Scathing review notwithstanding, the filmmakers deserve plaudits for the ambitious attempt. The movie might have been a swing-and-miss, but you have to hand it to John Aglialaro, who ponied up the cash to get the picture made, and the team who put the thing together quickly.
The truth is that Atlas Shrugged falls into the trap so many attempts at “conservative entertainment” fall into. It is reminiscent of 2004-2005, when several documentarians from the center-right grabbed a camera to answer left-wing movies like Supersize Me and Farenheit 9/11. Just about anyone who put something mildly amusing on videotape was labeled “the conservative Michael Moore.” In the years since, others have followed in various media. Fox News Channel’s “1/2 Hour News Hour” was supposed to be the conservative answer to the Daily Show. Websites spoofing the news as a conservative answer to the Onion spring up every now and then.
Being “the conservative version of [INSERT ANYTHING HERE]” is pretty much an epitaph, defining a project by its political views rather than its quality. And unfortunately, that’s what happened to Atlas Shrugged.
This is, however, a teachable moment for those on the center-right who want to entertain people with a good message.
1. Be entertaining first.
A major problem with Atlas Shrugged (the movie) was that its commitment to libertarian philosophy led to an unhealthy reliance on the book. Plot points and even dialog were almost directly lifted from Ayn Rand’s text. The result was muddled, outdated, and difficult to follow with characters and characterizations that were difficult for audiences to identify with. With a plot that’s hard to follow and characters who are difficult to warm up to, philosophy becomes the most recognizable element of the film.
2. Give the people someone to identify with.
Speaking of characters, another common mistake of politically tainted entertainment is the lack of attention paid to character development.
Not to continue picking on Atlas Shrugged, but business moguls do not fall into the “warm fuzz” category. That problem isn’t as pronounced in the book, which gives fuller portraits of the characters and allows the readers a peek into their thoughts. In the movie, the titans of industry are simply business executives who happen to be in the story. With the financial problems of 2007-2009 still close in the rear view mirror, that does not make for especially sympathetic characters. (Sure, there are many reasons it’s easier to create compelling characters in a book – dialog doesn’t have to be quite as sharp, and the body language of the actors isn’t as important. But if you take on the task of producing visual media, accounting for that goes with the territory.)
3. Have respect for your audience.
The show goes on because of the folks in the seats. Politically-motivated entertainers who use the stage as a pulpit to advance messages that are important to them may do so at the expense of what’s important to the audience.
That isn’t a problem for those tuning into overtly political entertainment, where strong views are expected – for instance, dialing up Rush Limbaugh or Keith Olbermann. The people tuning into those types of shows are doing so because they want to hear the entertainer’s views. But the audiences in most movie theaters (regardless of the individual audience members’ personal philosophies) are going for something completely different. Ditto for the family that sits down to watch a sitcom together. (Do people even actually do that anymore?)
In that respect, there’s a sort of arrogance and rudeness in coming to the stage to push a message; it prioritizes the entertainer’s goals over the audience’s. Unless you’re Don Rickles, nothing turns off a crowd faster than disrespect. A little subtlety goes a long way.
The timing is perfect for a movie based on Atlas Shrugged. The political debates waged in the last five years offer a nice backdrop to the hypotheticals Rand came up with more than a half century ago. So the opening of the movie this weekend should be a cause for celebration. I haven’t seen it yet (I plan on it), but color me cautious. Here’s the trailer:
The fact that the film being released this weekend is part of a trilogy is concerning; it implies that the filmmakers are sticking as closely as possible to the original text. That’s probably a bad idea. Aside from the oft-repeated concern that stuffing an 1100-page book into a 120-minute motion picture is difficult, the caricatures of lobbyists, crony capitalists, and government officials translate better in print than they are likely to on screen (based on the trailer above).
And, despite the fact that the film is reportedly set in 2016 (the not-too-distant future), the plot revolves around the railroad business. When Rand wrote the book, railroad barons were not long removed from being cast as the villains of American industry in the late 1800s and early 1900s; today’s audiences can’t relate to that. More troubling is the promotional strategy. The Tax Day release, combined with the heavy influence of FreedomWorks, suggests that traditional movie promotions will not work. If that’s the case, then Atlas Shrugged will be viewed primarily by conservative audiences who already agree with its messages. It won’t get widespread exposure to audiences that just want to go see a compelling movie and don’t care about politics.
All of this adds up to a misguided effort to make a movie which drives home a point rather than tells a good story. Media which forgets entertainment at the expense of politics gets lumped into the latter category and loses its widespread appeal.
There are plenty of reasons why books rarely make it to the screen without major overhauls. Mario Puzo’s The Godfathertold of the childhood of Vito Corleone and the back stories of several other characters; then the book was translated to film much of those details were skimmed out. The problem with Atlas Shrugged as a movie is not simply length, but the fact that the book uses that length to unravel a mystery around the core concept of a production strike.
In that central theme is a very compelling movie idea based loosely on (but still true to) Rand’s work. What if the people who held up the world simply shrugged their responsibility? Instead of being national in scope, the idea might have been better set in a small town, perhaps with small business owners rather than moguls of industry as the protagonists. That would help audiences relate to the characters – and ultimately the messages. After all, who wants to root for a billionaire? (That’s why the Richie Rich movie lost money at the box office. Don’t you dare blame John Larroquette. Don’t you dare.)
With a relatively low $10 million production cost, the movie will be true to one core Rand value: it is almost guaranteed to make its money back even if it bombs miserably. Assuming an average ticket price of $7.89, Atlas Shrugged need only sell 1.3 million tickets to cover expenses. Putting a price tag on the missed opportunity to tell a compelling story for our times is much more difficult.
The Onion debuts two cable television programs this month. The fake newspaper turned fake internet news site presents a unique and specific genre of comedy – the obviously false presented as seriously real. It’s similar but a bit different from slapstick comedies like Airplane! or Spaceballs. It’s closer to Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update as delivered by the more deadpan performers, like Kevin Nealon in the early 1990s. The 1970s spoof talk show Fernwood 2 Night and the long-forgotten short-lived Nick at Night television review series On the Television may be the best examples, even if short-lived. Because the audience is in on the joke but the performers are apparently not, it depends as much on performance as it does on clever writing.
Since this type of humor is so specific, it’s unsurprising that the Onion’s television ancestors met with limited success. What has given the Onion its staying power?
The Onion – which started as a small, regionally distributed newspaper in 1988 – became an early example of the internet’s power of viral distribution. It may be difficult for a network television show to find the audience it needs to build a niche following; the Onion’s following grew over time as its stories were forwarded by email. When the Onion’s television shows air this month, they will have already recruited their niche audience online over approximately 15 years.
There’s one final layer to peel back, and that’s the Onion’s business model based on generating large amounts of free, high quality content. The term “viral growth” is overused, but is applicable to the Onion’s rise through virtual word-of-mouth. The content brought traffic, and the traffic brought money – both in terms of advertising, book deals, and now television shows. None of it would have worked without something that was worth sending in an email to a friend. Funny always came first – and the money followed. Other small, regionally distributed newspapers who are struggling may want to take note.
Keith Olbermann will return to MSNBC on Tuesday night after a box-checking suspension for his monetary donations to Democratic candidates. In defense of Olbermann, Rachel Maddow bragged that the NBC News rule against such donations illustrated the difference between MSNBC and Fox News – calling Fox News a “political organization” where on-air personalities act as political fundraisers.
Johnny Dollar’s Place has a video that makes a point I tried to make last week (and makes it much better): that just because they aren’t reporting to the FEC doesn’t mean that MSNBC’s news opinion.entertainment personalities aren’t making campaign contributions:
The left is looking for a savior, and Jon Stewart is in town.
The Big Daddy co-star’s Rally to Restore Sanity, along with famed Congressional witness Stephen Colbert’s Rally to Restore Fear, descends upon Washington DC this weekend just before the election. Many are hoping this event – which figures to be huge, both here in DC and in satellite rallies across the country – helps round up the Obama flock in a final push for the polls. That hope is misplaced, if only because of timing.
If the idea was really to organize and mobilize, the weekend before Election Day is far, far too late. When Glenn Beck and FreedomWorks held rallies in August and September, there were still months – months! – to go before election day. There were doors to knock on, voters to call, and independent friends and neighbors to convince. Those who attend this weekend’s rallies will surely vote, but aren’t likely to impact campaigns. (And even if they did, who’s to say that the Stewart/Colbert crowd will all be center-left oriented? I have plenty of right-leaning friends who are looking forward to the weekend.)
Stewart and Colbert can be pretty funny – especially Colbert, whose commitment to staying in character is nearly unparalleled among television comics. More than likely, their show will have more value as a comedy extravaganza than as a political movement.
On today’s edition of his podcast, Matt Lewis and I talk about movies – and, like the guys from the Muppet Show who complain from the balcony, we do our share of kvetching because all the big summer blockbusters are either sequels (like Shrek 4 and Sex and the City 2) or remakes of iconic pieces of 1980s pop culture (like the A-Team and the Karate Kid).
Earlier this week, news broke that filming had actually started on another adaptation – a silver screen version of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Aside from having a network of near-guaranteed customers through the tea party movement, Atlas Shrugged is a great story and Rand’s a good, vivid writer. Outside of being 1100 pages, it’s a book made for the movies.
Matt and I ran out of time before we could get to some other books that ought to be in pictures:
Advise and Consent
We started talking about this briefly. Yes, this would technically be a remake, but the 1962 adaptation of Allen Drury’s 1959 novel about the politics of personal destruction missed the mark so completely that it deserves a second look. Set against the backdrop of a Cold War (which the Soviet Union is apparently winning), Drury’s original work involves a Secretary of State nominee with alleged ties to the Communist party. Drury’s work is decidedly character-driven, and the central theme is how people sometimes get lost in the machinations of winning and losing in political battles.
This has nothing to do with Harrison Ford or the Amish. Whittaker Chambers was an editor for Time Magazine who risked his credibility and livelihood to out Alger Hiss as a former Communist. (The Congressional hearing actually served as the inspiration for Advise and Consent.) But Chambers’ life leading up to that – acting as a member of the Communist party and establishing Soviet ties – is actually thrilling, as is his and his family’s middle-of-the-night desertion from the Communist Party. Because of the histrionics of Rep. Joe McCarthy, the extent of Soviet operations in America is one of the under-told stories of the twentieth century. Obviously, it didn’t work out so well for them (with the only major casualty being Apollo Creed), but it is fascinating that they tried.
This one might be a made-for-HBO joint, because of a limited appeal, but political junkies would eat up Craig Shirley’s account of Reagan’s 1976 primary challenge to former President Gerald Ford. The decision to challenge a sitting President from your own party is difficult enough, but the Reagan campaign had plenty of issues, such as early fundraising challenges and lack of institutional support. This could be educational – many Americans don’t understand how the Presidential primary process works – but, like any hotly contested primary, it makes for a great story.
Of course, based on Hollywood’s interest in making anything original or non-3D, I expect to see trailers for Airwolf, Go-Bots, and a remake of the remake of Dukes of Hazzard before Witness comes to a theater near you.
But we can hope, right? What favorite books would you like to see made into a movie?
Betty White hosts SNL this week, thanks in large part to a Facebook movement. It was a savvy move for the television institution – which, at 35, might as well be as old as White in TV years.
SNL’s target audience has always tended to be younger, and as such the show must constantly adapt to changing times. Tapping White to host in response to popular demand is a good start, as is the Backstage blog which includes sketches cut at the last minute. But SNL can do even more:
1. More online video content
I don’t know how many times I’ve wanted to make a post using an obscure SNL sketch to make a point. And honestly, there’s no reason (other than to promote DVD sales) for SNL not to have a library of all their sketches available. Currently, only select sketches are available.
Aside from my selfish reasons, having every sketch ever made available could be a good business decision for SNL. Old, obscure sketches could become viral sensations when exposed to a new audience. And then there’s the social factor: For many folks, watching SNL is a social activity, and so any sketch can become an inside joke among friends – whether or not it’s a “classic.” An otherwise unfunny 1999 sketch where Horatio Sanz repeatedly screams, “a bear ate my parents!” was pretty lame, but it would get plenty of laughs from soem of my UMass chums if I sent them a link to it. You and your friends probably have sketches like that too. SNL is missing out by not tapping into that emotion – it keeps viewers loyal.
2. Viewer-generated content
Andy Samberg’s Digital Shorts have helped SNL advance in the online video space. So why is Samberg to only one making digital shorts? There are some talented comics out there who can make funny videos.
By inviting submissions and letting viewers vote on which one should be on TV, SNL can not only build a great interactive relationship with their audience, but also find cheap talent.
3. Viewers pick the host
SNL understood the dynamics of audience engagement early on, running an “Anyone Can Host” contest back in 1977.
Offering a season-long, election-style contest between two good comedic actors for a spot hosting the season finale would not only be comedy gold, but would reach into those actors’ networks – their Facebook fans and Twitter followers would suddenly have a reason to visit SNL’s website, and to recruit friends to do the same.
Matt Lewis had a neat post at PoliticsDaily yesterday, talking about how the dreaded “24-hour news cycle” that has (paradoxically) made political discourse more pundit/sound bite-driven has also done the same for sports.
Here is just one example: Recent speculation on ESPN about dissention brewing among Favre’s new Viking teammates (some of whom are loyal to the Vikings’ former quarterback) reminded me of the never-ending leaks that flowed out of the McCain campaign and onto the pages of Politico — usually in regard to Sarah Palin. Be it a campaign or a football team, one disgruntled “unnamed source” can provide a days’ worth of material for cable networks– all of which need to feed a 24-hour news cycle.
A former colleague once called Washington, D.C. “Hollywood for Ugly People” – a town driven by a core industry (electoral politics) with many auxiliary sub-industries (lobbyists, contractors, regulators, think tanks, etc.). But there’s also a highly competitive streak, just as one might find among professional athletes, but among people who can’t do this.
Instead of show business for the homely, maybe politics is sports for the weak?
In the 17 hours or so since Michael Jackson’s death has been reported, an interesting rift has developed in online communications. Apparently, some folks who have been discussing the Iran elections are upset that so many people are discussing celebrity deaths:
This is probably a reflection of a few things. First, there is an age gap in appreciating Michael Jackson’s career. If you were born after 1985, your first memories of Michael Jackson are probably the world premiere of the “Black or White” video, and increasingly fragile physique, and a series of bizarre controversies and allegations of inappropriate conduct around young boys. But it you are in the first generation to have MTV (back when it was ’round-the-clock music videos) or older, you remember that Michael Jackson almost single-glovedly invented the concept of pop music entertainment.
There’s also the fact that news, like politics, is local. The loss of an iconic American pop culture figure is naturally going to mean more to Americans than election protests halfway around the world. (And it’s worth noting that the folks who decide what news gets on TV have a role to play. This week’s DC Metro crash probably wouldn’t have had the same coverage if it happened on a public transportation system for a city that doesn’t host a major bureau for every news organization in the known universe.)
They have a point, and it isn’t the only story getting swept under a rug. Mark Sanford’s Argentinian dalliances have been muted outside South Carolina, and the Barack Obama health care debate is moving along on Capitol Hill in the background of the national consciousness.
The great thing about modern media is that, even if the “mainstream” press is obsessed with one story, an avid reader can seek out information from other sources. And it for media analysis junkies, it provides a platform for discussions that simply don’t happen in one-way broadcast media. In no other environment could the worlds of Michael Jackson and Iranian Fundamentalists collide in quite the same way.
If only there was some way to combine the issues…