Atlas Shrugged Filmmakers Launch UnRandian Kickstarter Begfest
Many controversial projects have been kicked off on Kickstarter. Just a few examples: the quasi-date-rapey guide to getting laid being written by Ken Hoinsky, one of those creepy "pick up artist" dudes; the new edition of the "Best Music Writing" anthology that never appeared despite the editor, Daphne Carr, collecting more than $17,000 from donors (only one of a whole bunch of similarly abandoned projects); and the game developers who may have made some fake donations in order to draw corporate matching funds.
The list goes on. But the funniest controversy-sparking Kickstarter campaign yet has got to be the one from the makers of the Atlas Shrugged films, who, as the Hollywood Reporter informed us on Monday, are seeking $250,000 to help finance the $10 million third installment of the trilogy after the first two bombed horribly at the box office.
That's right. The makers of a film based on Ayn Rand's novelistic critique of "altruism" -- which upholds the free market as the highest good, and which characterizes individual achievement and the quest for greatness as the noblest of goals -- are begging people for money in order to complete an objectively terrible film that has already proved itself to be a miserable failure in the marketplace.
Of course, it's all a publicity stunt, meant to get people like me to write about it. The filmmakers said as much in the Hollywood Reporter's article. "There is an incredible amount of vitriol out there and we have every intention of capitalizing on it this time around," producer Harmon Kaslow said. "The day we launch the Kickstarter campaign those haters are going to come alive. They're going to come after us in droves, attacking us everywhere online. To them, we say, thank you." (Yes, Mr. Kaslow is a full-grown adult.)
What Kaslow and his partner, John Aglialoro, don't seem to realize, though, is that while some people might be angry or upset by all this, most critics are, above all, amused. It's pretty hilarious stuff, and Rand acolytes in general tend to be pretty hilarious people, hard as they might try to be Very Serious. (Meanwhile, we have yet another bit of proof that whenever anyone complains about "the haters," they've almost certainly done something worth hating.)
And the fact that it's a publicity stunt doesn't really make the rank hypocrisy on display any less rank. If anything, it's worse, because it not only makes clear just how little regard or understanding the filmmakers actually have for Randian philosophy, it also makes clear how little regard they have for their own audience. On the other hand, much of the audience has fully bought into this series of films not because of their quality (clearly), but simply because they're ready to support anything that supports their love of Rand's unique and often incoherent worldview, even if that support amounts to a de facto repudiation of the worldview.
Imagine what Atlas hero John Galt would say about this skeevy set of circumstances. While we're at it, imagine Howard Roark, the hero of Rand's earlier novel The Fountainhead, begging in the street in order to raise money for his architectural practice, while also telling everyone it's really just a ploy to get attention for his next building, which he plans to make out of papier-mâché and popsicle sticks.
Because while these fictional (not to say outlandishly unrealistic) men certainly had their flaws (such as, in Roark's case, being a rapist), neither shameless hucksterism nor inattention to quality were among them. Above all, these men cared about the work they did more than anything -- certainly including money. That's something the more indiscriminate (or ignorant) Rand-haters often miss: greed is certainly not something she championed. No, Rand's heroes were all about what today's pop psychologists might now refer to as "self-actualization": the nobility and ego-gratification that comes when an individual, with help from no one, creates greatness from nothing but his own rarefied mind and calloused hands, without the assistance from the "looters" "power-grabbers," and "altruists" who comprise the (very large) villain class in Rand's novels (it's hard to remember this because it's so insanely counter-intuitive, not to say counter-logical, but in Randland, altruism is bad.)
"Greatness" is not anything any serious person has applied to the Atlas Shrugged films. And altruism is what the filmmakers are appealing to. It can be somewhat justifiably argued that, since the Kickstarter donators aren't being coerced into forking over their dough, they are being "selfish" (shut down your logic circuits again: selfishness is good) because they want to see the movie. In this view, these are acts of mutual self-benefit, a major theme of Rand's work (being nice to people is okay if you get something out of it). Which might excuse the donors, but it doesn't help the filmmakers' case. Again, one must try to picture Howard Roark begging for start-up cash, or John Galt asking strangers for carfare to get him to Galt's Gulch. It just doesn't wash.
That hasn't kept the true believers from truly believing in this begathon. They're all making the same argument. Most of those ridiculing the campaign have noted the irony of altruism-haters begging for money to foist something onto a marketplace that has already rejected it. Rand champion Bob Metcalfe (an inventor of some of the technologies that enabled modern computer networking and the Internet) tweeted that this criticism is "[t]rumped up hypocrisy. Kickstarter is voluntary, unlike taxes, which are collected at the point of a gun." Again, this might theoretically give some cover to the donors, but it doesn't absolve the filmmakers of failing to live up to the Randian ideal of rugged individualism. That, in turn, means the donors are actually supporting a supremely non-Randian action. Furthermore, any donation that exceeds the price of a movie ticket is clearly "altruism."
The filmmakers' defenders, including Metcalfe, also tend to gloss over or ignore the other major hypocritical aspect of this: the filmmakers have failed, twice, in the marketplace. The first film, released in 2011, cost $25 million to make, and collected $4.6 million at the box office. The second, released last year, cost $20 million, and drew $3.3 million from ticket sales. The first has an 11 percent "fresh" rating from critics on Rotten Tomatoes. The second has a rating of just 5 percent. The invisible hand balled itself into a fist and pounded these films into the dirt, but that hasn't stopped Metcalfe and his likeminded peers from viewing the Kickstarter campaign as being proof, somehow, that the marketplace is speaking. The whole deal is "packed with quid pro quos, voluntary exchanges of value," Metcalfe tweeted. "Market speaking even now." This novel theory of market economics seems to rest on the idea that the "market" isn't made up of the moviegoing public at large, whose demand for Atlas Shrugged would either yield profits for the film or not, but rather comprises the tiny subset of that public whose demand has already proved to be inadequate, but whose strident, ideological yearning for the third installment apparently should trump all considerations of basic economics.
A quick glance through Metcalfe's twitter feed reveals that he's degenerated into a mean, humorless, bilious crank. His online persona isn't very different from that of the average, troubled 14-year-old YouTube commenter. Sad, given his history, but not an uncommon set of traits among the Randers who -- irony again! -- tend to see themselves as a put-upon victim class. Roark, though a rapist and an arsonist, was definitely the superior Rand hero. He didn't complain much about the small-minded bureaucrats or the people who cared more about playing politics than about creating greatness -- he transcended them, at least until he felt he was out of options. By contrast, Galt, though he had a similar worldview, was kind of a whiny bitch. And yet most Randers, most definitely including these failed filmmakers, seem to favor Galt's approach.