's a sprawling, challenging novel that has inspired millions and frustrated millions more.

Speaking by phone from an Amtrak train speeding through Philadelphia on its way to New York, Aglialoro said he pounded Hollywood's starry pavements for years.

"I thought sure a major studio would jump at a long-awaited project like this," he said. Deals came close but faded away. Maybe a TV series . . . but no. "We had five or six different scripts at one time or another," he says. Angelina Jolie, a Rand fan, was interested - then she couldn't.

With time running out on the lease, Aglialoro decided to make the film himself. With more than $20 million of his own money, and with the help of other Randians such as Comcast-Spectacor chairman Ed Snider, he assembled the ultimate in indie movie teams.

He saw his movie come out Friday, April 15, traditionally Tax Day, appropriately enough. (A favorite Rand theme was the friction between big government and the individual.) It debuted in more than 300 theaters in 80 cities, thanks to Aglialoro, producer Harmon Kaslow, and a grassroots campaign by Randians and true believers to get people in the seats.

It's the first part of a trilogy. It has to be. Atlas Shrugged is a monumental tale involving massive steel and railroad companies, a federal takeover of private enterprise, and a courageous and principled national strike.

"It's mind-boggling what John has done, absolutely tremendous," said Snider, listed as an executive producer.

It almost didn't happen. "As of last April," said producer Kaslow, also from the train, "we had no script, no cast, nothing. And less than 100 days to start production, or else the lease would expire" - which it was set to do on June 14, 2010.

Not about to let the project die, Aglialoro assembled a team of 250, preproduction got started just in time, and this year, the film was shot in only six weeks. Kaslow had been a producer and legal adviser with movies such as Dog Soldiers, but he'd never been the main man before. "John just came to me," said Kaslow, "and he said, 'We can do this, we have to do this.' "

It's a very Ayn Rand way of making a movie - all self-reliance and determination. "There's a real sense of completion, of fulfillment," Aglialoro said.

Rand was a Russian-born writer who came to the United States when she was 21. She wrote screenplays and drama, and novels such as The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957), which have made her a patron saint of libertarians, with epic depictions of the struggle between the supreme will of the individual and the collective will. Atlas has sold six million copies since 1957 - 500,000 in 2009 alone, when sales surged in response to the economic downturn.

Her popularity - at least among a certain circle of readers - is a triumph of content over form. Readers love her for her message. Aglialoro remembered first reading Atlas Shrugged in the 1970s: "I read it and said, 'Wow, here is the real truth, the real message about enlightened self-interest.' " As with many readers of Rand, a lifelong love affair had begun.

Another lifelong Rand fan is Snider, one of the founders of the Ayn Rand Institute in 1985. He, too, lovingly recalled first reading Atlas Shrugged: "It blew me away. So much so that I wrote Ayn Rand a letter. She responded. I told her I wanted to meet her, and eventually I did. She was fascinating, intimidating, brilliant. We started meeting periodically."

More people like Rand and her ideas, Snider said, than will let on: "A lot of people don't want to say how much they really like it."

Rand's popularity on the street is at odds with her standing in the academic world. Some critics have called her interminable, tone-deaf, blind to human reality, a writer who creates not dialogue but harangue. John Galt, the mysterious central figure of Atlas Shrugged, has a famous (or infamous) 70-page monologue in the last third of the novel. Many academic readers see Rand as a mixture of insistent philosophy and leaden hectoring.

Kevin Harty, chairman of the English department at La Salle University, said by e-mail that "when Rand first began writing she was pooh-poohed . . . scholars did not take her seriously, and she fell off the face of the Earth. Then she got popular again, and subsequently, there aren't too many folks in academia who know about her."

Donald Baldino, an adjunct professor in La Salle's philosophy department, has read Atlas several times and planned to attend the 2 p.m. show at the Regal Plymouth Meeting Place 10 in Conshohocken with "seven or eight friends." "I'm looking forward to seeing it," Baldino said.

He added that Rand was not an important figure in U.S. philosophy departments. "Political bias may be involved," he said. "She's an individualist, and the political bent of most departments these days is pretty liberal."

But those who love Rand love her fiercely. FreedomWorks, the tea party spearhead group founded by former Texas congressman Dick Armey, has launched a national effort to get Atlas Shrugged into as many theaters as possible. The FreedomWorks website exhorted visitors to "Demand Atlas Shrugged at a Theater Near You on April 15th!"

Various Rand sites have organized reading groups and field trips to the film. Blogs throughout the Web are celebrating the film's advent. Its preview trailer reportedly attracted 700,000 hits online in just a few weeks.

"We're not hiring someone else to do our publicity or distribution," Kaslow said. "We have to do this ourselves, too. We're reaching out to a core audience that is very committed to the book and to the movie."

He said the Atlas story differs from that of films such as The Passion of the Christ, which employed 15 publicity firms to get church groups focused on the movie and showing it in churches. "It's happening on its own with its own energy. People inspired by the book are taking it upon themselves to see that this movie makes it to their hometowns, and that people in their communities are aware of it. This is a true grassroots movement, from the bottom up."

Terry Medved, spokesperson for the movie-ticketing destination Fandango.com, confirmed that demand for Atlas tickets had been "consistently high" all week. "It's at 15 percent of our total site traffic, number three behind Scream IV and Rio," he said, "which is pretty significant for a film on so few screens, with few stars, and not from a major studio. Obviously, there's a lot of pent-up anticipation among Ayn Rand fans to see the book realized on screen."

Why didn't studios jump at such a project? Such a famous book? "I found studio executives a little risk-averse," said Aglialoro. "Attack of the Wolfman 3: That's an easy call, a no-brainer. But Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged, such a complex book, I think they just couldn't get their heads around it." Not once, he said, did he hear complaints about Rand's politics.

Snider attended an invitation-only sneak preview of the movie Tuesday night at Union Station in Washington, "somehow appropriate," he says, "in a film about trains." How was it? "I liked the movie. It's about what this country is, and should be, all about. People who love the book will enjoy the movie."


Contact staff writer John Timpane at jt@phillynews.com, 215-854-4406, or twitter.com/jtimpane.

 

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