Film Fund-mentals: Lessons of Failure

Success has a thousand fathers, but failure is exclusively caused by vindictive movie critics who write back-stabbing and mean-spirited reviews in pursuit of their hidden liberal agenda.

Well, that is pretty much the explanation given by the producer of Atlas Shrugged concerning the film’s rapid flat-lining at the box office. John Aglialoro would hardly be the first movie producer to privately complain about the critics. However, he is unusual for his very public whining about it. But that’s OK, because the more he yells at the critics the more powerful the critics appear, and that has to be a healthy head-trip, since they are largely lacking in any real public influence (just look at last weekend’s box office top five, for crying out loud).

So the evil critics theory is quite bogus. But the failure of Atlas Shrugged is a fascinating set of lessons in everything you can do wrong in indie filmmaking. Why, Mr. Aglialoro has practically written the book on all the no-nos of the trade.

Lesson Number One: If you produce a movie as a labor of love, expect to eat an ample serving of crow at the premiere. Just take for example Bill Murray’s production of The Razor’s Edge. This was the movie Murray basically forced Columbia Pictures to produce in exchange for his appearance in Ghostbusters. Murray did numerous interviews explaining the profound influence the W. Somerset Maugham novel had on him. It was a labor of devout love. Too bad the final movie suggested that Murray had simply skimmed the book and nobody (including the audience) had a clue what was going on.

Then there was John Travolta’s passionate pursuit of Battlefield Earth. Although the film was universally praised as one of the worst in all of movie history, Travolta thought he was delivering a love letter to the Church of Scientology (the main plot line of the movie is actually the core “secret” knowledge that members pay large sums of money to learn in Scientology). Now copies of the movie are largely used as a freebie gift from the Scientologists as they try to lure people in. Personally, I suspect that their recruitment drive may need an overhaul.

Lesson Two: never assume that the name of a famous author means anything at the box office (unless it’s J. K. Rowling). Basically, the reading public and the film audience are two very different types of beasts. They do occasionally overlap, but it is (especially these days) a very rare occurrence. Likewise, even if the author has a well-defined and extremely faithful following, it just doesn’t matter at the box office (unless the name is J. K. Rowling). People don’t go to movies to see books. They go to see movies. In most cases, the vast majority of the people going to a movie will have never heard of either the book or the author.

Ayn Rand still has a very strong and noticeable following. Love her or hate her (and I think a recent article by Ed Fisher reasonably sums it all up), Rand is still a known presence in certain circles. I have personally met many bartenders who were staunch followers of her “philosophy.” But who cares. They are not the broad-based audience you’re going after. Heck, some of these folks don’t even buy popcorn, so why are you chasing after them?

Lesson Three: You focus your publicity on systems that place you into direct contact with the audience. These days, there are many ways of doing this, and extensive thought and planning must be given to every and all possible venues. However, working the circuit on conservative talk radio ain’t one of them. Though the demographic figures are scattered and hard to come by, the basic conservative talk radio listener is a white male in his 70s (this is actually the advertising demographic for Bill O’Reilly). They are old and crusty and they don’t go out much to “talking pictures.” Most likely, sitting at home in their recliner and listening to these shows is about all they can handle.

Lesson Four: Don’t do politics up front (unless you are Michael Moore — he is one of the few filmmakers who, for better or worse, gets away with this). In the broad sense of life, everything is political. But people don’t pay money to go and see political statements on screen. Sure, there can be political content in the movie, but it has to be slipped through the back door. Before John Aglialoro got the rights to Atlas Shrugged, the project was being pursued by veteran producer Al Ruddy. In recent interviews, Ruddy has often referred to the novel as a romance focused on a strong central female character. Oh sure, the book is extremely political, but Ruddy was pitching it as a love story.

This is the oldest trick in the book, and more often than not it works. Take for example the most successful movie ever adapted from an Ayn Rand novel, The Fountainhead. The story is pure right-wing gung ho Rand, but the movie is also a half crazy romance loaded with more warped Freudian symbolism than a porn flick. Screw the politics, the audience is glued to the bizarre sight of Patricia Neal staring in lust at Gary Cooper’s manly form with a throbbing jackhammer between his legs (if you have not seen the film, trust me, I’m not making this up).

But despite the massive box office failure of this movie, there is still a ray of hope. A variety of organizations are devoted to Ayn Rand and her philosophy. They are anxious to introduce people to their world view. So you just get them to buy up a truckload of DVDs of the movie, and they can hand them out the way the Scientologists do with the works of L. Ron Hubbard. You can even gouge them a bit and make your money back.

It’s a cheap, hypocritical and totally self-serving maneuver. So obviously Rand would have highly approved.