3 Rules for Message-Driven Media

Unsurprisingly, my prediction that Atlas Shrugged would suck proved to be true.

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  The result was muddled, outdated, and difficult to follow with characters and characterizations that were difficult for audiences to identify with.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.)

More to the point, though, is the fact that the most memorable stories work on emotion, and having identifiable characters allows the audience to share in that emotion.  Star Wars is still celebrated because a generation of kids grew up pretending to be Luke Skywalker (and occasionally fighting with their brothers over who got to be Luke Skywalker even though, you know, you’d think the oldest would get first pick).  Everyone thinks of themselves, at times, as the orphan living under the stairs, so we all share in Harry Potter’s elevation from forgotten one to chosen one.  We all wish we could spend the day bowling and drinking like Jeffrey Lebowski (or like Luke Skywalker in Episode VIII: Man, It Sure Is Boring Without the Empire).

 

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.

Why I fear the Atlas Shrugged movie will suck

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.