Did ‘Atlas Shrugged’ Really Fail and Should Producer John Aglialoro Blame Critics?

By  · Published on April 28th, 2011

Early yesterday, the LA Times blog released quotes from Atlas Shrugged Part 1 writer/producer John Aglialoro which indicated that he was throwing in the towel on making Part 2 and Part 3. The reason, of course, was that the film just didn’t make its money back. Aglialoro spent a reported $10m of his own cash on the production, and a second week drop off hurt the independent flick considerably. The movie has currently only made $3.2m at the box office. It started with an impressive per screen average, but as with other films which zero in on an audience, everyone who wanted to see the movie saw it opening weekend.

The numbers dropped, and an expansion was scrapped.

Aglialoro very specifically blames critics and what he believes is a collective “fear of Ayn Rand” amongst them for the movie’s failings. So much for personal responsibility. However, it’s his ire and hatred of the critical response that has caused an about-face. Aglialoro now claims that, while he was once defeated, he now stands ready to proceed with making Atlas Shrugged Part 2 and Part 3.

Like all misunderstood artists, he should.

It’s laughable that Aglialoro gave a wrongheaded “victory” to critics for “beating” him, and it’s just as ridiculous that he now uses his one-sided hatred as fuel to keep going toward the next production. Let’s be reasonable for a moment. The world spends too much time claiming that critics are unnecessary and pointless to claim now that they’ve brought down an entire movie like a pack of hyenas on a slow gazelle. Blaming critics for Atlas Shrugged failing is like blaming stand-up comedians for making everyone hate airplane food.

It’s even more obtuse to believe critics did it deliberately and with malice aforethought. Trust me. As someone who gets paid very, very little, I have zero stake in whether a movie does well or doesn’t financially. I’m apathetic as to whether his movie (or any other) makes bank. Aglialoro seems to think that at our last Secret Critic Cabal, we all agreed to unanimously trash Atlas Shrugged and ruin his day, which is absurd. At our last meeting, we all watched Blow Out and Roger Ebert read an original poem about John Travolta’s hair. It was really moving.

Kidding aside, I was one of the critics that gave a decidedly negative review to Atlas Shrugged Part I, but I still want to see Aglialoro complete the trilogy.

Why? Because I think any and all independent filmmakers should tell critics and audiences to take a flying leap, and the best way to do that is to hold up a middle finger while rolling cameras. Atlas Shrugged is a niche film? So be it. It was always going to be, unless the production stepped up to ensure that it would have broader appeal than the book. They didn’t, and they’re seeing the financial consequences now. Aglialoro clearly has the resources to continue pushing his Fitzcarraldo up the muddy hill, so why not keep pushing? At least he knows what he’s getting into now.

Which brings us to the quick and dirty point that shouldn’t have to be made. Critics didn’t kill this movie. Critics can never kill a movie. Just ask Michael Bay.

However, if critical opinion is that low and word of mouth doesn’t spread or is ineffective, then the movie is definitely going to have trouble. Even Aglialoro points out that his advertising strategy was ruinous from the beginning, stating, “You really need to spend millions to get the message on TV screens. If I want Part 2 to open on 1,500 screens, I need to decide if I want to spend $10 million on TV commercials.”

Either that or have Kevin Smith take it out on a speaking tour.

It seems far more likely that the $10 million he didn’t spend on advertising did more to hurt the movie than a bunch of critics that no one listens to anyway. And I know. I’m one of them. I guarantee that my review, as negative as it was, didn’t stop anyone from going who wanted to go. Because that’s not our job. Our job as critics is to clearly and effectively communicate how we felt about a movie and why we felt that way. That’s it. Nothing more and nothing less. In criticism we’re free to explore the depths of symbolism and the span of subtext, but in reviewing, it’s a matter of what worked, what didn’t and why.

However, it’s unsurprising that Aglialoro needs an enemy to move forward; the entire marketing campaign had a distinct Us vs. Them feel to it. The last weekly email called the film’s release a “fight” and claimed that “the opposition is out in force and they DO NOT want the message of Atlas to get out.” Newsflash: the message of Atlas is already out. In paperback form. The only thing you’re fighting against is the free market.

It would be insulting for him to blame critics if it weren’t so pathetic. Let’s not pretend like he’s a seasoned veteran who’s made a flop. Aglialoro is an amateur film producer who wrote his first script, made a film with a first-time feature director that was largely unseen by people, and his response is that it’s everyone else’s fault except his own. Due credit for admitting his advertising shortcomings, but it takes a very small man to claim he’ll print out pictures of whom he thinks are his enemies in order to gather the stomach fluids needed every morning to press forward. There’s something about a bad craftsman and blaming tools that applies here.

No matter what, a producer with a few more years in the game needs to pull him aside and let him know that he’s making himself look like a small child who just lost his marbles. Maybe he really should seek Kevin Smith’s counsel.

But cinema loves egomaniacs. There’s a solicitous history of artists battling critics and commerce from Samuel Goldwyn to Uwe Boll. It’s an art form that downright demands their presence and participation. In this way, Aglialoro is no different than Vincent Gallo screaming like a lunatic about how Brown Bunny was far better than critics and audiences gave it credit for. They’re both men of passion, who created an artistic vision, and who lash out because it didn’t resonate. He’s questioning why it didn’t work, and he’s coming up with every possible reason (besides his own failure) except the one that makes the most sense.

To figure out why Atlas Shrugged failed financially, we have to find out if it actually did fail financially. It certainly didn’t return the investment (although it might through home video sales), but there’s something else more important to consider.

Here’s a thought experiment. Name the last truly independent film to make more than $20m at the box office with a limited release. I assume that’s what Atlas Shrugged needed to break even, and we won’t even throw in the extra difficulty of having no known actors or writers or a known director on the project. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Pretty tough question, right?

The point? There are anywhere from 2 to 8 independent films released every weekend, and most never even see the $1m mark. Some of them are even under the wing of a major studio and still never see big numbers. Hell, 127 Hours was nominated for Best Picture and it didn’t crack $19m. Aglialoro is fuming publicly about a phenomenon that happens three times a week to people who have to get back to their day jobs when their movie doesn’t strike gold.

However, this is perhaps the most important number of all: 125

That’s how many movies Atlas Shrugged has outgrossed this year alone. It finds itself as the 49th highest moneymaker out of 174 movies released so far in 2011. Despite all those reviews Aglialoro claims are products of a politically biased conspiracy, despite him claiming that they crushed his work, his movie has still made way, way more money than most other independent films can even dream of making.

In that way it was, take a deep breath, a success.

At the end of the day, Aglialoro is a very wealthy man, and he can and should do what he wants with his money. If that means investing in a second and third film in the Atlas Shrugged series, then more power to him. If he does, I’ll go see it and review it. If he doesn’t, I’ll go watch other movies and review them.

No matter what, though, I’m glad that he’s shaken off his second thoughts because that leaves room in his head for new ones about hiring talented personnel, not writing the script himself, and making the sequels better movies than their predecessor.

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.