Atlas Shrugged: A Harbinger For Niches?

April 18, 2011

As readers of this blog and Bringing Back The Old Hollywood know, I strongly feel that niches are going to be one of the major keys to saving new movies from extinction. In addition, we need new ways to finance films and new investors who possess an entrepreneurial spirit for those films.

Last Friday, the long-awaited film version of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged debuted in 300 theaters across the United States. Ayn Rand’s worldview is, to put it mildly, wildly controversial. Some people recoil with repulsion when you even mention Ms. Rand’s name while others passionately embrace her as a visionary. I never read any of Ms. Rand’s books nor am I at all interested in engaging in a discussion of their relative political merit or demerit. I leave that to political conversations that others may pursue. Regardless of one’s personal view of Ms. Rand’s work and philosophy, however, the process by which Atlas Shrugged was financed, produced, and distributed is a fascinating case study for the future of independent movies.

Atlas Shrugged was produced and financed by one man, its producer John Aglialoro whom I understand owned the option on the project for almost 20 years. After several unsuccessful attempts to obtain financing for the film, Mr. Aglialoro decided in 2010 to finance the film himself. Industry reports peg the cost of the film to be in the $10 million range. Even more intriguing is the fact that Mr. Aglialoro also decided to distribute the film. In film parlance, that would definitely be defined as “going all in.”

According to Box Office Mojo, with almost no publicity and little fanfare except attempts to alert Rand readers and followers, the film grossed about $1.7 million over the weekend. It’s per theater average of about $5600 was the weekend’s third best average, coming in just below the $5800 average for the The Conspirators, a highly publicized film directed by Robert Redford.  Subsequent weekends will determine the film’s ultimate financial fate.

For the purposes of our community, however, the very fact that the film got made and distributed and found an audience is indeed good news because it does show that there are entrepreneurs who will still invest in films in which they passionately believe. As I wrote in Bringing Back The Old Hollywood:

Niches: Seeking Singles and Doubles Hitters

As the New Hollywood focuses only on home runs, The Old Hollywood must seek out films that will be solid singles and doubles. In baseball terms, this means that home run sluggers like Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire are the heart of the lineup in The New Hollywood while singles and doubles hitters like Tony Gwynn and Richie Ashburn form the core of The Old Hollywood line-up.

Creatively, the home run mentality means that films have to be accessible to almost everyone. Inevitably, this kind of focus leads to a homogenization of the creative process. If all groups are targeted, none can be bored or offended. On the other hand, creatively making films for niche audiences means that material can be more focused and daring.

To illustrate:

Filmmakers set out to make The Barack Obama Story and The Sarah Palin Story.

How can make you a mainstream film out of the former without it being a total turnoff to conservatives and how could you produce the latter without it being a total turnoff to liberals?

Answer: you focus on the personal stories of both characters that will resonate with a broad audience, meaning that you absolutely have to stay away from politics in two movies that are about politicians. You also cast big name stars to play both the leads so you can sell it as an event. (I have no idea who to cast as Obama or Palin but Meryl Streep should play Hillary Clinton. Or maybe she could pull a Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove and play all the characters.)

End result of a supposedly mainstream movie on Palin and Obama: a very watered down version of both life stories that neither offends nor really pleases anyone. At best, people would leave the theater feeling like hockey fans who spend a lot of money and three hours of their lives watching a game that winds up in a tie.

If, however, you know you have a liberal niche audience for Obama and a conservative niche audience for Palin, you make each movie on a modest budget with no big name actors and only the core audience in mind. You can then jump headfirst into the political stories, knowing that you will be pleasing the specific audience for whom you are making the film.

You would just have to be certain that you don’t mistakenly send the Palin film to San Francisco or the Obama film to Salt Lake City.

Translated to film terms, what this new focus would mean is a return to solid and sane business practices.

While The New Hollywood spends hundreds of million dollars looking for the big score, The Old Hollywood needs to be focused on modestly budgeted films with proven niche audiences. Making a solid if unspectacular profit on a slate of niche films will be a huge boon to all concerned. Investors will be encouraged that they’re on solid footing once again; filmmakers, actors, and crews will be working more; and audiences will enjoy niche films that are specifically tailored for them.




{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Asha Hawkesworth April 18, 2011 at 12:12 pm

You know, this kind of niche marketing has completely taken over the music industry. I can’t find a pop station that will play a wide variety of music any more. It’s all super-targeted, and every station seems to play a narrow band of artists. So it’s interesting that the film industry is still playing to the lowest common denominator. (I do think the music industry has gone overboard, so it can be too much of a good thing…) Still, I am happy to have frustrated artists–or ardent believers–deciding to make the kinds of movies that they want to see, whether the purposes are artistic, political, social, spiritual. As I recall, “The Omega Code” was made in a similar fashion. Christian filmmakers have had to do this for awhile, and I assume that they do reasonably well with their audience. I believe in taking your own power, and if you are passionate about a project, then you should do it, even if you’ve been turned down by every major studio (or what have you) in the country. There’s always a way.


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