Successes & messes: Adapting Ayn Rand

A film producer finally lands the one that got away.

By on / BATNA

 

Do you have regrets about a deal you couldn’t quite bring to the finish line? If so, you might gain hope from this tale of a negotiator who nabbed a fresh chance to meet his goals more than 40 years after his initial negotiations collapsed.

A brief courtship

In 1972, the intrepid movie and television producer Albert S. Ruddy, fresh off his success launching The Godfather, set his sights on novelist Ayn Rand’s 1,000-plus-page magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged. In the novel, Rand laid out her philosophy of Objectivism, which promotes capitalism and rational self-interest.

Warned that Rand would be a tough sell, Ruddy told the New York Times that he tried to win her over with his charm, flattery, and wit. According to Ruddy, Rand was at first eager to let him produce Atlas Shrugged. But the tenor of their dialogue changed after Rand told Ruddy that she would require veto power over every frame of the film. The author had publicly disparaged the 1949 film adaptation of her novel The Fountainhead after Warner Brothers refused to present a lengthy monologue in its entirety.

“I said, look, Ayn, the language of film is different,” Ruddy recalled to Rebecca Keegan of the Los Angeles Times. Noting that the novel’s hero “says good-bye to America for 60 pages,” Ruddy said, “In a book it can be charming, but in film you look foolish.”

But with Rand continuing to insist on full creative control, and Ruddy just as adamantly refusing to grant it, the budding courtship soured. Ruddy says he told Rand he would wait for her to “drop dead” and then make the film as he saw fit.

“Then I’ll put it in my will, the one person who can’t get [the film rights] is you,” Rand retorted, Ruddy told the New York Times.

Abandoned plans

After her talks with Ruddy collapsed, Rand began scripting a TV miniseries adaptation of Atlas Shrugged, envisioning Farrah Fawcett and Clint Eastwood in the lead roles, but she didn’t finish before her death in 1982. She left her estate to a longtime student, Leonard Peikoff, who in 1992 sold a 15-year option on the film rights to the novel to New Jersey entrepreneur and Objectivist John Aglialoro for $1 million.

Aglialoro tried numerous times to produce the film, ultimately purchasing extensions on his option. Ruddy got involved in 1999 on an Atlas Shrugged miniseries for TV network TNT, but outside forces, including the AOL–Time Warner merger, thwarted the project.

A husband-and-wife production team, Howard and Karen Baldwin, optioned the film rights from Aglialoro and commissioned a two-hour film script of Atlas Shrugged with actress Angelina Jolie tentatively attached to play the lead female role. But in 2006, those plans collapsed, too, when Aglialoro resisted the producers’ efforts to make the story more cinematic, according to the Los Angeles Times.

A loose adaptation

In March 2010, Aglialoro had just three months to begin principal photography on a film adaptation of Atlas Shrugged before his rights expired. Working on a shoestring budget, he had the film shot with a first-time director and cast of unknowns in just a few weeks. Conservative political groups supported the film, hoping to spread its pro-capitalist message, but it sank like a stone at the box office.

Criticizing the film for being too faithful to the book, Ruddy persuaded Aglialoro to give him another crack at producing Atlas Shrugged, the New York Times reported in November 2015. More than 40 years after his failed negotiation with Rand, Ruddy is now planning a version of the novel that he hopes will be picked up by a streaming service such as Netflix. With Rand and her exacting demands long out of the picture, Ruddy says he plans to hire a writer to loosely adapt the film to the Internet era, with high-tech gurus in the mold of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos standing in for the book’s industrial-era titans.

3 negotiation tips from a long-running saga

  1. Charm isn’t everything. Though smooth talk and flattery may carry you far, you’ll need to meet your partner’s substantive needs to reach a truly valuable deal.
  2. Know your limits. Ruddy understood that Rand’s insistence on veto power over the film could be a catastrophe. Wise negotiators search for value-creating tradeoffs but also recognize a deal breaker when they see one.

Patience is a virtue. Ruddy ultimately was able to reach his goal by working not with Rand but with another producer. Sometimes your BATNA (best alternative to a negotiated agreement) in a negotiation is to wait for the same deal in a different environment.

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